Monday, May 30, 2011

AO, and I Don't Mean Ambleside Online

Isn't it ironic that two things in my life have the initials AO: Ambleside Online and the Autism One conference, which has graciously posted videos. Since I am not sure how long they will be available online FOR FREE, I suggest you stop reading and start watching Dr. Nicole Beurkens' presentation on Relationship Development Intervention (RDI). She hits all the things that helped us so much when we started down this path back in 2007.

Now, I don't mean to be ugly or controversial, but I want to contrast what I know about RDI with the one on Verbal Behavior by Dr. James Partington. I admit I am biased against behaviorism, not only in how I handle autism but in how I teach children. My goal is to help people see that we must put first things first in teaching language-delayed children. Assuming that children in the autism spectrum cannot learn pre-verbal relationship skills is a mistake. Some can! Mine filled in these holes in her development after she turned 18—18 years old, not months old. She still has a long way to go but she has made progress in her social skills because of it. Autism therapies can be expensive, so it helps to learn from the school of hard knocks. This post represents that!

First Issue - Partington lost me four minutes into it when he talked about hitting language hard. I know you are dying for your child to speak, much less speak well. I know that! Both of my children talked late (David had back-to-back ear infections for two years). Pamela is still learning English as a first language (and Spanish too—the other day she constructed her own unique sentence, "God es mi padre." Muy bien, mi hija). What is so wrong about teaching your preverbal child to talk?

If they lack the nonverbal receptive and expressive skills, they will be missing vital components of communication when you focus on words only. I know! I made that mistake and I hope to help others avoid doing the same. As I am trying to be fair, I do applaud Dr. Partington for cautioning parents about academics (letters, colors, shapes) before their time, but now I must add a caution. He is skipping a vital step: broadband communication (and, if you don't know what that means, I refer you back to Dr. Beurkens).

Second Issue - I also applaud Dr. Partington at minute five for encouraging the first intellectual habit that Charlotte Mason prized above all others: attention, a sign of active, engaged minds. See, I'm fair! But—you knew that was coming, right—but, he focused on having many trials. Being fully engaged and attentive is an exhausting process, especially in the rapid drills typically found in behaviorism. The pace is so fast it often requires you to reward children with food. When allowed to work at a slower rate and given time to process and think rather than automatically act, children do not need artificial rewards.

Third Issue - I thank Dr. Partington at minute six for recognizing the importance of parent participation, the home, and other environments. I love how he contextualized asking a child to recall the word leaf by being outdoors when he pointed to one and asked the student, "What is it?" He used this anecdote to illustrate the importance of having many trials. Well, I have a much larger point. Does the child care what a leaf is? Has she pet a velvety bud? Has she watched a leaf emerge from its bud in the spring? Has she felt its smoothness, traced veins with her fingers, and smelled fresh green? Has she collected them in the fall and wondered how they changed color? Or, does she feel manipulated about having to learn a word for a thing that doesn't interest her in the least? While she may know how to label leaf through drilling, she does not know its essence. To quote Mason, "The question is not,—how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education—but how much does he care?" (page 170).

Fourth Issue - At 7:20, the speaker points out the need to vary what you are doing and not engage in the same type of activity. Mason educators know the value of short lessons and going from one style of lesson to another (doing math for ten minutes and shifting to singing when attention lags). However, we could completely avoid drilling the same kind of activity in trials if we worked with children in context and focused on developmentally appropriate tasks. Why would a child want to learn imitation if they see no point to it? If the child doesn't find it intrinsically interesting and doesn't understand why anyone would want to imitate, then it is just monkeywork.

When a child wants to eat an orange, that is the moment to work on imitation. Scaffold the child into success by scoring and partially pulling the peelings of two oranges. Sit at the table with your child and, once you have full attention (I will get to that in a bit), do one little thing like pick up the orange, smile expectantly, and wait for them to imitate you, even if it takes 45 seconds for the child to figure out what to do. Once they hold the orange, grab one pre-pulled corner, smile, and wait. This is imitation (and a whole host of other things) in context, rich in meaning for the child with a natural consequence, not an artificial reward. You can think of all sorts of opportunities for teaching imitation in daily life for things our children already need to learn.

Fifth Issue - At about 10:45, I agree with Dr. Partington's concern about social interaction. But, I want you to think very carefully about this. The ways in which VB teaches language sets up a very unnatural style of interaction: prompt, quick action, reward. What do you think repeating this cycle over and over tells the child? Other people think. Other people command. The only point to getting the right answer is a reward. It puts the child in a passive, receive mode for long periods of the day. Something interesting happens when the child learns to speak well. They have seen controlling the conversation modeled for them for years, and monologues about things that only interest them becomes their modus operandi! Conditioning any person in that manner might prepare children for schools as they are today. Will it prepare them to live for anything other than awards?

Sixth Issue - Yes, I appreciate the work of Lovaas in the 1970s, described in minute 13:30. I know that we should never give up on our children: there is always hope. Where are the Lovaas children now? They are adults. What kind of lives are they leading? Why has his original research never been followed into adulthood? Where are long-term studies of children who have graduated from ABA and transitioned into mainstream schools? (By long-term, I meant the adult years.)

Seventh Issue - The scariest quote in the first half of the presentation for me was this at minute 16:15: "We know how to make these kids to want to work for us." If what they are learning had meaning, if it was contextualized, if it was done at the pace in which they could process and think, if they were allowed to acquire missing developmental milestones rather than learn discrete skills, you wouldn't need to make them work for you! As the two of you share experiences, the child gleans knowledge and new thoughts from them.

