Saturday, September 18, 2010

Making Connections

Some people with autism have incredible, but discrete gifts. Temple Grandin, as depicted in the movie with the title of her name, sees the worlds in pictures and can convert a blueprint into a 3D image in her head. That plus her her sharp observational skills and empathy for how animals see things means she can create revolutionary designs for animal management systems.

Then, there's Donald Gray Triplett--autism's "first child"--the first case described in Dr. Leo Kanner's original article on autism. Some reporters caught up with Donald, now 77 years old, and shared more of his story with the world, "Donald nevertheless possessed a few advanced faculties of his own, including a flawless ability to name musical notes as they were played on a piano and a genius for multiplying numbers in his head. Polgar tossed out '87 times 23,' and Donald, with his eyes closed and not a hint of hesitation, correctly answered '2,001.'" Donald's parents provided for him and he never needed to work.

Pamela has a couple of gifts of her own. She has an eye for color because she enjoyed experimenting with the utility Paintbrush for years. She spots numerical patterns and catches on quickly when given one, which helps her learn math. She has all fourteen calendars in her head, so, if given a date, she can tell you the day of the week in seconds. We often use that gift as an icebreaker because suddenly people see her as someone who is both quirky, smart, and interesting. She has been taking classes off and on at the art guild and the artist community has embraced her as well as our church. The other day we were taking our daily walk and a Facebook friend called out while she was driving by, "Hey, Pamela, how're your ladybugs doing?"

Like Pamela, Temple and Donald have family and community that accept them and encourage them. In Temple's case, her mother and her aunt balanced acceptance with challenging her to go beyond what she thought she could do. Her high school science teacher and mentors in the ranching industry saw her gifts, encouraged her to use them, while pointing out what social glitches had to be fixed: everything from the dangers of punching a loudmouth in the jaw to wearing deodorant. Donald lives in a small town in Mississippi where people know he's different and have accepted him to the point of threatening violence to anyone who messes with him. On three occasions, townspeople warned, “If what you’re doing hurts Don, I know where to find you.”

The article points out how our artificial time limit when education ends makes things harder on adults with autism, "Once they become adults, the teaching, in all too many cases, stops completely. In general, state-funded education ends the day a person with autism turns 21. Beyond that, there are no legal mandates, and there is very little funding." Temple has continued to learn important social skill in the years of middle age. When we lived in Louisiana, one parent of a teenager told me she had lunch with Temple when she first started speaking on autism. Temple shared her passion for developing humane animal management systems, whipping out pictures you wouldn't want to see while eating hamburgers. Some kind friends pointed out the social faux paux and Temple no longer grosses out dinner companions with gory photographs. Donald "learned to golf, to drive, and to circumnavigate the globe—skills he first developed at the respective ages of 23, 27, and 36."

Stories like this encourage me to keep homeschooling Pamela. She is truly a late bloomer because of her autism and aphasia. During her first decade, she missed most of what we said and she could not form a single, coherent sentence. Language programs for autistic children failed her. When she turned 10, I learned about Charlotte Mason's ideas and began reading aloud to her every day for hours. At 12, we found a great reading program: she leapt from picture books to chapter books. She could finally hear some of what we said. At 15, we found the right language program, which included staples of Mason’s language arts program: copywork, dictation, and oral and written narrations. After three years of hard work, Pamela could put words together into sentences. At 18, we came across the key to being more flexible and better equipped to handle social situations. At 21, she makes herself understood to us. In moments of clarity, she converses with people outside her family.

Some people like Dr. Peter Gerhardt are trying to develop programs for adults with autism. He takes a behavioral approach which I find inadequate because they focus on outward behavior not remediating the gaps created by autism. The article describes a social gaff that lead to a neighbor turning in an autistic man named Tony for sexual assault and concluded, "He was sufficiently self-aware to understand that he was missing vital cues, but he had no idea what they were. He later explained to Gerhardt: 'The rules keep changing on me. Every time I think I learn a new rule, you change it on me.'" Through RDI, we are teaching Pamela to read and understand those missing vital cues rather than to memorize a system of rules. I am trying to find that balance between helping Pamela to know a larger world while avoiding the process that "overemphasizes traditional academic achievement—trying to learn French or the state capitals—at the expense of what someone like Tony really needs, a set of social skills that keep him from making mistakes such as hugging his neighbor the wrong way."

