A couple nights ago, I sat down at the kitchen table next to Ben after having been gone all afternoon and evening with Izzy to her Nutcracker rehearsal in Salt Lake. Apparently, Ben and his brothers had been saving up questions with which to bombard me upon my return. Within moments of sitting down, the kids began competing for my attention, all talking at the same time, each word a little louder than the last, in an effort to be heard first. It was chaotic, and too much for Ben. So he communicated a different way: he pulled back his fist and punched me in the back as hard as he could. Chris (my dh) jumped up, picked up Ben, and hustled him upstairs to our bedroom, where he tucked him into our bed until Ben could calm down and fall asleep. I listened as Ben screamed and yelled, and when he finally quieted down, I went upstairs to talk to him.
I crawled up next to him on the bed and said, "Ben, it really hurt me when you hit me." He replied, "I don't care if it hurt you. Because you wouldn't listen to me." I explained that hitting is not the way to get attention, even if everyone else is talking and yelling. He responded "Oh," and then looked blankly toward the ceiling. That's usually my cue that he's done talking. But I wanted to finish our conversation with some praise so I added, "Ben, I'm really proud of you right now, because you are calm, and you are using your words, and being really good." He looked at me and said in a very matter-of-fact tone, "Well, I don't want to be good. I'm only doing this stuff so I don't be in trouble."
I give him double-points for being honest. But I wonder: is Ben's behavior, good and bad, always so utilitarian in nature? He had a terrific week at school last week; he earned every sticker he could on his "good behavior" chart and only got "Good Day!" and smiley faces in the comments section of the chart. Truthfully, I feared for a couple days that Ben had actually stolen his teacher's stickers and given himself such high praise, but I don't think he has mastered a perfect forgery of her handwriting. Yet.
On the topic of school, Ben is struggling with spelling tests. Such a verbal skill: hear a word, process the sounds mentally, convert them to their letter-referents, and then transcribe them onto paper. The first week, I tried studying spelling words with Ben the same way I've always done it with all my other kids: I say the word; Ben repeats the letters--an entirely verbal activity. I thought it worked well, until he missed every word on the test. And then the little light-bulb clicked on over my head (well, first it swung down and cracked me across the skull with a little "Duh!" sound). Ben can't process verbal information very well. His strength is in tactile, hands-on skills. So the next week, I spent one night having him write the words down on paper. The next night, we sat on the couch with imaginary chalk boards in front of us. I said a word, and then Ben "wrote" the word, letter by letter, on his chalk board. It became quite an elaborate activity--at least in Ben's creative mind. He was pulling boards down, sliding them over, scratching erasers over them, trading boards with me if mine seemed bigger than his, and at the end of the activity he carefully folded up our imaginary boards and tucked them under the coffee table. The next day when I suggested we use our imaginary boards to practice again, he ran upstairs to the living room, made a series of banging and clacking sounds, and returned with the invisible boards tucked under his arm. He hung each (mine and his) on imaginary hooks over our heads, and we went through the spelling list again. That week, he only missed one word on his test. Sweetest are the small victories, I think.
But most importantly, I finally started to get it into my own head that Ben's world operates by "doing"--not "saying." He disassembles his toys, screw by screw, as his way of deriving joy from them. His favorite television show is "How It's Made"--a show on the Science Channel which details the mechanical process of creating various objects such as radios, gloves, hockey helmets, and compact discs. He can watch several episodes of that show in a single sitting and never get bored. By contrast, I am a student and teacher of English; I love and live in a world of words and language. I struggle to understand Ben's daily experiences as clusters of motion and action, rather than verbal expression. And yet, whether he's behaving or not, and whether he wants praise or just wants to avoid getting in trouble, Ben is "doing this stuff" because that's how his mind makes sense of his environment: Doing, doing, doing.