Friday, August 24, 2007

Cleared for Take Off

Last year at this time we had just moved to Canada from NYC where MK had been doing very well in school. He had made friends who came over for spontaneous play dates, he felt confident and happy and his report card was all As and Bs.

In my naivety I assumed that this would mean relatively smooth sailing into his new school. The kids would surely be more gentle and easy going than the little New Yorkers, so MK should fit in without too much trouble. My fellow Canadians cared less about grade school academics than Americans did and, as they have no real practice of standardized measurement, they had more room to be flexible. What, I would have asked --if I had even thought to ask-- could possibly go wrong?

I could write thousands of words in answer to that question now, but the short version is: Being comfortable in one social situation does not equal being comfortable in all social situations. Children from smaller, less sophisticated urban centers are not --surprise, surprise-- always as tolerant and inclusive as their big-city counterparts. And above all, having a flexible teaching system is only of any use if you have good teachers. With no formal curriculum or standards, teachers base their evaluations and their teaching on gut feeling and, without training, gut feelings about kids on the spectrum can be extremely misleading. Another thing that I found out was that some people outside New York City don't actually have a very high opinion of it. (When the school informed us that MKs report cards and the results of his statewide tests from New York would not be taken into consideration in trying to get a handle on his overall academic competence, it was made clear to us that the wackiness of NYC made it impossible to take seriously.)

The upshot was that the kids generally shunned him and gave him a hard time, while the teachers assumed, based on his odd way of talking, his nervousness, his unusual questions and his tendency to cry when scared or frustrated, that he was incapable of keeping up academically. They then basically stopped teaching him and stopped expecting him to do things. Naturally, being marginalized by the teachers did nothing to improve MK's social standing or confidence.

At the end of the year, MK was given a report card with asterisks instead of marks in all subjects but math (math being to only subject where they used tests and MK never getting less than 80% on a test, it was harder for them withhold marks purely on the basis of social prejudice). But I am hopeful that this will change next year and MK will be given the chance to participate and receive marks just like any other kid.

That said, with little more than a week until school starts again I am actually feeling optimistic.

The first reason for hope is that we now have ground work and have established our credentials as the sort of people that you ignore at your peril. By the end of last year we had jumped through an enormous number of hoops. We had MK re-evaluated and re-labeled by local folks. I joined a local autism parents group and was coached on what to demand and who to pester at the Board of Ed. We finally got an IEP meeting with less than a month of classes left, to which we dragged a psychologist to testify that MK was neither stupid nor crazy. We also had to advocates from the Developmental Disabilities Association, who had coached me before the meeting on what to expect, and who played the role of polite but not-to-be-messed-with enforcers, both at the meeting and in follow up calls to the school. Although very little was actually decided at the IEP other than the fact that MK now has a half-time aide assigned, we did not loose any ground. By which I mean that the views of his poorly educated, ignorant and unthinking teachers, who would have liked to have his curriculum "modified," which is to say, who would have like to stop teaching him on a permanent basis, were not accepted.

The second reason for hope is his teacher for next year who, by all accounts, is supposed to be the best in the school. He is only four years out of university so, not only is he not burned out, but he may actually have spent an hour or two studying how to teach neurodeviant kids. He is also said to make excellent personal connections with his students, which may mean that he takes the time to notice what MK does and does not understand.

The next reason for hope is the aide. For the last weeks of last year, MK was given a smart and nurturing aide, who, amongst other things, maintained a Home-School Communication Notebook with us every day. MK's biggest challenge in the classroom is figuring out expectations, both academically and socially. Having an aide to make implicit expectations explicit should help a lot.

Although the schools here do not believe in standardized measurement, the federal goverment does have standardized tests for Math and English. (The school is required by law to administer the tests, but has an official policy of ignoring the results.) When MK took these earlier, he tested above grade level in math, but about a year and a half behind in English. That is not actually an earth-shattering delay, especially considering that they teach different curricula in Canada and the US, but it was enough to support the teacher's claims that he was behind, which in turn supported thier contention that he was unteachable. This week, however, MK redid his federal test and is now testing at grade level in English. Hopefully, with locally administered tests showing the MK is a kid of normal intelligence and performing at or above grade level in all measured subjects, his teacher will not insist on withholding academic instruction and marking this year.

On the social front, we are also making major progress. The rejection, shunning and teasing that MK got early on at school made him totally unwilling to risk more of it. He completely lost interest in his peers. With quite a bit of work on this end, and the very useful suggestions of MK's new aide as to who might be up for a play date, MK has some friends. I have to admit that he is not exactly enthusiastic about his peers, and generally needs a fair bit of cajoling before meeting with them, but last night he had fun at a birthday party and as I type this, he is over at another friend's house and has not yet called asking to be picked up early. If one or more of these boys ends up in his class next year, things will be much easier, and just having a few people in the school who you can consider as friends has got to be reassuring.