Our science class is a good example. We are doing a year long unit on weather in which we are studying various aspects of what happens in our atmosphere. We are trying hands-on experiences to build concrete knowledge, observing and tracking weather data, and reading and narrating a book what we see in the sky. The other day Pamela said a mild howler (an "expression that make one view one's [teaching] efforts with a feeling of utter despondency" (Page 158)), "Clouds are made of cotton." She was quite serious. Rather than correct her and make her memorize a fact, I encouraged her to think about it by having a conversation.

Me: "Has cotton from a cloud ever fallen on your head?"

Pamela: "No."

Me: "What has fallen on your head?"

Pamela: "Rain."

Me: "What is rain made of?"

Pamela: "It's water."

Now, when we talk about how cumulus clouds look like cotton, she will quickly add that they have water inside. My goal is for Pamela to think for herself and to marry what she knows with what she is reading or studying. I want her to find her own personal anchors and make her own connections.

Before doing a hands-on activity, I try to find ways to included guided participation (or how we teach children to pick up those vital cues in social situations). We are doing a unit on electricity and were building electric puzzles (click the picture on the left to view a larger version). I noticed the sheet called for students to solve three different puzzles. First, I made one by myself to make sure I knew what to do. Then, I had her solve the puzzle so she would have a preview of why we are building these things in the first place. Then, I built one and Pamela built one by watching and doing what I was doing. She is very good at "watch and do" now. There were plenty of moments of uncertainty when Pamela looked up at me, waiting for my nod to let her know she was on the right track.

The puzzle works like this. You tape together a sandwich out of two index cards and aluminum foil. Then you punch six holes in a third index card and tape foil with the shiny side peeking through the holes. You make two holes an island, unconnected to any other hole. Then you connect one pair of holes with foil and do the same for the final pair of holes. Why? So that the student can work their way through the pairs of holes to see if they can figure out where you made the foil connections.

Then you flip over the hole-y card, place it on top of the sandwich, and secure it with paper clips. Finally, you label the puzzle with a letter and number each hole. Then, the fun begins as you foist the puzzle on some unsuspecting victim and have them try to figure out when pairs will make the light bulb work.

You take foil ribbons made in earlier lessons and strap them to the ends of a dry cell (you know, the b-word, not allowed to be said in the book, it's that silver, blue and black thingie in the picture). You wrap the other end of one foil ribbon around a flashlight bulb, causing your husband to admonish ("The flashlight in the upstairs hallway is for emergencies only! No experiments!"). Then, you place the free end of one ribbon to one of the numbered holes of the electric puzzle and place the tip of the bulb on another hole. You keep trying combinations until you find a pair of holes until you find one that lights the bulb. Since we set up the puzzle to have two connections, you keep going until you find the second. That means, if you are really unlucky, you will have to go through fifteen potential matches (which you can calculate with the help of the combination formula).

I could have showed her the most organized way to work through these combinations. I did not because I wanted to see how she thinks and to see what strategy she would use. Her brother would have randomly gone from one to another in no discernible order because he is the liberal arts thinker in the family. When Pamela tried Puzzle A, she was orderly. She first tried (1, 2), then (3, 4) and (5, 6), and none of them worked. Then, she tried (1, 6) which lit the bulb. After that, she stumbled her way through (1, 3), (1, 5) and (3, 5) before discovering (4, 5) was the other pair that generated light.

So what, you say? Here is where it gets interesting. With Puzzle B, Pamela added more order to her search: (1, 2), (1, 4), (1, 6), (1, 3), (1, 5) and finally struck gold with (2, 3). After that, she sticks to a tightly organized search pattern: (2, 4), (2, 5), (2, 6), (3, 4), (3, 5), (3, 6), (4, 5), (4, 6) and--Ding! (5, 6) worked. By the time she hit Puzzle C, she had her highly orderly search pattern down. I was struck about how she learned the most efficient way to organize her search with each puzzle! Not only that, Pamela just demonstrated her understanding of a high school level mathematical concept: combinations and permutations are the building blocks of probability theory! Moments like this reinforce our determination to continue schooling Pamela in academics as well as dynamic thinking.


Stranded said...

I loved reading every word of this.

LAA and Family said...

Same here Tammy! (I'm so excited, the guest speaker at a local autism education/support group is going to be talking about RDI next week.. is it now local in western Northern VA?!)

Melissa said...

always encouraged when you share!

"balanced acceptance with challenging her to go beyond what she thought she could do" - this is key with our children on the spectrum! you are doing a great job, momma!