Eighth Issue - At minute, 17:50, Dr. Partington gets into the whole expressive versus receptive language thing in his example of using the word book. He is missing some vital things about books and young children. Books are meant to be shared. Books are more than things to want and get. For a child to able to enjoy a book with you, many things must happen first. They must have joint attention. They should coordinate actions with you. They must be able to anticipate and enjoy novelty so that, when you read slightly differently to spotlight another way to experience the book, they find it fun. Children must have an idea of the context in the story, or the story will make no sense to them. Finally, I'm having a hard time remembering the last time I said to a friend in conversation, "What is something you can read?" But, I digress.

Ninth Issue - Again, I love what Dr. Partington said twenty-three minutes into the presentation about dogs. Through the window, a child sees a dog walking outside. The temptation is to go into teacher mode and ask a bazillion questions about dogs. Well, some teachers, that is. That is not what I would do from a Charlotte Mason and RDI perspective. He is right about punishing a kid with a bunch of impertinent questions about dogs. However, I disagree with his recommendation to say all you want. That is ineffective, too. What I would do is what Amy Cameron calls match plus one. To "dog," I might say, "Cute dog!" To "brown dog," I might say, "Brown like Loa," tugging at Pamela's episodic memories about her favorite dog from childhood. Then, I would smile and wait to see if Pamela felt competent enough to make another comment. In other words, give the child a chance to be an equal partner in the conversation.

Here is a sample conversation that just happened: Pamela just came into the room with a bowl of grapes that she had washed. Focused on writing this post, I ignored her. Suddenly, I heard, "Grapes." Without turning to look at her, I said, "Grapes are yummy!" Pamela said, "Grapes are healthy!" I turned to her and smiled, "Grapes are healthy and juicy." Now, that she had my-face-to-face, full attention, she laughed and started eating. Sometimes, people with autism complain about having to make small talk. We probably have been so focused on what must be done that we have not modeled chit-chat. When we have to work so hard to drill proper speech, grammar, and syntax, we lose track of little conversations with no agenda, no demands, no purpose. RDI allowed me to relax and appreciate small talk for what it is.

Tenth Issue - Twenty-five minutes into it is a slide about identifying existing language skills. What ever happened to pre-language skills? Does the child shift attention? Share joint attention? Understand facial expressions? Use them? How rich is the vocabulary of gestures? Do they understand gestures? Do they look to trusted adults when unsure? Do they watch others to learn? Words can only take a person so far if they are missing out on pre-language skills! I know because I had a sixteen-year-old who didn't have them! Verbal Behavior is missing out on a huge gap in nonverbal communication skills. If they lack these abilities, then they will not learn like other children, which is one reason why they become bully magnets in school. Of course, that is not their fault. It is our fault for not teaching them pre-language skills.

Eleventh Issue - Minute Thirty-Two. In the speaker's clinic, they make children look at every person in the room and greet them. Can you imagine what typical kids will think the first time that child gets on the bus? There is a time and place to do this sort of thing. For example, Pamela knows that, when we get together with Steve's side of the family, the Salvadoran custom is to greet and give your cheek to each person in the room. She also knows that my side of the family is more lax about greetings. In a small gathering, my family greets people individually, but, in a large gathering, a general "hi" works, too. Context makes a huge difference for any behavior that we have. A behavior in one situation is often the wrong thing to do in another. That is where our children get into trouble. They look at social interaction as following a set of rules, but context sometimes changes how we interact.

Twelfth Issue - At 33:25, the speaker talks about routines. Following a routine is usually not the problem with our kids. Transitions from one task to another is the problem. Deviating from the routine such as canceling a trip to the playground because of rain causes a meltdown. Thinking flexibly about the routine is the problem (it is okay to start lunch at 11:59 instead of 12:00). Seriously! Some kids are that locked into routine.

Thirteenth Issue - Responding is not thinking. Another scary quote for me was, "I'm never going to make those connections for them" at minute 35:06. I find this problematic in the school system for all children. Making connections for children robs them of the joy of thinking for themselves. To quote my friend Jenn Spencer, "I am not the fountain from which knowledge springs for my thirsty students. It is not my job to provide all the answers. When I do I rob my children of an opportunity to exercise their own minds, and a lack of exercise leads to atrophy.... One of the hardest things for me to let go of was the need to ask questions that pointed them to my way of thinking. This included giving 'comprehension tests' in which I drew out all the important ideas for my students and held my opinion as the correct answer. The result of leaving this behind has been that sometimes they do not get the ideas that I got at all, sometimes they come to the same ideas I had after having lots of time to ruminate on the material (making it theirs forever, since they were the ones doing the thinking), and sometimes they enlighten me with ideas I might not have thought of." If you focus on what a child thinks and how a child thinks, they will learn to make connections for themselves.

