Thursday, March 13, 2014

We All Need Algorithms

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 many 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 or pathologizing 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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greyhoundgirl said...

First: I love your blog--the thoughts and attitudes expressed, as well as the elegant writing. I am a 3 decade early childhood teacher working now as a child development consultant and teacher trainer. I love the mother's attitude here as well. I want to point out that this child did well because of the very specific coaching that he received from his mother. So many kids that I see who are probably on the spectrum need deeper support and have more profound challenges--sensory, processing, social, etc. That doesn't mean that they can't function in a classroom but that they need much more than this child needed in order to do so. He is all the way on one end of the spectrum. It is unfortunate that so often support is extremely expensive and many if not most kids with ASD have other developmental issues as well. Those kids who are more in the middle or towards the other end of the spectrum may well need a diagnosis to get the support that they need to succeed -meaning have a pretty happy life and have the opportunity for their gifts to shine. But I get that we often over-pathologize children's behavioral and processing differences.

NZ Teacher said...

As always, you know how to express what is so important in the world of early education. Thank you.

Unknown said...

This post is a favorite of mine, Tom. I love the idea you present of looking at everyone as being on the spectrum. And I have often marveled at how my two neuro-diverse/2e kids understand some incredibly difficult concepts, but struggle with things I see as basic & simple. I often say to them that just because something is easy to you, it doesn't mean that it is easy. Teaching children (and parents) about the brain and the infinite ways it processes information is so helpful in understanding those who may not be lumped into the "normal" category!