Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Masterly Inactivity and some Autism Therapies

Years before I became acquainted with Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education, many of her ideas made sense to me. Back in 1994, when I was teaching Pamela skills and academics through Discrete Trials Training, I balked at drilling play skills as outlined in Chapter 12 of The Me Book. I thought, "Play is play. If you have to teach a child to play, then play becomes work." Charlotte Mason had written something eerily similar a hundred years before my time, "There is a little danger in these days of much educational effort that children's play should be crowded out, or, what is from our present point of view the same thing, should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play than that about work."

Breaking down pretend play into a series of teachable steps seemed too contrived and controlling. Pretend play is an outward response to the mysterious inner life of a child. Charlotte Mason wrote,
There is an idea afloat that children require to be taught to play––to play at being little fishes and lambs and butterflies. No doubt they enjoy these games which are made for them, but there is a serious danger. In this matter the child who goes too much on crutches never learns to walk; he who is most played with by his elders has little power of inventing plays for himself; and so he misses that education which comes to him when allowed to go his own way.

Although I was not familiar with Charlotte's concept of "masterly inactivity", I waited to see what would happen. My passivity toward pretend play lasted for two years! In the spring of 1996, Pamela began what appeared to be a bizarre ritual. During her free time, she plopped herself in the same spot near the nightstand in my bedroom. She always held a yellow Duplo window and a small baby blanket. I drew the line in the carpet after she added the vacuum cleaner to her odd circle of friends! Because I was so curious about what she meant by her odd routine, I stepped aside and let her be. After about a month, spontaneous language blossomed, and she began to say, "Blankie!" and "Loudmouth!" These exclamations lifted the veil to the mystery: Pamela had taught herself to pretend play, imitating The Brave Little Toaster, her favorite movie! Incidentally, our vacuum cleaner was a Kirby, and an orange reading lamp and clock radio sat on our nightstand!

Pamela had not only figured out pretend play by using concrete objects, she also understood symbolic play, substituting the Lego Duplo for the toaster! She continued her forays into the world of pretend play, jumping off the top bunk wearing a blue dress (imagining Alice tumbling down into wonderland). She did the same in a Pocahontas outfit, imagining the canoe going down the waterfall. The following Christmas she put a Choosy Baby All Gone doll on her wish list. As soon as we pulled the doll out of the box, Pamela began to feed her baby like any doting mother. She started telling me what she wanted to be for Halloween and asking for Barbie dolls, which she truly played with like any other little girl. Her younger brother taught her to cross swords with him. What Pamela needed was not me teaching her how to play but time and, in my humble opinion, a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Charlotte Mason thought time, not adult intervention, was a key ingredient to play too, "Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make."

My second experience with restraining myself was when Pamela began cutting up her beaver Beanie Baby named Bucky. One day, while I was processing email, Pamela waltzed up to me with Bucky and asked, "What animal?"

Distracted, I replied, "A beaver."

After Pamela vehemently exclaimed "No! That's not a beaver!" I inspected it closely and noticed she had ripped off the beaver's teeth.

Pamela was a walking encyclopedia of animal names, so I had no idea what she expected me to say. I turned the tables on her and asked, "So, what animal is it?"

She smiled and announced, "Squirrel." I think she enjoyed teasing me with her little prank for, the next day, she came back with a tailless squirrel and asked, "What animal?"

I said the first thing that popped in my head, "A chipmunk."

She danced away happily because I nailed that one. With a tied score, she headed back to her room, where she spent several minutes contemplating how to best me with a new animal. Finally, she skipped up to me with the Beanie Baby formerly known as Bucky scrounged up into a squat and its muzzle pushed into its face. I was clueless this time and begged her for an answer. She smiled, "Frog!"

"Wise passivity" allowed me to witness Pamela's creativity and imagination in action. Had I intervened and stopped her from mutilating any more of her toys, I would have missed a golden opportunity to see her mind in action. Doing less with Pamela through masterly activity allowed her to do more! Except for snipping Barbie's locks, this was the one and only time she ever maimed one of her toys. Pamela never became a toy serial killer due to my lack of action. Charlotte Mason observed,
But the fussy parent, the anxious parent, the parent who explains overmuch, who commands overmuch, who excuses overmuch, who restrains overmuch, who interferes overmuch, even the parent who is with the children overmuch, does away with dignity and simplicity of that relationship which, like all the best and most delicate things in life, suffer by being asserted or defended.
My third encounter involved Pamela allowing a television show to get in the way of her schoolwork. The minute Blues Clues debuted back in 1996, Pamela was hooked! I was a bit miffed when she demanded stridently to watch this half-hour show twice a day. While she lacked the oral language to explain why, I stepped aside and bowed to her wishes because the show seemed important to her. I decided to file paperwork, do the dishes, or zip out some emails while an episode aired.