Fourteenth Issue - Finally, thirty-nine minutes into it, the speaker talks about non-verbals, and I'm glad he recognizes the importance of sign language for children who haven't developed their vocal musclelature! He also sees that having an ability means nothing to the child unless they use it spontaneously, without prompting, in a real-world context. Then he spent over fifteen minutes listening to his explanation of ABLLS before I became unglued at minute 56:05 when he equated "establish yourself as a conditioned reinforcer" to "make friends with them" and "make them want to do things to please you." While I completely support developing warm relationships with children, a danger in relying the same motivator most of the time: if you please people, you get rewards. I value helping a child (1) create meaning where there was none before, (2) feel competent about what they are doing, (3) trust you to provide enough support for them to feel successful but enough challenge to make it interesting, and (4) have just enough novelty to keep attention without overstimulating them. The intrinsic reward for the child is that "aha" moment, which in Pamela's case is accompanied by a giggle. Playing to one motivator "getting the good things faster" concerns me because people work for many reasons, not just utilitarian ones.

Fifteenth Issue - I was so glad to see footage of Dr. Partington working with a real child with autism at 1:04:00 (we are into hours now). Because he thinks the child is ready to express her needs in signs and words, I made a few assumptions. By the time an child is ready to communicate in words, he has mastered the art of nonverbal communication. He doesn't just walk into the kitchen and stand there like this little girl did. He doesn't simply walk to the refrigerator and wait, which is often what an autistic child without language does. He actively seeks your attention, follows your eye gaze, and, when you shift your face in his direction, he points and gestures. He watches for your response to see if you understand. If not, he finds another way to communicate. He is also at the stage where he is beginning to share joint attention with you. So, when Dr. Partington starts teaching the little girl in the video language, I assumed she had all of these pieces in place. She did not. I did not see any effort to work on these vital components: shifting attention to him, following his eye gaze, waiting to see if he is paying attention before signing eat, and sharing her enjoyment of the pizza with him. To put it crassly, Dr. Partington is nothing more than a pizza dispensing machine to her.

So, how would one go about eating pizza with this child? How do you feed infants? Often it is a game where you encourage the child to shift attention to you and the spoon by making novel sounds and closing the distance between the baby and the spoon. Then, you smack your lips, lick your lips, and say, "Mmm. That tastes so goood!" If you need a refresher go, check out a first spoon feeding video on youtube. You can see how the little boy is already communicating a desire for more: reaching for the bowl, kicking out with his legs, leaning into his mother, opening his mouth for more, etc. He checks his mother's face for reassurance, but, when he is no longer hungry, he turns away. The mother carefully watches what he is communicating and responds to him. Notice how much mutual enjoyment the mother and her son share.

Compare the two interactions. The baby boy is already communicating volumes more than the little girl does through his facial expressions, body language, and attention shifts. Dr. Partington and the girl completely miss out on any joy, mutual enjoyment, etc. Of course, they have no relationship because this is the first time they have worked together. That ought to be a greater aim. He is very instrumental with her: the minute she signs, he dispenses the food, and there's no effort at communicating any delight or mutual satisfaction. She is the manding machine for him, and he is the vending machine for her. Nothing else matters in the interaction.

In the swing segment (1:13:45), her father is wonderful. You can see how he focuses on experiencing sharing as well as the long e sound, the laughter, the joy. Notice what he does when she stares at her feet, he moves into her line of sight. He gets experience sharing. For him, the interaction is more than reinforcing her: it is emotions shared, the delight.

Sixteenth Issue - When Dr. Partington shifts to working with her mother, again you see the instrumental style. Even though the little girl is signing, she is completely tuned out from her mother. Think back to the baby and those moments of enjoyment between mother and child. That vital ingredient is missing here. Sharing food is more than nourishing our bodies. It is communal. There is joy and fellowship and enjoyment of one another's company. I will commend Dr. Partington for saying at 1:18:30 the importance of letting the little girl come to her and slowing down!

How did we work on face-to-face gazing without food? In the first two weeks of transitioning to RDI, I would walk up to Pamela and wait. If she did not shift to me, I would make a novel sound, each time different: "Yoo hoo!" Clear my throat. Or I might wave or do a silly dance move to encourage that shift. My final maneuver was to move into her line of sight. Once she shifted her gaze (which does not mean I expected her to eyeball me to death either). Then, I would tell her something. Anything. "I'm going to take a shower." "I'm going to call Dad." "I'm going to use the computer." Sometimes, my message contained a naturally rewarded consequence. "Dinner is ready." "I'm going shopping."

Very quickly, Pamela realized that Mom expects me to pay attention to her when she speaks. In fact, Dr. Partington mentions this point about waiting until a child looks at you before speaking later in the video (1:36:30). The big difference between what he does and what I do is the pace and intent of communication. When Dr. Partington speaks, he expects you respond quickly. When I speak to Pamela, I am telling her something that may or may not require a response. Think about it. Communicating is more than making demands of one another. Because I wasn't commanding her every time I opened my mouth, Pamela was learning that sometimes people share information without expecting you to act on it. Some of our communication is like that.

Seventeenth Issue - I appreciate Dr. Partington's take on stim toys at 1:19:45. I can drink a cup of coffee and enjoy my conversation with you. In fact, I might savor the moment more because of the aroma and my delighted taste buds. I agree with Dr. Partington that the little girl does something cool at 1:21:45. She uses her eye gaze to let them know that she wishes to eat from a different bowl. But, there is something vital missing that young children do when they communicate. The whole point of learning to shift attention to watching you is to see if you are paying attention to them. She is missing the key component called referencing here. This pre-verbal skill is when the child points to the bowl, checks your face to see if you are seeing the communication, and waits for your response. At this stage of development, being able to reference another person for a variety of reasons is far more important than using words. In this segment, the little girl broadcasts her intent for a different bowl like radio waves sent out into space. The mother and Dr. Partington move so quickly to respond, they do not give the little girl the opportunity to watch what they are doing and see if they get her message. I can see they were excited, but they missed that chance for the girl to look at her mother and see that mother understands.

