Monday, July 09, 2012

Teaching Kids On "The Spectrum"

Several years ago, the mother, "Cindy," of one of my new 2-year-old students let me know that her pediatrician had recommended she have her son "Bill" evaluated for Asperger's syndrome. She wasn't going to take him up on his recommendation, although she figured his suspicions were probably correct, saying "Oh, he probably is on the spectrum, but he's like my brother was. I already know what to do. By the time he's in 5th grade no one will even know."

At this point in my teaching career, I'd already had the opportunity to work with several "spectrum kids," both diagnosed or undiagnosed, but this mom was the first who really seemed to know what she was doing. Up until then, my procedure had been to alert our parent educator of my suspicions, then let her be responsible for observing the child and deciding whether or not, and how, to approach the parents. We're always very careful with these things, not wanting to alarm a new parent unless we're pretty confident there is really something going on, especially if it involves autism, which can be a very upsetting, even life-changing, diagnosis.

Cindy, however, treated her son's suspected Asperger's as no big deal. On one of the first days of class she came to me and said, "Bill is talking to you right now," and pointed him out, on the far side of the room, in the loft, looking out the window. "I'm going to tell him that if he wants you to hear what he's saying, he's going to have to come down from the loft, walk across the room, stand close to you, get your attention, make eye contact, then talk loudly enough that you can hear." I watched as she spoke to him. He did not look at me, but rather got to work following his mom's step-by-step instructions.

He walked down the stairs. He wove his way through our busy, noisy, distraction-filled classroom. He stood a little too closely to me. He tapped my leg a little too hard, while saying, "Teacher Tom." When I knelt down, he locked his eyes onto mine a little too intensely. Then he said, in a voice that was slightly louder than necessary, "There are birds in the tree outside."

I don't know if I was more impressed with Cindy or with Bill who had accurately followed a 6-step procedure, when I normally don't expect a 2-year-old to be able to handle more than a 3-step procedure without prompting. Holy cow!

I'd thought of Asperger's as a kind of illness, but Cindy, with her casual, pragmatic confidence, showed me in this moment, and in many others over the next 3 years, that there was nothing of which to be afraid; that, in fact, in all its particulars, teaching a kid on the spectrum is no different than teaching any kid, all of whom have brains that process information in their own ways.

It didn't take long to recognize that Bill, as is true with most of the spectrum kids I've known, had certain mind-blowing, genius-like aptitudes. He was, for instance, particularly facile with numbers, often seeming to intuit mathematical solutions and concepts with which his peers struggled. I began to see that he was destined to be one of those kids who comes up with the right answer without having to work the algorithms and are scolded for "not showing your work." This metaphor, in fact, is the one that best helps me understand how to teach these kids: most of us need to use algorithms as a work-around for solving math problems. Bill did not. However, he needed algorithms, such as Cindy's 6-step procedure, as a work-around for solving the other people.

Bill naturally "knew" that 2+2=4, just as most of us have naturally known from an early age to stand near the person with whom we wish to speak, get their attention, make eye-contact, and speak clearly. For the things we don't naturally know, we all need algorithms.

Having now become quite experienced in teaching kids work-arounds for all kinds of things, both social and otherwise, I'm among those who reject the attitude that Asperger's is a disability that must be treated or cured. Cindy and Bill set me on the road to understanding that it is merely a difference, not unlike the millions of other "un-diagnosed" differences found along the spectrum of humanity. In fact, I suspect we're all on the spectrum; most of us are just all lumped together in one narrow segment of it that we've come to call "normal."

I'm not suggesting that all parents make the choice Cindy did, to reject medicalizing her child's difference, but it's working for her, and in fact, for the millions of other parents of Asperger's kids who will go through life "un-diagnosed." I know other parents who have been both relieved and empowered by a diagnosis, taking full advantage of all the knowledge, tools and resources -- the algorithms if you will -- available through doctors, therapists, and schools. And I don't want to seem dismissive of the challenges faced by parents of children who tend toward the extremities of autism: I know it's not easy. But for many, they've found they naturally know how to raise their "different" kids.

