Tuesday, December 21, 2010

American Sign Language and Me

I'm one of those people who like to study and learn new things, and when I take a class, I mean to get an A. I won't settle for a B if it's possible to get an A. (We won't discuss math, which is an altogether different story).

This story begins about 7 years ago, now, when my then 12 year old daughter and I decided to take an ASL (American Sign Language) class. My husband, who is losing his hearing, wanted us to learn, and I was ready to take a class after being out of school for many years. This was pre-diagnosis. In fact, it was before I was aware of anything called Asperger's Syndrome. It was a fun experience, learning the alphabet and a few hundred signs. I couldn't always follow what the teacher was signing, but I thought I would, if I practiced at it. An older daughter, who had taken ASL 1 a year or so before, told me you have to have a lot of eye contact when you sign. That disturbed me, but I was able to get along just fine in ASL 1 without looking in anyone's eyes. After awhile, I forgot she had even said that.

My 12 year old daughter and I never took ASL 2 together. First it was her schedule, then mine. Years passed. The daughter left home, I had another daughter's children for 6 months. After they left, I was ready to do something fun, and the teacher I work with wanted me to learn more sign in anticipation of a deaf autistic boy coming into our room the following year. This was last year at this time. By now, I highly suspected I had AS, but I didn't understand the part about not being able to read facial expressions and gestures. I thought I understood them just as well as anybody...

Still, ASL 2 was fun. Again I didn't understand much of what the instructor signed, but I caught the gist, and often someone in the class would fill me in. I just thought I wasn't concentrating enough. Once the instructor said she had held a conversation with someone using only her eyes. I dismissed that as being an exaggeration. After all, I thought, how can people communicate with only their eyes? As for me, I shudder even to think about doing it.

I did well in ASL 2. I practiced and practiced making the signs, and I memorized all the dialogs in the text. It was only because I had memorized the dialogs that I could understand the "receptive" part of the exams. I thought that was what everyone did. I wouldn't have understood most of it had I not done that. When the instructor signed anything I hadn't studied, I could only get the gist. I kept telling myself to keep working at it. Someday it would all click.

By the end of the school year last year, it was confirmed that the deaf autistic boy would be coming to our school, and that I was selected to work with him. The Deaf Ed teacher suggested I go to a full-immersion course being offered in Sacramento during the summer. It was a 2-week 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. class. I would be able to get a certificate for ASL 3 & 4 upon 'successful completion' of the course. I decided to combine that with a visit to my mother and sister in southern California. The school district would pay the tuition after I successfully completed the course.

Here's where I wish I had known for certain I had AS and what that means when it comes to understanding a gestural language such as ASL. Remember how I said I always get A's? I put everything I could into this course. They recommended a month of study before going to California. I studied for THREE months, faithfully, every day. I passed all the vocabulary quizzes. Of course I did...the signs were given one at a time, on a DVD that could be watched over and over. That did not prepare me for signs given one after the other with facial expressions that tell at least half the story, done by Deaf instructors. It took me all of a day and a half before I realized I was in over my head. I understood maybe 10% of what was being signed, whereas everyone else in the class seemed to get much, much more.

Another thing I should have known, was that 12 hours of constant contact and interactions is very wearing, along with being in a new place, and staying with people I had never even met before. I established my routines, including eating lunch alone (I would disappear before anyone could suggest we eat together), and hiding out again after dinner. The whole thing was a disaster. The instructors said I "lacked facial expression". I thought I was being overly expressive. I guess I can't fake something I'm not actually feeling, because when I am feeling something, everyone else seems to be able to read that quite clearly. In fact, I can't mask my feelings. I'm an open book, which I would like to be able to close, but so far, no luck with that one.

I think I can read facial expressions in a photo just about as well as anyone. It's a moment, frozen in time, and I have time to look at it and process it. In conversation, often with other distractions going on around, it's another story. There's something I'm missing and most often, I don't even know I'm missing it, but it all adds up to explain how I often miss meaning and make wrong interpretations. I suppose it's a form of multi-tasking. The more I'm trying to do at once, the worse I do at it, until I finally can't even think anymore.

The instructors said my signs were jerky and harsh. Part of that, I'm certain, was being constantly on alert. I couldn't relax, and I have anxiety problems anyway. And the more critical they got, the worse I did. I spent some time crying in the bathroom. They said I "didn't seem to know where to look"--that eye contact thing I had so conveniently forgotten.

So, in the end, I got a D and an F. I got the F for ASL 4 because I walked out. I had had enough. The day before the exams, which were very high-pressure, some students in the lab discovered they could get their grades for ASL 3. I looked up mine. Upon seeing I had a D, I immediately stood up, announced to everyone in there that I was finished, took my stuff and walked out. I had not "successfully completed the course" (I needed at least a C for the certificate. No certificate, no reimbursement of the $2,400 from the district--that's still hurting my pocketbook) so I decided I didn't need to subject myself to the torture of the exams just so I could get another D.

I thought I was a failure until a counselor told me that in my case, I couldn't have succeeded. I was trying to do something it was impossible for me to succeed at. I had studied extra before going, I studied before class and after class during those two weeks, I gave it everything I had. Retrospect is so clear. I followed up by e-mailing Dr. Tony Attwood about this. He said:

"...from my extensive clinical experience and research studies, we have recognized that those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder are not very good at reading body language, but that includes not only facial expressions, but also aspects of tone of voice and gestures, especially hand gestures.

...Thus, the expectation would be that learning a sign language would be particularly difficult for someone with Asperger's Syndrome.

I used the word 'impossible'. I should say I mean learning sign language in a full-immersion, fast-paced, high-pressure setting would be impossible for me. Knowing that it's otherwise simply 'particularly difficult' for me doesn't mean I'm not still trying. I'm using it at work with the deaf autistic boy. We're neither one of us very good at it, but we get through the day just fine.

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