Eighteenth Issue - At 1:24:00, Dr. Partington spends a lot of time on reinforcers. Why? His goal is to teach children to ask for what they want and make demands of you. Because he is ignoring the missed developmental stages, such as appreciating novelty, he must use artificial reinforcers. Think about peek-a-boo. Why do we spend so much time on a silly little game when we could be teaching infants to make demands of us!

We are teaching them foundational elements of mutually enjoying each other, which is naturally reinforcing. At first, peek-a-boo is done very slowly until the baby gets the pace and sees the fun of dad covering baby's face and slowly pulling off the blanket. Then, as the baby gets it, dad adds little variations, or novelty. If she adds them too soon, the baby cries because he doesn't understand the fun of anticipation and change. After baby learns that, peek-a-boo becomes a wild game with all sorts of unexpected events, false expectations, and surprising pops-up. Learning to appreciate anticipation and novelty naturally reinforce our social interactions. A child who finds novelty fun will not need fewer artificial rewards. Likewise, children who are making meaning (not just learning labels) and feeling competent about what they are doing (not just going through the motions) need fewer artificial reinforcers.

Nineteenth Issue - At 1:28:00, I admit I cracked up at his warning to parents to avoid teaching children to ask for things they wouldn't want in their wildest dreams (bed, toilet, etc.) Very few kids ever want to go to bed, so that makes sense. But, I do have qualms about his reasoning for not teaching children to say things you don't want to hear until they are bigger than you and can hurt you ("leave me alone" and "no"). Why wouldn't we want them to tell us that? Sometimes, our children are truly worn out and need downtime. That is just as much a need for them as food. I understand that children with autism may need treatments and therapies in their early years to help fill in developmental gaps. We also need to keep in mind as Dr. Beurkens pointed out that we are vastly overscheduling the lives of our children, whether they are autistic or typical. The sensory systems of autistic children are so easily overwhelmed. Because they process more slowly, a slow pace to us is a merry-go-round to them. We ought to be very careful about what therapies we chose for them: just because something is available does not mean we must do it.

I think what Mason wrote about the rights of children ought to apply to those with autism. We should not mistaken organized games and structured recreational activities as play. It is work to them because of everything they must filter out, filter in, process, and monitor. They need free time like any other child. We must allow opportunities for personal initiative in what they do without us taking over and ruining it (pages 36-39). Yesterday, I pulled out some pony beads to sew on eyes on a stuffed toy for a friend. A few hours later, Pamela came to me and showed me a bead necklace she made out of about 50 pony beads. I warmly acknowledged her effort and told her they were beautiful. Then I waited. Sure, I wanted her to wear them. But, I waited. About a minute later, she was proudly wearing them and twisting them around her finger like all girls do. Mind you, Pamela is not a dress up kind of girl, so it was a sweet moment that I could have ruined by doing the thinking for her.

Twentieth Issue - At 1:35:00, I loved how Dr. Partington shared a very important point about all people, including autistic ones. People don't mind unpredictable payoffs as he describes in the slot machine analogy! I would like to take this a wee step further. Unpredictability, one of the secret ingredients of peek-a-boo, is very hard on our kids, which is why they need it in small doses. When we worked on Pamela's anxiety's during the whack-a-mole campaign, we discovered that unpredictability heightened her anxiety, leading her to control people. We spent a long time working on it, and we still have to work at it. David and I discovered yesterday that he had spent too much time being predictable by watching movies in his room. When he tried watching one in the television room downstairs, Pamela had a nuclear meltdown. It took at least fifteen minutes for her to get a grip (and it didn't help that she has a nasty cold sore inside her lip). She eventually chose to sit on the back porch in the rocking chairs and wait for David to finish watching the movie before she came inside. After I calmed her down, David told me, "Mom, I have to make a point to watch movies downstairs sometimes, don't I?"

How do you start working on unpredictability? By adding little variations into a predictable routine. Even when Pamela was little, I made a point not to get trapped by routines. Pamela cried if I skipped an aisle at the grocery store. To help her prepare, I would smile, say "One, two, three, weeeee!" and push the cart really fast to the next aisle. Because we moved every few years, Pamela was forced out of the normal routine until she established new ones at the new neighborhood. In RDI, we use this term called productive uncertainty. You add just enough unpredictability to challenge a child without pushing them into meltdown. A very practical way is to set up doing chores, baking, putting groceries in a bag at the self-checkout, or any activity through interactions patterns. You get the pattern going, and you add a teeny, tiny variation.

Suppose the little girl wants some grapes. You get a bowl of water, place it at the table, and show her how to drop it in the water. You start an assembly-line pattern: mom picks off a grape and gives it to the girl, girl drops it in the water. Then, repeat. You go as slowly as she needs to go. Once she is competent and gets her role, then you add a variation. Just like you might gasp or make an alerting sound in peek-a-boo, you do that first to let her know that something different is about to happen. Then, you take an unexpected action: you drop the grape on the table and wait for her reaction with smile on your face. If she calmly picks it up and finishes her role, you go back to the pattern and then throw in a different variation: you put your hand at a higher or lower level than she expected, you gently bop yourself on the nose with it first, you gently bop her on the nose with it, etc. As long as she goes with the flow, you randomly insert a little variation into the interaction pattern. You might even do something really silly like eat the grape first! However, if she cries or gets frustrated, you help her to recover her emotions, get back to the predictable pattern, and wait until she is really confident before you try a smaller variation than the one that upset her. Basically, you apply peek-a-boo to routine activities into which you can weave an interaction pattern.

