Friday, June 27, 2008

Whoda Thunk It

And so ends the second school year since we moved. The difference with the first school year was like night and day.

What was the difference? The teacher assumed competence. That really was all there was to it.

Sure, MK was officially assigned an aide this year, while last year he wasn't. But in practice he got much more attention from the aide in the classroom last year than he did this year. In fact, half way through this year, MK said that he found the aide annoying, so we changed policies so that the aide would only give help when MK specifically requested it, while last year he was working one-on-one with an aide for nearly half the instructional day. The real difference was that the teacher, a young man fresh out of college, assumed competence and insisted on full inclusion.

Right from the start, he wanted MK, and every other kid in the class, participating fully in all the class activities. He started the year off with a sleepover in the gym. MK was so not into that. His anxiety levels were maxed out as soon as he heard about it. But his teacher felt it was important that everyone attend, and so we set up a home/school plan to get MK used to the idea over the two weeks we had before the actual sleep over date. It worked. And MK had a great time!

At a recent IEP meeting, his teacher told us that, over the course of the year, he hadn't modified or adapted any part of MK's curriculum. He made sure MK had support where he needed it, and MK did need quite a lot of support, but the goals and expectations were the same for every kid in the class, including other special needs kids who require more support than MK.

He even applied this approach to French. We live in Canada now (moved here from NYC) where French study is mandatory. Last year MK hated it so much that his teacher took him out of the class. We had asked that he be included in the class but excused from answering questions and turning in assignments, but his 1950s style teacher put him out in the hall with an aide doing unrelated work. That suited MK fine, as the very mention of French was enough produce a near allergic reaction. What is more, MK was convinced that: a) learning a word in French would result in forgetting a word in English; and b) studying French carried the risk of one day waking up as a French speaker who was no longer able to speak any other language. The fact that his mother and I speak French and haven't lost out other languages did nothing do dissuade him of his hypothesis. In the end, given how much trouble MK has had with the English language, we decided not to push it.

So this year, when we did his IEP, we asked that his goals be to meet regular academic standards in all subjects but French. As it happened, this year, rather than the homeroom teacher handling the French instruction, they went to a separate classroom to be taught a native speaker of French. We expected MK to be pulled out, or at least have his program modified, but his homeroom teacher stuck to his position that all kids should at least try to participate fully in all activities. It was about half way through the year when MK said something we never expect to hear from his mouth -- "You know, French is kind of fun."

Now the year has ended and, unlike last year, when the teachers refused to grade his work and put asterisks instead of letter grades in his report card, MK came back with a report card filled with Cs and C+s. He was disappointed to see that he had gone from a B to a C+ in math because of the difficulty he had with geometry (protractors are not his thing) but that was made up for by -- you guessed it -- a B in French. You could have knocked us down with a feather.

For a kid who, at the beginning of the school year, did not know what the word "neck" meant in English (as you can see in the dialog at the very end of this post) it's an amazing accomplishment. I'm very proud of MK for getting over his fear of French and for his stunning progress in language in general this year. Part of it is down to his amazing SLP. Part of it is down to MK's own hard work. But we owe much of it to a teacher who decided, as a basic policy, to assume competence and give all the kids in his class the opportunity to stretch and grow in ways that no one was expecting.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The earlier the better?

I was reading a New Scientist article on autism today. I think I may have commented on this one when it first came out. It made the rounds of the blogosphere, in part because it had a side bar on neurodiversity. I just happened to read it this morning again, in the print version, because I have been insanely busy for the past six months and, as result I have a stack of New Scientists, and Economists and Grantas sitting there waiting to be read, and this is one of the first weekends when I have been able to spend the morning reading instead of working.

Anywhoo, the gist of the article is that kids are getting autism DXes earlier and earlier and therapists are reporting more good outcomes as a result. That's all very well and good. I'm all for getting people all the education they need as soon as possible. But it makes me wonder.

In the not to distant past (like, say, last year) the conventional wisdom was take a wait and see attitude to developmental difference. That meant that some kids who might have benefited from early intervention didn't get it. But I am sure that, in many cases, after waiting and seeing, it turned out that the kids were fine and they bumped along without anything particularly special being done for them. (If such outcomes were not commonplace, doctors would not have been taking a wait and see approach.)

Now, if people aren't waiting and seeing anymore, and kids are getting the intervention as soon as they show signs of deviance, is it surprising that many of these kids have "good outcomes"? Say you've got 100 one-year-old kids in 1980, and ten of them seem odd. When these kids are six, let's say two of them are autistic. So they try some intervention and, at age ten, they are still autistic. Now, in 2003, you 100 one-year-old kids, and ten of them seem odd. You give them all intervention. Five years later, the kids are six years old and it turns out that two are autistic. The only difference is that the therapists tell us that, because we started early, eight of the kids had remarkably good outcomes. Yay!

I'm not saying that is the only thing that is going on, but I bet it counts for some of it.

This would not be an issue if it were not for the catastrophizing of autism. I'm all for docs and other folks monitoring child development and offering supports where it seems they could be useful. But once they stick the autism label on, they are likely to jump right into 40 hours a week of ABA and who knows what kind of other stuff. I'm not sure that's such a great idea.

I guess I will never know how things would have turned out it we had started with massive interventions when MK was a toddler. Maybe he'd be even more wonderful than he is now. Maybe he'd be even happier and comfortable about his place in the world. Maybe. But I can't help thinking that normal childhoods carry some advantages too.