By the end of one month, I was glad I caved! Steve and his clues mesmerized Pamela so much that she began to fill pages and pages and pages of clues. Drawing like her hero improved her handwriting just as much as my carefully conceived writing plans. Charlotte Mason encourages parents and teachers to permit personal initiative in their students' work,
In their work, too, we are too apt to interfere with children. We all know the delight with which any scope for personal initiative is hailed, the pleasure children take in doing anything which they may do their own way; anything, in fact, which allows room for skill of hand, play of fancy, or development of thought. With our present theories of education it seems that we cannot give much scope for personal initiative. There is so much task-work to be done, so many things that must be, not learned, but learned about, that it is only now and then a child gets the chance to produce himself in his work. But let us use such opportunities as come in our way.
Encouraging children who show personal initiative does not preempt a parent's authority, Charlotte writes,
Authority is neither harsh nor indulgent. She is gentle and easy to be entreated in all matters immaterial, just because she is immovable in matters of real importance; for these, there is always a fixed principle. It does not, for example, rest with parents and teachers to dally with questions affecting either the health or the duty of their children. They have no authority to allow to children in indulgences––in too many sweetmeats, for example––or in habits which are prejudicial to health; nor to let them off from any plain duty of obedience, courtesy, reverence, or work.
She assumes parents have established a series of habits that accomplish schoolwork with time left in the day for children to direct themselves. Every school day, Pamela is in the habit of reading and narrating living books; language arts through copywork, studied dictation and recitation; math lessons; speech therapy; self-care (including fixing her own breakfast); and keeping her room tidy. Pamela understands why she ought to maintain a special diet. My tool box of autism techniques allows me to be "gentle and easy" rather than "harsh or indulgent": Discrete Trials Teaching to clarify confusing academics, Social Stories™ to explain sticky situations, Sensory Integration to promote calmness, etc. When she was younger, we scheduled Pamela for Auditory Integration Training to help her manage noise with less stress. We try to live up to one of Charlotte's mottoes, "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life."

I could list example after example of masterly inactivity, but I will close with my favorite. During Auditory Integration Training, Pamela overcame her fear of escalators, but was still terrified of elevators. She would throw major tantrums if we tried to force her to ride one. We decided not to push the point. We figured it is not a health issue because taking the stairs is great exercise. Near every elevator, you can find a flight of steps. We applied masterly inactivity on this issue and waited for ten barren years for it to bear fruit.

Unbeknownst to us, Pamela's attitude began to soften by watching the elevator scenes in Toy Story 2. We lived in Alaska at the time and, because the island lacked the fell beasts, she lacked the opportunity to test her courage. When we moved to Minnesota, we began going to the library several times a week. The library was large enough to house three floors and an elevator for the carts. One day, we approached the stairs, located next to the elevator. Pamela commented, "Elevator, just like Toy Story 2."

Sensing that Pamela's love of all things Disney might be at work here, I asked her, "Would you like to push the button?"

"Yes," she replied and Pamela hesitantly walked up to the door and pushed the button. She stood there for a while.

I didn't want to rush her, so I said, "Would you like to ride the elevator some day?"


"What day would you like to try?" That was followed by a long pause.

I clarified, "Would you like to ride the elevator today?"

"Yes." Not only did Pamela get on the elevator, but she actually rode it. She was extremely nervous, but she did not scream or cry. She was so frightened when she stepped on that elevator; her body quaked! However, she faced it on her own terms and in her own time. Her effort and her resolve led her to that elevator.

After she survived her first trip on an elevator in ten years, her smile was so big. Her pride in accomplishing such a big feat showed on her face. Ever since that day, Pamela has had no issues with elevators. Pamela's initiative throughout the years strengthened her ability to choose to face a major challenge in her life. Charlotte's reflections on initiative describes what we have witnessed ourselves,
The child who is good because he must be so, loses in power of initiative more than he gains in seemly behaviour. Every time a child feels that he chooses to obey of his own accord, his power of initiative is strengthened. The bearing-rein may not be used. When it occurs to a child to reflect on his behaviour, he should have that sense of liberty which makes good behaviour appear to him a matter of his preference and choice.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your experience and insights with autism and Charlotte Mason principles. I've been trying really hard to follow the GFCF this month and my son is starting to use the bathroom appropriately. He is 6years old. I think there is something about that gluten and casein. These past posts have been sooo wonderful. Thank you. Sincerely, Diane

walking said...

Congratulations on the potty success!!! Snoopy dancing for you here in Carolina!!!

We saw a definite link between gluten/casein and problems controlling bodily functions. The diet is hard work at first, but, after you figure out what recipes/brands work and adjust to new ways of thinking, shopping, and cooking, it becomes second nature!

Diane, you are to be commended for trying it to see whether or not your son has the kind of autism that responds to the GF/CF diet!

Keep in mind that potty success was the first thing we noticed. The other changes were more gradual as the morphine slowly left our daughter's body.

Leigh Ann said...

Wow, I needed this post. So many times when I heard about breaking down play for my son I would cringe inside. Why should my "creativity" become his? It then ceases to be creativity and just work. I have just ordered some Charlotte Mason and look forward to learning more. Thanks again for your experience and encouragement.

Anonymous said...

I have really been enjoying your recent posts regarding DTT vs other therapies for autism. So much of it rings true to me and reflects our experiences in my family. A very big "two thumbs up" to you.

This post on "masterly inactivity" simply makes my heart sing. We've seen exactly the same types of things with our son! I must say, it was reading about autism and the Charlotte Mason method on your website and in your email list that first pointed me in that direction and I am so grateful for this. Thank you for all your efforts, they've been very helpful to me.

walking said...

Taffy, I have to laugh. I am seeing little ripples, spreading encouragement in waves all over the net. Discussions about masterly inactivity on the CM Series list got my wheels turning about this topic, and Mama Squirrel's connection of Social Stories™ to masterly inactivity inspired me to write these posts. And now you are being caught up in the wave, inspired to view life in new and better ways!

Anonymous said...

I love this post - very inspiring! The GFCF diet is great (although we are now SCD).

JacciM said...

What an excellent, excellent post. I know the CM carnival was posted almost a week and a half ago, but I am so glad I read all of the entries! If I hadn't, I would've missed this one :) Thank you so much for submitting it! I have been very blessed by a little peak into your life with your sweet daughter :)