Twenty-First Issue - At 1:38:30, I like how Dr. Partington points out that we should encouraging our children with smile and warm facial expressions. That is true for all children! (A quick mathematical rabbit trail SMILE—breathe deeply for no purple math problems are on the horizon—do you want to know how to trip up a student who feels competent in math? Frown and look puzzled while they answer the question!) I also agree with him on timeout: sometimes, autistic children want to be left alone and act up just get a timeout.

Then, Dr. Partington shows some errorless training, which caused me to pause again. I can understand why we think it is necessary because autistic children often feel incompetent at everything. Even in RDI, we scaffold a child by setting up the situation to allow the child to succeed in some small way while still being challenged. However, when you are working for an external reward like food, then making mistakes are far more devastating. You didn't get what you expected (the reward) because you made an error! When discovering something new or mastering a step motivates you, then the stakes are lower. When you focus on process (learning to tie shoes) rather than product (a reward for tying them correctly), you feel less pressured by making mistakes.

Life is messy. Humans make mistakes, and, in fact, to err is human. Too many of our spectrum children are perfectionists by nature. Some require us to work hard to model the fine art of making mistakes, remaining calm and neutral when something runs astray, and figuring out what to do about the mistake. One of the most common questions I get from parents new to homeschooling is how to help their autism spectrum child stop melting down over wrongs answers! Making errors is not the issue: the issue is whether or not you make an error, you know you made an error, but you find a way to repair the situation. The video of Pamela making mistakes in learning to tie her shoe illustrates this beautifully.

Twenty-First Issue - From 1:40:00 to 1:47:00, Dr. Partington spends a lot of time labeling names with flashcards, a decontextualized way to learn labels. It reminds me of a friend whose child was drilled with flashcards: I am changing the situation somewhat for anonymity. Suppose we drill, "What do you find in a pool (common here in the Carolinas)? Water, ladder, and floats." The child memorizes the exact response and has it perfectly. One day, you see a duck in the poll and you head the child outside, point to the unexpected thing in the pool, and ask with great excitement, "What do you see in the pool?" The child misses the novelty and mechanically replies, "Water, ladder, and floats." This is the kind of thing that was happening to the child, and my friend had to work very hard to contextualize understanding.

Dr. Partington does recommend we "show them what a tape is and does" but it sure looks like "do as I say, not as I do." How do I teach Pamela new words in context? Here are two examples: copper and fungus. Because we look for meaning and connections, living books and real life offers opportunities to reinforce new words (copper kettle at the Revolutionary War encampment). I also like his point about the giraffe and zebra at 1:42:00. If a child can only express thirty words, I would certainly go for new words that have meaning in the child's life as he suggests chicken in Hawaii where they run on the road or iguana if that happens to be one of your pets. However, some people carry the concept of functional (1:45:07) too far, especially in choosing books for our children. If we only read books that spotlight functional understanding, then they will miss out on embracing fantasy and laughing at the ridiculous. I think focusing on meaning is more helpful than focusing on function because most of us hope that some day our children will have an active imagination and a lively sense of humor.

Twenty-Second Issue - The little boy at 01:47:00 is doing many wonderful things: he shares joint attention with the adult in looking at the book. He is using body language and looking at the therapist. I like what Dr. Partington suggests in having a child "tell me about the woman." That is narration in a nutshell. Where we do it differently in the Charlotte Mason world is that we teach in context: when outdoors, children sight-see and picture-paint by sharing what they observe. The art of knowing and narrating occurs in context in concrete, real-life situations. That prepares them for the shift to more abstract settings when they hit formal lessons starting in Year 1 (starting at age six or later for some children): picture study, nature study, narrating a passage from a book, etc. 

We even follow-up narrations very differently. Rather than focus on instrumental, imperative "gotcha questions," we focus on meaning and episodic memory. When a character breaks a bone, we think back to the times when I broke my arm (1974), Pamela broke hers (1999), and David broke his arm (2003 and 2005). When a character botches a recipe, we talk about culinary horror stories. When we read about a hawk, we recall our own hawk rescue and Pamela even remembers this incident every time she catches an insect in the house and gently releases it outdoors. We seek opportunities to ponder, wonder, and share what we feel, not poke holes in her sense of competency.

Twenty-Third Issue - At 1:49:00, Dr. Partington talks a bit about intraverbals (talking about things in their absence). The contextual way to do this is telling the absent parent what happened. When Dad comes home from work, children tell him about what they did while he was away. When children come home from a trip to the hardware store with Dad, they tell Mom all the things they saw and did. When Grandma calls, they tell her about the birthday party. I see a clear pattern in how Verbal Behavior approaches tasks versus a relationship-oriented way (Charlotte Mason and RDI). We seem to focus on the whole in a real, concrete context that has meaning for the child while VB seeks to fragment and decontextualize in an abstract manner. We seem to tie an unknown to a prior known, tapping into episodic memory, while VB seeks to drill unknowns until they are memorized, which is quite a different thing from known.