And MK is autistic. He's had a bazillion hours of interventions one way or another, anyway. If the kid in question were not even autistic, just developing at their own pace, it would seem even more odd to take them away from time that could have been profitably spent crawling around the living room and viewing the world from the back of a supermarket trolley.

I don't know if I'm making any sense. Maybe I'm just rambling, in celebration of the fact that I have time to do so for once.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Nice Story

I heard a cool story on the Colbert Report. You can watch it yourself if you go to and look for the Colbert Report with Alan Rabinowitz. They have all their stuff available to watch online. Unfortunately, I can't link to it because they route things regionally, so you would have to go and find it yourself.

Anyway this story is of Alan Rabinowitz who is a hotshot zoologist who has a new book out about saving tigers and other big cats from extinction.

Apparently, when he was a kid, he had a very severe stutter, so bad that he could not communicate. He had a rough time at school in the special ed class. But although he could not speak to people at school, he could speak to his pet animals at home in his room. So animals were his confidants. And it occurred to him, as a kid, that, like him, animals had thoughts and feelings, but could not speak. So he promised his animals that, if he could learn to control his stutter and speak, he would be their voice. He has obviously succeeded. In his fifties now, you could just detect the stutter at times. You could also detect that he was running additional meta-processing to be able to produce fluent speech.

It's a simple story of a guy with a language disorder who found in his own condition a way to look beyond himself and to challenge himself and who, without being cured of his disorder, went on to do amazing things that he really enjoyed.

I liked it.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Understanding, it's a two way street

Recently I've been reading a lot of blog posts and comments about messed up things that teachers and other people do to autistic kids. It sucks when people are mean to kids. It's really common and it really sucks. I think we should all work in our communities to reduce the amount of mean stuff done, and particularly when it's done to kids.

Where I differ with a quite a few posters is on how to achieve that goal. I keep hearing that the offenders should know better (I agree) and should be fired (I might agree). But I also hear that it is ridiculous to talk about these people needing support (I don't agree) and that they should not have to be educated in order to understand such basic things (I don't agree).

People are not all capable of doing everything perfectly all the time. That's just what humans are like. We suck at a lot of things. Even important things. We miscalculate social situations and fail to consider the impact of our actions. We say things that are different from what we wanted to say. We act inappropriately. Even as adults, we need to be reminded and taught how best to behave in challenging settings. There are things that we cannot do well without support.

Given that this is what we are working with, what kind of sense does it make to expect people to perform in the way we've decided they should without support, accommodation and patience? I'm not saying that we should not have high expectations of educators and others -- we should. I'm not saying that we should let abuse stand -- we should not. I'm saying that we should recognize the limited abilities that all humans have and work with those abilities and limitations so that everyone is functioning at their maximum potential, rather than fixing a standard and treating all those who fail to meet it as subhuman and unworthy of further engagement.

It's time we take what we have learned about human nature and apply it to all humans.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thinking about thinking about thinking

... or meta-metacognition if prefer, is what we been engaged in lately.

MK started talking late (sentences at around age six, basic level conversation that could be fairly easily understood by strangers at around ten) but he has been making up for lost time. It's not just a matter of vocabulary. It's all about how easily he accesses and manipulates references and mental constructs. It's a very odd thing to be a part of. It's an alternate route to linguistic competence, but it's also, necessarily, an alternate route to understanding the world. I'd love to be able to describe what I see, but it is simply too complex.

Anyhow, all this linguistic power has made it possible for MK to communicate increasingly sophisticated ideas (and a whole bunch of exceptionally silly stuff too -- you'd never know he was a latecomer to humor). One of the things we are discovering is that MK is exceptionally self-aware. He can now tell us exactly what is bothering him (This aide is giving me too much help. She makes me feel like I'm doing things wrong. When she asks me if I'm OK, it means she thinks I'm not OK.) . More recently, he can tell us what things feel like. MK tells us not only what it feels like to be startled, thanks to an over-responsive nervous system, but the frustration of having had his body overreact when, intellectually, he knows that the startling thing (sudden noise, sudden movement, ball in the air, shift in tone of voice, etc.) is no big deal. He also talks about his own rushing thoughts ("like a hurricane in my head") when he get anxious.

This is, of course, painful for me to hear. But, though MK faces more difficulty with some things than his peers, I'm sure there is not a child out there who has not felt the same things on smaller scales, and there are many who feel as much distress or more, but who are unable to observe the processes in play, much less describe them. People who are unable to analyze their unpleasant experiences generally respond in the form of action, sometimes useful, and sometimes not. Our guy is lucky in that, being able to define it, he can choose how to respond to it, and can talk it through and get input.

I should mention that MK is generally a very happy guy. Dancing with joy and falling down laughing are a part of just about every day, and it would be unusual for more than a few hours to go by without some experience being labeled as the best xxx ever! Anyone who has spent any time with him would describe him as having sunny disposition. He's just hyper responsive.

So recently we are talking and about how we think about our own thoughts. In my own life, I have had quite a bit of success in controlling my own often unrully mind by applying techniques such as REBT. I also take meditation instruction and have learned a few tricks there, such as pausing and distancing ("Wait a minute, let me think.") and objectifying ("What am I thinking?" and "What do I want?"). We toss around these and many other ideas for dealing with thoughts and reactions. Then MK tries them out at school. Then we talk about how they worked and what might work better.

It amazing the things that one can talk about when talking gets easy.