Dec 142008
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

Over fall break, it occurred to me that the educational process is like sitting through an entire washing machine cycle with an autistic 4-year-old child — an event that happened rather serendipitously during that week.

Yes, I had planned to catch up on all of the grading that needed to be done. That did not happen, so sitting on the cold floor of my laundry closet with my most favorite four year-old friend, Theo, did.

It seems that Theo has a fetish for laundry machines, and since his mom just got a new eco-friendly washer and dryer set that she absolutely loves, I am sure that the idea has been on his mind for several weeks now.

As I was throwing in one of the 100 loads of laundry we did that week (baby poop, turkey grease and just plain old regular dirt), Theo caught me in the act. So he sat me down to watch.

While Theo intended for me to watch the bubbles go back and forth and back and forth, I, of course, had to give him a lesson about all the names and the functions of all of the knobs on the washing machine.

Theo sat me down on the floor and asked all sorts of questions. I explained about the “extra rinse” knob and how I don’t use it because it wastes water.

Theo wanted to make sure that the cycle “buzzer” was off, something we went over about a dozen times in a forty minute cycle.

You see, when Theo was in the bathtub the night before, the buzzer on the dryer went off, which startled him, so it was imperative that the buzzer not be audible on the washer.

I showed him the knob that starts and ends it all, the knob that magically moves as the machine cycles through the wash, the rinse and the spin cycles.

It was evident that Theo had to go potty while we were sitting on the cold, hard floor. This mom of a little boy knows all of the tell-tale signs.

The motivation for Theo was that he could press the “big knob” in to turn off the washing machine while he did what needed to be done, and then he got to pull out the “big knob” again to start up the washing machine. These actions were a special treat for him.

I have to admit that the biggest treat for Theo was watching the indicator light. I went through the long explanation of how that light would not go off until the “bubbles went bye-bye” for good.

If you don’t even have a starting point in understanding autism, it is a brain development disorder that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication. But for this better part of an hour, Theo sat very close to me, almost on my lap.

He held both of my hands tightly and gently guided my face back toward the spinning suds when I was inattentive to his focus. Being emotionally and physically close to Theo for such a long time is now one of those magic times in my memory that I will cherish for many years.

Although this lesson was fun for Theo, it was of course me who learned the most.

This experience made for a good metaphor for the educational process. It is up to the friend sitting on the floor in the laundry closet, or in this case, the human at the white board, to take the time to connect with her students, listen while her students ask questions and to take the time to sit patiently while her students figure out how the world works.

Only when these components are in place can her students succeed and finish out the semester in squeaky-clean condition.

Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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