I held the book over my student's bed, trying to shift it so that she and her brother could both see the pictures. Finally, her younger brother sighed. "I can't see it!" he complained, and then climbed over his sister. His mom and I gasped, because she's fragile, and he's, well, he's a young boy who might not pay attention to his older sister's needs. Yet before we could protest he'd tucked himself in bed beside her so that their heads were close together and they could both see the pages.
She turned her head toward him slowly, and grinned. The smile spread across her entire face, reaching ear to ear, with her eyes lighting up in pure joy. A grin her family and I had never seen before. She looked from me to him and grinned again, her whole body radiating with excitement. I'm not sure my own children have been this excited on Christmas morning. I found tears in my eyes, as this was the most interaction I had ever witnessed from her. Seeing purposeful smiles from her is rare, and seeing her shift her eye gaze between two people is even rarer. Sometimes we notice smiles, but the smiles are fleeting, and it can often be difficult to identify what inspired them. In this case there was no question. Her eyes were full of love for her little brother curled up next to her.
She paid more attention during the lesson, responded to questions with the yes/no eye gaze board, tracked the read alouds with her eyes, and turned her head to hear sounds. She kept her eyes open the whole lesson, and only shut them when I asked her what she wanted to do next. "Do you want to read?" "No" her eyes looked at the "No" picture. I asked if she wanted to hear music. "No" she looked at No again. I asked if she wanted to sleep. "Yes" she selected, and quickly shut her eyes. I had never seen her this response to the yes/no cards before either.
The session almost seemed surreal. We had never seen her so interactive and alert, or so happy. Nothing I did - or could have painstakingly planned out - would have created that moment. It was her brother's natural inclination to just curl up with his sister that changed everything.
One of the aspects I love about my new work is that I get to work with kids in their homes. Unlike school, where everything is structured and organized, with a clear purpose, objective, and a beginning and ending time, homes are a different story. They are inherently messy (even when perfectly organized), and have blurred boundaries. This is the living room/play room/nap on the couch/video game room. The kitchen/homework/afternoon snack and card game room. There are couches and arm chairs that encourage more relaxed sitting, and calming lighting, toys, and games. Our homes are where our life happens, and where we collapse after a long day. They are where we relax, cry, let our guard down, or take out the frustrations of the day.
Working with kids in the home also means I can involve siblings in the activities. Brothers and sisters are our first friends, and just including them can often be incredibly motivating. Siblings make our activities fun and engaging, and turn it from being school work to being a family game.
Almost more importantly, I love involving siblings when I am working with children with significant needs, because I know that down the line their siblings will often be the ones taking care of them as they become adults. I want to give the brothers and sisters great memories of playing together, since they often cannot independently play together on their own. I work to design lessons and activities that will engage the typically developing sibling as well, so that everyone will truly enjoy the experience.
I think back to my own memories of playing with my brothers, and of how my two girls play together in their own little world - us adults are just background noise. Many of our kids with special needs don't get these relationships spontaneously. There may be a physical disability impacting their relationship and making it hard to play with the same toys, a cognitive disability, or autism, which may make it difficult for one sibling to stay regulated enough to enjoy the other's company. It takes a bit more adult help to help create these shared experiences, yet once the experiences exist, those memories can last forever.
That smile. Today was such a reminder of how powerful those moments between the siblings can be, and how sometimes letting kids do what comes naturally is how we can get those moments.