Twenty-Fourth Issue - At 1:57:00, Dr. Partington makes a vital point about paying attention to what people are doing. Inattention to people becomes a problem when you focus on words before nonverbal communication. Because RDI concentrates on referencing (watching what people do and think about how we might alter our actions or stay the course), children are more able to transition to social situations even when their verbal skills lag. First, we focus on teaching them to reference their parents. They discover that people with more experience provide clues on what we should do. A great example for Pamela was when she was not sure about what to do with metered mail and she referenced me to find out. Then, they learn to reference other trusted adults and eventually peers in small groups such as when Pamela took watercolor classes.

Watching what people do is not an afterthought once we have taught them language. Watching what people do is a means by which children learn to do and learn more language. Rather than focusing on discrete details about what Michael is eating and wearing at 1:58:00, we are focusing on the relationship. The kind of thought pattern we aim for our children to learn is not focused on objective details: "Michael is eating a sandwich and baby carrots. He has brown hair and eyes. He wears glasses. He wore a red T-shirt and blue jeans." We focus on subjective details: "Michael is frowning at me. I wonder why. Maybe he doesn't like my tapping the table with my finger. What happens if I stop tapping? He still looks upset. What if I move away a little? He is relaxing. I bet I was too close to him. I'll have to remember that next time."

If you have never heard of any of this heretical, completely topsy-turvy way of addressing autism, I encourage you to study Dr. Beurkens' presentation and chew on that only for awhile. Drink it in and absorb it. What sounds so simple is really a challenge in our "more is more" and "now is better" world. Think about it. Learn to live it.

Teaching our children from a developmental, relationship-oriented point of view requires a huge paradigm shift—a major change in how we interact with our children that runs counter to the culture of enlightenment thinking. In the beginning, we focus on what we are doing as parents: are we slow enough, are we more careful with our nonverbal communication, have we cut out therapy for the sake of therapy because it is available and fairly inexpensive, are we being more declarative in my language to let our children think. It may require the guidance of an RDI consultant (ask your friends for not all consultants are created equal). You may end up changing schools or homeschooling or changing how you homeschool. Change is hard!

This change in my thinking started at the turn of the century (whoa, that makes me feel old), and I am still learning as I go. Friends of mine like Jennifer Spencer and Lisa Cadora have found the change sometimes painful but worth it. We no longer worry about learning because we are learning to live and enjoying the new life we live.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Purple Math Age Problem

I've been assessing Pamela's word problem solving abilities and I'm pleased with what she can do with simple one step problems requiring whole-part thinking. In the process of assessing her, I've been transitioning her to the Singapore Math bar model concept that I explained on Wednesday. First, I assessed if she recognized whole and parts in ordinary situations that she understands. Pamela loves making her own lemonade, so this set-up was easy for her to do. I gave her this:

She easily set-up a whole-part model.

I gave her several problems like this and she set every single one up correctly. Then I gave her addition (unknown whole) and subtraction (unknown part) word problems based upon bar models she set up. Here is the one for lemonade problem:
Lemon juice has 11 calories. Lemonade has 165 calories. Sugar has 154 calories. How many calories does water have?
She correctly recorded the numbers in the model and figured out that water has 0 calories.

Once I was satisfied Pamela understood these problems, I gave her problems with distractors such as the following:
Mom baked the crust for 10 minutes and the filling for 55 minutes. She read a book for 15 minutes. How long did it bake?

She spotted the distractors right away and began crossing them out. Not all problems had them. I think from now on, I will include distractors occasionally so that she realizes she doesn't have to use every piece of information in a problem. Now, I plan to assess how well she applies the bar model graph to these concepts. I have a feeling we will be charting new territory in some cases: comparison, change, remainder, equal, excess value, repeated value, constant difference, constant quantity, and constant total.

The reason why I am so excited about helping Pamela learn to think in pictorial models is that they can solve many word problems covered in algebra without using letters and numbers. Once she understands them pictorially, I suspect the transition to letters and numbers will be easier for her. Here is an age problem I found at Purple Math. Notice that Purple Math sets up a system of equations and solves it. Now compare their method to a pictorial method, that is not quite Singapore Math and not quite Jacob's Elementary Algebra.
In January of the year 2000, I was one more than 11 times as old as my son William. In January of 2009, I was 7 more than 3 times as old as him. How old was my son in January of 2000
We will represent William's age in 2000 with an empty box:

2009 is 9 years later, and you can represent his age in this way:

In 2000, his mother was 1 more than 11 times his age, which is 11 empty boxes. You would add 1 to that to represent her age:

To represent her age 9 years later, increase the 1 to 10:

This table organizes all the information except for the last relationship we will analyze next:

In 2009, his mother was 7 more than 3 times as old as his age in that same year. So, you have to triple that age by writing the empty box and 9 3 times and add 7 to that:

We also know her age in 2009 was 11 empty boxes and 10 from the table we set up. All we need to do now is rearrange boxes and numbers until it works:

Rearrange the first line to match up the elements better. Compose 9, 9, 9, and 7 to make 34 and decompose that to 10 and 24.

Separate 24 into 8 equal parts yields 3.

That means an empty box is the same thing as 3. William was 3 in 2000. His mother was 34. In 2009, he was 12 and she was 43. Her age in 2009 (43) is 7 more than 3 times his age, or 7 + 3x12.

