“Does the mailman know Santa?”

Does the mailman know Santa?
“Does the mailman know Santa?”

As parents, and especially as parents of children who have cortical visual impairment (CVI), we worry about many things. One of the things we worry about most is knowing that our child’s unique educational needs are not being met and supported. In those first years, that critical period of neurodevelopment, parents work hard to get a CVI diagnosis, a CVI Range assessment (Roman-Lantzy), and improve their child’s use of functional vision. We become fluent in the language of CVI. We color highlight, strictly adhere to complexity of array, and speak in salient features. Only to hand our child off when it comes time for transition to public school, and our well honed educational approaches fall by the wayside. Worksheets are highlighted in anything but preferred color yellow. Reading materials are simply enlarged instead of modified. The silhouettes of abstract black and white line drawings are quickly highlighted in whatever color marker was handy. We spend our time arguing with school district administrators about the need to include salient features and comparative language in the IEP (Roman). And the critical question to my son’s learning, What do you see? goes unasked, day after day, for the entire school calendar.

This past year, I found myself worrying about salient features most of all.

It did not help to read his CVI Range assessment and see his salient features skills described as “fragile.” The word was frightening, as if all future progress was balanced upon a single word. It made all of our progress, Phase III CVI, feel precarious.

Before my son was in school full time, during the early intervention years, we talked about salient features all the time. We played with plastic animals, looked at pictures of animals and objects and toys against plain backgrounds. He seemed to have it down. “Fragile” made it feel like we were slipping. Should we make salient features flashcards? Have salient features pop quizzes? Go back to playing salient features  sorting games? If his salient features skills were “fragile,” how could he reliably identify objects and pictures?

At the same time, my son began talking about things, objects, in a way he hadn’t before.

One day, about to pop open a new chocolate syrup, my son spotted the bottle on the kitchen counter and asked, Does the bottle have a seal? He was referring to the unseen plastic circle that covers the opening of the bottle once you take off the cap. The question struck me as significant, though it was hard to say why.  Passing along the incident to Christine Roman, she was impressed and responded, “Comparative thought... he’s got it and will have it for life.” This was obviously profound – and yet – my thoughts drifted back to the problem of salient features.

*     *     *     *     *

It was not until the Northeast AER pre-conference that comparative language was driven home. Dr Roman’s presentation was, Critical Topics in CVI: Implications for the Development of Literacy, Language, and Social Skills. Later in her session, her words rang out and lodged in my brain: “Comparative thought… is really the PhD of CVI.” At that moment, the significance of my son’s achievement fully sank in. It was almost like reaching Wonderland.

Comparative thought took me back to last fall. It was either late September or early October, what CVI parent could possibly remember such a distinction? My son sat in the bathtub before school one day,  a comfortable distance from the Christmas holidays. There had been no mention of Santa (yet). It was morning and the mail was far from landing in our box (bringing in the mail is one of Jasper’s chores). He was shampooed and cleaned and ready for water play when he asked, Does the mailman know Santa? No mention, no context, of either the mailman or Santa. Unsure how to answer his question at first, all I could think was, People who bring things to my house. He had come up with this comparison, this random comparative thought, all on his own.

There have since been so many examples, it is now a regular occurrence.  Some are written down, recorded or shared. Most are unexpected, unprompted, and increasingly abstract.

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