On top of it, MK has achieved a number of personal accomplishments over the past year. He has learned to be a good downhill skier. He setting high scores on the DDR machines in the local arcades. He taught himself video editing and has an impressive number of fans and subscribers on YouTube. All that has to raise his self confidence, which should in turn lower his socal anxiety.

All this is not to say that there will not be any challenges. Consider the conversation MK and I has this morning when he came down with his polo shirt both inside-out and back-to-front.
Go take a look in the mirror and see if you can see anything that needs fixing.
(Looking in the mirror) Hmmm, is my underwear showing?
Can you see you underwear?
Then it is not showing. Look at you neck. Do you see anything odd.
Touch your neck.
(Touches armpit.)
That's not your neck. That's your armpit.
(Poking at his armpit with conviction) This is my neck!
Your neck is the thing that connects you head and your body.
(Taps his shoulder.)
That is your shoulder. Your neck is the part of your body that includes your throat.
(Touches his throat.)
Now look in the mirror. Do you see anything odd about your shirt there?
(Looking carefully) No.
So, in short, while there is still reason to suspect that MK's school year is not going to be entirely free of challenges, there is also reason to hope that it will be more like his grade four year than his grade five year.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Accept or Overcome

Reading the Autistic Bitch From Hell, who I find to be perhaps the word's most reasonable and good natured commentator on the subject of autism, prompted me to write a few words about accepting differences. ABFH's post is about how silly it would be to take a grieving/acceptance approach to the models that psychologists and other professionals use to explain wiring differences. It's a great post, so I'll let you read it rather than trying to paraphrase it myself.

A somewhat different question is how neurodeviant kids can accept the individual circumstances of their own wiring. I say kids because, by the time we have grown up, we hopefully all know that everyone is their own person and there is little to be desired in being the same as everyone else. For some reason, however, this is not obvious to the under-sixteen set.

MK has recently been complaining about what his brain can and can't do. He talks about being mad at his brain. He says, "I wanted to, and I told my brain to do it, but my brain didn't do it." This particularly comes up in relation to medium-term memory, attention and word retrieval. It is frustrating for him to see something done by other people, apparently with ease, that simply doesn't work for him.

At the grizzled age of 44, it seems obvious to me that everyone one has varying cognitive and physical strengths and weaknesses, and that success lies in knowing your own, and those of people around you, and then using that knowledge to your advantage. For example, like MK, I misplace things all the time. Unlike MK I have specific spots where I place important things like keys, so that I will know where they are, I schedule an extra five minutes for finding things before leaving the house, and when I can't find something for all that, I take it as an inconvenience on the same sort of level as bad weather. While MK sees this kind of approach as being fine for his father, he expects better for, and from, himself.

Part of this is cultural. Kids exist in a culture where everything is expected of them. For instance, I'm not very good at math. My response is to hire a bookkeeper. If I were a kid, that option would not be on the table -- especially not during math class. (MK is very good at math, as it happens, but the principle is the same.)

The other thing is developmental. Kids are constantly gaining new skills. Often, skills will come on line as a strength that no one would ever have expected. So it's reasonable for kids to try things and hope that they will just be good at them, even if they weren't particularly good at them the last time they tried.

In other words, for kids, accepting one's differences and finding a work around, or putting those sort of tasks on the back burner so as to concentrate on one's strengths, is not always possible and may not even be well advised. For kids who are wired differently than many of their peers, the ever-shifting balancing act is particularly challenging and, for their parents, giving advice is not so easy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Where we are at with language

I just thought I might post an update on MKs language advances because I went on and on about it a few months ago and, if I were reading this, I'd be curious to know if it was flash in the pan or if it panned out. Also, I was reading about sudden leaps forward on Estee, Kevin and Susan's blogs, which put me in mind of it.

Basically the speed at which MK is advancing in terms of vocabulary acquisition has slowed down, so I am noticing a couple of new words or expressions a day, rather than dozens. On the other hand, the sudden ability to pick up and retain new words that he is specifically taught seems to be sticking and strengthening. There are still a lot of gaps. Tonight, in a sentence beginning "It depends on the circumstances," and including the words "graffiti" and "arrested" he was at a loss for the word "wall," and tried "that wallpaper place" before pointing to a wall and asking, "what's this thing called?"

This business of wanting to know what things are called is actually quite new. Today also he asked me (referring to a peer who had a particularly spectacular melt-down), "Why do we say, 'flip out'?" That idiom "why do we" and particularly the "we" in "why do we say" was particularly encouraging to hear. For one thing, it's metalinguistic exploration of the most useful sort, and for another, it implies a level of self-inclusion that I don't usually see from MK when it comes to language.

The ability to recount events in the recent past has stayed and is getting better. A noticeable change is that he has started cluing people in on the background of things that he says. For example, when describing a some particularly awesome victory, he said "Mario was on red (that means he had one HP left) and I..." Likewise, we got "There is this video I was watching, and when you play it backwards it is really funny because it sounds like ..." We never used to get explanatory parenthetical asides or scene-setting introductions.