Now, here is the challenge for anyone wishing to try. Can you solve the other next age problem at Purple Math through pictures? If you email me your work, I will include it in my next math post.
In three more years, Miguel's grandfather will be six times as old as Miguel was last year. When Miguel's present age is added to his grandfather's present age, the total is 68. How old is each one now?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's Not the End of the World

Pamela's favorite phrase when feeling upset is, "It's not the end of the world!" While she does track news articles that interest her (Elizabeth Taylor's death), she has not kept up with the whole rapture hullabaloo (May 21, 6:00 p.m., pick your time zone). Some of my friends with autism spectrum children were not so lucky, so I thought I might share some strategies that may help you for the next doomsday prediction (December 21, 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends). If you are not a Christian, you have it easy. Just tell your kid that another crackpot Christian prophecy didn't come true. For us believers, it's not as easy.

First, the man who made this prophecy has been wrong before! Deuteronomy 18:22 tells us, "If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." So, when the man who hinted at the end of the world as possibly September 15-17, 1994 makes another prediction, stay calm! Not only that, Romans 16:17 says, "I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned." Any prediction of the day and hour of the end of the world clearly runs counter to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24:35-36. That is another reason to breathe easy.

Second, now that we have all survived the *ahem* rapture, it is a good time to give the children who spent yesterday in panic mode a little history lesson to be prepared for the next "end of the world" scenario. Do you remember the Y2K panic? We were living in Pennsylvania at the time and my friends thought we were crazy for spending Christmas of 1999 in El Salvador. They couldn't believe Steve was stupid enough to schedule a flight back to the States on January 3, 2000. I told them that, if we lost electricity because the power grid went down, I would rather be in a sunny tropical beach eating coconuts than freezing to death in a snowstorm. They still thought we were nuts. Y2K topped this list of top ten failed predictions of the apocalypse. And, if that's not enough, here's more.

Third, we can help our ASD children learn from our own experiences (such as Y2K) and learn from their own by making a special effort to code this into their episodic memory, something families doing RDI make a special effort to do. They can learn to pay attention to how you, their parents (their guide), react to situations and trust your response, which is what Pamela learned to do through this therapy. Children in the autism spectrum have a hard time storing valuable lessons from life in their memory in a way that they can retrieve it for future reference.
Memory is important for everyone in terms of learning, growing, and managing more complex social and emotional situations in life. We use our memories to build and strengthen relationships; to reflect on what we’ve done in order to make plans for the future; and to problem-solve based on past experiences. If we didn’t have memories to draw on, we would hardly move forward in life. Hence, developing meaningful memories is a critical skill for all people, including children with autism. Linda Murphy in her article Episodic Memory, Experience-Sharing, And Children with ASD

Friday, May 20, 2011

Scarves for the Babies

Pamela finished the last scarf for her babies and has started a blue fuzzy one for herself. She is in the middle of sewing a felt knitting needle case too.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pictorial Ways of Solving Algebraic Problems

A farmer had twice as many ducks as chickens. After the farmer sold 413 ducks and 19 chickens died, he has half as many ducks as chickens. How many ducks does he have now?

I have been studying ways to solve a simple problem in algebra pictorially rather than the traditional methods as I think through how to teach Pamela how to do this one day. Since I know many folks scared off by high school math occasionally pop into my blog, I was wondering if this makes more sense to you than the traditional method which I list at the end of this post. This pictorial method incorporates two strategies: (1) working backward from the answer and (2) incorporating the techniques taught in the first four chapters of Jacob's Elementary Algebra. Pamela has been using an empty box for the unknown for years, based on how Making Math Meaningful teaches whole-part thinking.

We want to know the number of ducks the farmer has now, which is our unknown, represented by the empty box.

We know that the farmer used to have 413 more ducks than he has now because he sold that many. So, at the beginning of the problem, the farmer had whatever number he has now and the 413 he sold.

We want to know the number of chickens the farmer has now. We know that he has half as many ducks as he does chickens. If he has 8 ducks, he would have 16 chickens. That means that the number of chickens is double the number of ducks. Whatever the number of ducks is now, the number of chickens is twice the amount.

We know that the farmer used to have 19 more chickens than he has now because that many chickens died. So, at the beginning of the problem, the farmer had whatever number of chickens he has now and the 19 that died.

Summarize the Quantity of Ducks and Chickens Before and After

We were given one more relationship: at the beginning of the problem, he had twice as many ducks as chickens. If he had 8 ducks, then he had 4 chickens. That means the number of ducks at the beginning was twice the number of chickens. Twice the number of chickens at the beginning would be double of what is in the table, or

We can rewrite twice the number of chickens as,

The number of ducks at the beginning of the problem is the same as double the number of chickens,

We can decompose 413 in a way to help us see the answer:
413 = 375 + 38 = 125 + 125 + 125 + 38

That means 125 goes into the empty box, which is the number of ducks that the farmer has now.

To check our work, we can plug 125 into the empty boxes into the table. The number of chickens now is twice what was in the empty box, 2 x 125 or 250. The number of ducks at the beginning was the empty box and 413, 125 + 413 or 538. The number of chickens at the beginning was the twice the empty box and 19, or 2x125 + 19 or 269.

Does this make sense? At the beginning of the problem, the number of ducks (538) is twice the number of chickens (269). At the end of the problem, the number of ducks (125) is half the number of chickens (25). All relationships make sense!

Other Methods:
I found this problem at a Singapore Math blog, which offers multiple problem solving strategies that are more pictorial than the traditional method. The author linked to a more thorough explanation of Singapore's model method that you might enjoy.