By the time Bill was heading off for kindergarten it was as a "gifted" child (something else Cindy treated with a pragmatic casualness) who occasionally unsettled you with his eye-contact or startled you by speaking too loudly, but it came off more as quirky than something to be concerned about. He was a well-liked kid who had figured out most of the age-appropriate skills for making friends, although you could sometimes see in his hesitations that he was working through an algorithm in his head. I haven't seen him for a couple years, but he must be getting pretty close to 5th grade, and I doubt that anyone knows he's not "normal."

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Teena said...

Oh, how I wish more "normal" people could learn the beauty of all our differences, and the gifts we throw out in trying to make everything the same.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Teacher Tom. I've been digging your blog for awhile now (since my son's preschool teacher recommended it), and now you're my hero. I'm an autistic adult, and mother to an autistic child, and there's so few folks who seem to get that we're different, but still capable.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading recently that the current research is testing the idea that the spectrum "disorders"are nothing more than differences in how children think and act. They are thinking that what we have labelled "on the spectrum" is just how people geared toward math, science, and engineering think and behave. As your story above illustrated, all we might need to do for them is help them with social skills.

RobynHeud said...

I love the analogy of teaching children the algorithms they need to work out the things that don't come intuitively. Most of us do need it for math, but how interesting to imagine a world where teaching algorithms for social graces was the norm and having to teach algorithms for math would identify people as having disabilities. Thank you for yet another thought-provoking post.

Malke said...

This is probably the most positive and helpful post I've read in a long, long while. Thank you!

Scott said...

Tom, I so agree. I keep seeing how different kids think differently - whether on the spectrum or not. The way they process information, approach challenges, use materials, express themselves - each child has his own way of thinking and doing. It's my job to listen the way they "talk" - and a child on the spectrum just "speaks" in a different way. Thanks for a great post.

tirzahdawn said...

labled kids have never bothered me the way they do most teachers. They are usually some of my favorite kids. I call them quirky. Maybe it is b/c my family is full of ADHD individuls. Once you figure us out, we are pretty normal. Thanks for a great post.

Nichole said...

The world would be a very boring place if we were all the same. And as for the spectrum, we all sit somewhere on it, it's just that most 'normal' people don't seem to realize this.

Unknown said...

Thank you Teacher Tom, you get it. Moreover, perhaps this kid had overexcitabilities rather than a spectrum disorder, and brilliant that the mother supported her child, brilliant that you supported his journey through using his strengths to overcome a few weaknesses early in life and brilliant too that the kiddo understood and implemented solutions to the challenges that he faced. (applaud)

Floor Pie said...

Right on, Tom. As Temple Grandin said, "Different, not less."

I would urge any parent who suspects their child may be on the spectrum to get a formal diagnosis from a qualified, *trusted* professional. Someone with a very long waiting list. Someone your pediatrician speaks highly of.

I used to get very prickly and resistent to "pathologizing" my son's quirky behavior, but in the end that Aspergers diagnosis was the first big step toward a happier, healthier life for all of us.

Without it, he would not have access to an IEP, much-needed support from a teacher's aide, or a proactive, non-punishing behavior plan. Without those supports, he would not be able to successfully participate in his advanced learning class.

And now we have access to a whole community of parents, teachers, professionals, and friends who are working with Aspergers every day -- each bringing different strengths and insights, and sometimes -- often, actually -- showing me that my son is capable of much more than I would have imagined. Some parents have the tenacity to do this themselves, but I don't know where I'd be without our village.

I've written extensively about our Aspergers journey on my blog if anyone would like to read more about it.

Viva neurodiversity!

Gina said...

What a lovely post to read this morning! I have been following your blog for almost a year, now. I work for an organization that promotes inclusion of children with disabilities in early childhood settings. While I have always gotten the sense that your preschool is inclusive and embraces the diversity of children, I had been looking and looking for a more targeted article about what you are actually DOING to support some of the more 'extreme' diversities that exist.

In the same morning, I have read about your superhero with the glass eye, your trooper with hemophilia, and now your young man with Asperger's. It's nice to find that more and more, people are realizing that these children are more 'normal' than different, and are so much more than just their diagnosis.

I appreciate your analogy of walk-around algorithms. I've always tried to explain to people that some children just don't "get" the social conventions and behaviours that most children learn naturally and intuitively, but I've never thought about this kind of comparison to help the message hit home. I like it.

Thanks for sharing.