It's interesting because, if I looked at this latest development in isolation, I would be tempted to say it represents an advance in theory of mind. But somehow I don't buy that. Theory of mind does not develop in a matter of weeks. I think it's just down to language. He's got enough spare processing power while recounting something to be able to think about what other people know in real time, and he's got the linguistic facility to be able to bring up the phrases that add the extra information without loosing track of his narrative.

So in any case, the update is: slowing down, strengthening, morphing into different things but by no means ephemeral. As evidence of this, today we on a bus engrossed in a long, wide ranging conversation and, when we came to a pause, I had to ask, "What were we talking about?"

"Changing the laws in Japan after the war," prompted MK.

"Yes, but what were we talking about before that," I wanted to know. "How did we get here?"

In fact, we got there from talking about the destruction of infrastructure in Japan in WWII, which we got to from talking about atom bombs, which we got to through talking about war as a downward pressure on population, which we got to through discussing world population growth, which we got to through talking about which was the biggest city in the world.

When you can get lost in conversation like that, you know you are doing OK.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Speaking Truth to Power

Today was a day planned by MKs mother. First we went to the Gay Pride parade (MK's mom is totally into parades, while MK and I are lukewarm towards them) then we walked across town to a particular Japanese restaurant that we adults love but, once again, MK is not too hot on. Basically, MK was getting dragged around by his parents and it wasn't much fun for him.

On the way to the Japanese restaurant, MK got it into his head that we should go to Denny's. I hate Denny's and, while we are willing to take MK there as a special treat from time to time, we weren't going to give up on our planned lunch and switch to Denny's, no matter much MK insisted. To tell the truth, I though he was being uncharacteristically unreasonable, especially when we got to the Japanese restaurant and he started to cry. So I asked, him, "Why on earth are you making such a big deal about the idea of going to Denny's that you just thought up a few minutes ago?"

Then he laid it on the line. "I feel less powerful than you," he said. Wow. Now that's plain talking. That's someone who is twelve years old and starting to come into their own.

It took quite a bit of discussion before we hit on the compromise. It was MK's idea. We adults ate our Japanese lunch. Then we all walked down to Denny's where we dropped MK off to order and eat lunch on his own while the grown ups got some coffee nearby. When we came back to take care of the bill (we were going to let him do that too, but the idea of working out the tip got him a bit flustered) we found a very happy camper, who now felt at least as powerful as everybody else.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


Reading DoC over at Autism Street, I had Curbies brought up to the front of my conscious again. I've never actually met a Curebie (a person who wants to 'cure' autistic people -- which is to say, make them neurotypical -- by some sort of "biomedical" intervention). I've bumped into the writing of a psychotic individual who goes by the name of ForeSam in the blogosphere, but that is as close as I have come to it.

Sometimes it seems very odd to me how much energy the neurodiversity crowd pumps into arguing against the positions of Curebies. The thing is that the arguments made by the Curebies don't make any sort of sense. It's all flat earth gobbledygook of the sort that doesn't warrant serious discussion.

The other thing that is weird is watching the videos of the people who have been "cured." These folks look as autistic as all get out me. Which makes me wonder why, if the parents are happy to have an autistic child, they bother to pump them full of malt vinegar (or whatever it is) in the first place. I imagine that the cured kids in question had more difficulties at one point and now have less difficulties, but if the parents left out the "curing" part they would have the same kid, and they would get to feel all sorts of pride in the progress that their kid made, rather than owing it all to some quack.

It's a weird world out there and hopefully I'll never get more familiar with it.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Hand-Eye Coordination: it's not what you think

Different people have different takes on MK's eye contact. In past assessments it has come up as an issue, his teachers have listed it as an issue, and I have always felt it was an issue, but his psychologist does not think it is in any way underdeveloped and his tutors point out how good it is.

Recently, I've come to see that this issue is not eye contact per se, but eye to hand contact. The thing is that some things get explained by hand gestures. We say, "It moves like this," "It was about this big," "The road is really flat, then it goes up and down," "You need to put the string all the way around the outside," etc. Sometimes there are verbal cues that suggest the person we are speaking to should look at our hands, but on other occasions, we cue people to look at our hands only by looking at them ourselves. This is what MK does not get.

We will be having a conversation, and we will get to one of these hand gesture places, and MK won't look. I will do some sort of thing with my eyes (I'm not sure what it is, because I can't see my own eyes) which would cause another person to look at my hands, and MK will not respond. It makes me want to say, "Look at me," or "Look at my eyes," (those are the phrases that jump into my head) but what I should be saying is "Look at my hands."

Following on this line of thought, I notice that MK himself very rarely uses his own hands to communicate. This ties in to something Bev was saying. She mentioned that it was frustrating not knowing how to non-verbally indicate that she wanted the floor in a conversation. Analyzing my own behavior, I think it is largely down to hand gestures.

I wonder to what extent reading and using informal hand gestures is difficult for folks on the spectrum other than MK.