Saturday, March 10, 2007

Michelle Garcia Winner

We visited an SLP on Friday who seemed bright and dedicated and had a good rapport with our guy. She told us that she was keen on the works of Michelle Garcia Winner, so I checked her out on the Web. There were some aspects of her work that I liked. I liked the fact that she took a direct instruction approach. I liked the fact that she uses graphics in teaching. But I did not like the impression I got that MGW perceives herself, and all other NT people, to be inherently superior to the people she is tasked with helping.

In describing an interaction with a bright young man, she recounts:
In an effort to help one of my clinician’s understand Joe’s limited perspective-taking abilities and how they impacted his social interactions I asked her to observe me interact with Joe. I then asked Joe to tell me everything he knew about chemistry. This delighted Joe and he enthusiastically began to tell me all about the topic. As he did so I initially responded with active listening, then slowly I got up out of my chair, walked out a door and stood on the other side of the door only to have Joe continue to look at my chair and talk about chemistry.
I cannot help but feel that this demonstrates a lack of respect for Joe. Would she be as quick to make an NT child look foolish in front of a colleague? Perhaps she would, but experience make me think it unlikely. There is no mention of how Joe felt, if and when he realized that a trick had been played on him, but it's hard to imagine that the experience would have been a big self-esteem booster.

MGW's articles give examples of people who perform well in a number of areas but, due to a "deficit" in the area MGW considers to be most important, come to nasty ends. There is, however, a conspicuous lack of stories about people with processing differences who overcome the hurdles that these present. MGW's world seems pretty bleak.

Truth be told, I'm not wild about therapists who use the term "deficit." As a kid, I was labeled dyslexic. As a result, I went through a lot of testing and had a lot of people give me the "poor thing" treatment. I guess I didn't suffer excessively at the hands of people who shook their heads in sad wonder over the boy who read slowly and couldn't spell, but it wasn't exactly and uplifting experience, either. Somehow, I muddled through and, when I got to university, where I was studying English Literature, I made the most curious discovery. It turns out I had far better recall of what I had read than almost anyone else in my seminars. I certainly didn't have anything like a photographic memory, but I could quote pretty well verbatim from anywhere in any book that I had read and, if I flicked though the book, I could always find the passage I had in mind in a matter of seconds. The other students, who presumably were not "dyslexic," couldn't do this nearly as well. (That made it easy to win debates, even though it probably also meant I was spending a few more hours than my peers reading each novel.) Later I learned to read and write in three more languages, including Japanese. In addition to translating between these languages, I now write and lecture on translation theory and, in particular, how we can be sure of what we are reading and writing. This is one reason why I think therapists would be better off using words like "difference," "difficulty" and "challenge" over "deficit." It's not just that the term may turn out to be inaccurate and limiting. My concern is that, if you tell a person, or their caregivers, that they have a deficit, they are much less likely to find out that their difference can be a strength.

Another problem with MGW is her focus on eye contact. I would have to see how it plays out, but it seems to me that trying to make better communicators out of spectrumy people while insisting on eye contact is akin to trying to make a better swimmer out of someone with an anvil tied around their neck. My guy communicates much better if he is not sitting face to face with his interlocutor. I am, however, willing to be open mined on this. MGW may not have adopted this goal simply as a matter of aesthetics, nor on the assumption that all aspects of NT conversational style are worthy of imitation simply on the grounds of their usage -- the way some old ladies select marmalade only because the label states that it is eaten by the Queen.

In the overall, I am inclined to override my gut reaction and see how her approach actually works. That might seem odd, but my reason ties back once again to my own experiences as a dyslexic. You see, with all that tut-tutting and hand-wringing, and all the classes I took in which I bounced on trampolines and drew pictures of things reflected in mirrors, nobody actually tried teaching me to spell. There was no discussion of rules, no memory drilling, no goals set and no useful measure of progress. As a result, as you have probably already noticed by way of a homophone in this blog that the spell checker did not catch, I am not much better in terms of that skill that I was at school. If I could turn the clock back and direct my own education, I would recommend less trampolines and more i-before-e-except-after-c; so perhaps a little try-to-think-about-what-they-are-thinking would be good for my progeny.


Natalia said...

these respect-vs-deficit problems are so pervasive that i don't even know what examples to start with... but anyway, you make some really good points here.

VAB said...

Thank you. Yours is the fist comment I've had on this blog, so I am awfully glad that it was of the "You don't know what you are talking about kind." I think you are right, it's pervasive, and not just with respect to ASD or even cognitive differences.

Eric said...

I am looking at the MGW's material translated in Chinese. A group of people has adapted her approach onto children with autim. Your story is good. And I would like you to read this book "Your Child's Strengths, Discover Them, Develop Them, Use Them, by Jenifer Fox, M-Ed. (Viking, 2008)" You probably like it.
Best regards.
Eric from Hong Kong

Anonymous said...

I would encourage you to attend one of MGW's workshops. I am atherapist who works with children with autism. I just finished two days of classes given by MGW. She is an articulate, creative, caring, well meaning professional. I think you are not able to see all of that when you just read about her. She is not at all uncaring toward people or full of herself. I think you would find her information very useful. She does not just focus on eye contact for the sake of eye contact, but talks about teaching clients to "think with their eyes." You should not be so quick to judge something you don't even know about.

VAB said...


You are probably right.

You say, "You should not be so quick to judge something you don't even know about."

You might be right there too, but I hope you will admit that it is easy to do. You have just judged my judgment without knowing how much I knew about the matter. I don't fault you for that because I think it a handy habit to make judgments based on available evidence rather than wait until all the possible evidence is in. You did that. I did that. It's all good.

Anonymous said...

I have just attended a MGW conference and after years of working with students on the spectrum. For years, I have seen goals and listened to 'experts' talk about the need to establish eye contact. She is the first person who has ever explained why it is so important, and it is definitely not just for the sake of eye contact nor to give the person with autism the impression of 'looking' normal.