Traditional Method:
Let c be the number of chickens and d be the number of ducks at the beginning of the problem. Since there are twice as many ducks as there are chickens at the beginning,
d = 2c

Since the farmer sold 413 ducks, the number of ducks at the end of the problem is the expression,
d - 413

Since 19 chickens died, the number of chickens at the end of the problem is the expression,
c - 19

We also know that now there are half as many ducks as chickens, so we can write an equation for this relationship:
d - 413 = ½(c - 19)

Substituting the first relationship between ducks and chicks, we can now solve for the number of chickens at the beginning of the problem.
2c - 413 = ½(c - 19)

2(2c - 413) = 2[½(c - 19)]

4c - 826 = c - 19

4c - 826 - c = c - 19 - c

3c - 826 + 826 = -19 + 826

3c = 807

c = 269

If the number of the chickens at the beginning of the problem was 269, the number of ducks was twice that, or 538. If the number of ducks at the beginning of the problems was 538, the number of ducks at the end is 413 less than that, or 125.

To check our work, if the number of chickens at the beginning of the problem was 269, the number of chickens at the end is 19 less than that, or 250. Since 250 is twice 125, the number of chickens is now twice the number of ducks.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Facing the Mother of All Anxieties

For a long time, Pamela's number one anxiety involved selling. Back in October 2006, I blogged how just saying phrases like "sell the dogs" (when my husband talks on the phone about selling products that are clogging up inventory). Two months later, we moved into our new (actually old Edwardian era, Victoria style) house, and the new fear was about selling the house. The last time we sold our home was in 2001. Even though she knew the signs of preparing to move (dejunking, cleaning, organizing, etc.), hearing the words sell and house together triggered a screech out of her.

I first noted her fears about selling the house in May 2008, but her screeching had been going on for a long time. The first issue we addressed was separating herself from others. Through RDI, we helped her to see that just because someone else was selling a house didn't mean we were selling ours. Six months later, we addressed the second issue: having insufficient information. She screamed as soon as she heard "sell" without hearing the whole conversation. So, we applied the whole-part thinking she learned in math to her listening skills. For a few months, we had conversations about selling things until Pamela stopped freaking out at the word sell.

Getting upset at that word probably has to do with the fact that we moved often: Pamela was born in Adak, Alaska. She has lived in California, Florida, Louisiana (two different homes), Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alaska (two different homes), Minnesota, and South Carolina (two different homes). That is a whole lot of moving for any person her age (twenty-two), much less a person with autism, who find change more difficult than the typical person. We have lived in South Carolina since 2005, right across the street from my parents, a blessing we have never experienced. We have lived here for almost six years, a record for the Glasers.

Pamela had other anxieties too that caused her to control David and Steve. For a year-and-a-half (from April 2007 to November 2008), she instituted the sacred hour in which she banned David from the television room from noon until one o'clock. She let go of that as her anxiety and control issues wained thanks to RDI. She tried to control Steve through his work schedule, which was always unpredictable, therefore increasing her meltdowns. Not only did she tell him which car to take and which highway to drive, she would stalk him until he left the house if he were running late. From January 2009 through August 2009, we addressed thinking flexibly about his schedule. Life certainly improved once we guided Pamela out of her anxieties thanks to the Whac-a-mole campaign.

Steve has been ready to try another industry and an opportunity opened up for him recently. Unfortunately, the location is the midwest. We have many reasons for not wanting to sell our home, in-state tuition for David being one of them. So, the big question was how to tell Pamela without having a nuclear meltdown. Because uncertainty plays such a large role in her anxieties, we took the route of "less  is more" by only telling her what we had to at the very last moment. If anything, it would shorten the length of time she had to stew over the future.

Steve's last day of work was in April, and he took a month off, enjoying life as a handyman and all-around-good guy. When Pamela asked why he didn't go to work, Steve told her the truth. He was on vacation. Whenever we had conversations about his future job, we talked in code or made sure we were well out of her hearing. I had one lapse two weeks until D-day, and I smoothed it over with stretched truth: Steve was heading out there to work. A week before his first day of work, Pamela read one of his emails and, thanks to a brilliant download from God, Steve simply explained that he was getting a new job and we were going to have two houses.

I'm sure Pamela went back through her episodic memories of previous moves and realized she saw none of the signs. She showed absolutely no trace of anxiety, smiled at the thought of having two homes, and ran a victory lap. I felt like Snoopy Dancing because you have no idea what kind of uproar it would have caused four years ago!

Pamela is adjusting well, thanks to her hard-won flexible thinking. Wednesday was quite busy and, before we headed out of the house, Pamela asked, "What about dinner?" I told her that David could pick up some food for her when he takes her home. She said, "Just like Dad." I agreed, "Yes, he's man of the family right now." She smiled at the memory of us reading the book by the same name many years ago.

Steve headed west exactly a week ago today, and he is thriving. He loves being back in an engineering atmosphere, yet able to apply the business and computer skills he has mastered in the past two decades. This morning, I pulled weeds, picked up sticks discarded by the pecan trees after two lightning storms we had this week, and slew some ivy crawling up the brickwork. David took over his father's Saturday morning ritual of picking up breakfast at McDonald's and plans to cut the grass and edge later today. Unfortunately, David woke up too late for breakfast this time, but he will learn.

Between my volunteer efforts at ChildLightUSA and doing all the things Steve used to do on weekends, I will keep trying to blog what I can when I'm not sweating outside getting dirt under my nails, making repairs, and caring for the cars. And, those of you who know me well can stop laughing now! :-)