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Picking Up the “Oops!”

  • Posted on February 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM

When I first started studying how to be a parent, I read a lot of claims regarding the importance of monitoring, limiting, or disallowing television and video watching.  However, when Willy first started talking again after his regression, he picked up many of his first words from his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine videos.  Later, Alex picked up words from Veggie Tales videos.  Now, Ben is doing it, though he watches a much larger variety of shows—his viewing habits are far less rigid.  Like Willy, Ben is also picking up gestures and facial expressions from the shows he watches.

Mostly, despite the expert advice, I encourage this.  In our experience the boys picked up more words (at least, in the beginning) from their intense video watching than they did from their intense therapies.  They also had fun and picked up other things.  Alex, for example, likes to reinterpret Veggie Tales images in his own art.

But, now Ben’s picked up something I rather dislike.  In one of his shows, one of the characters spills something in dramatic fashion.  In the show it is an accident.  “Oops!  Sorry,” the character says.  Ben recreates this scene with growing frequency—and for Ben, it is no accident.

He gets the spill part.  He gets the “Oops!  Sorry!” part.  He doesn’t get the accident part.  To him, it is a fun, dramatic scene with big movement, emotive expressions, and funny reactions.  It’s a fun role to play—for him.  Not so for Mark and me; we have to clean up the mess.  We’ve even made Ben help—which is a chore by itself, since cleaning up is not so fun and dramatic as spilling is—but he continues to do it.  And he still doesn’t get the accident part.

Now, this could be just another frustration that we experience as parents, but over the years of raising my children with autism I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern.  Like Ben, Willy picks up on certain aspects of stories at the exclusion of what “we” consider important.  Willy reads books for class, and his summaries and book reports have more to do with the things he found engaging and less to do with themes or the point of the book.  “What is this story about?” is a question that gives Willy great difficulties.  He gets so caught up in the details that he doesn’t see the big picture, so his answers are about those things that caught his interest, not what the book is actually about.

From a teaching perspective, there’s this sense that they’re missing the point.  The point of the spill, after all, isn’t how fun it is to spill things or how enjoyable it can be to reenact dramatic moments.  It’s about accidents, forgiveness, and taking responsibility.  Ben misses that.  From a teaching perspective, Willy’s focus on a particular image or scene, at the exclusion of the point of the book, is a mistake.  He’s focusing on the wrong thing.

Or so the teachers say.  As a writer and storyteller, I’m inclined to agree.

But…isn’t the richness of art that there is something for everyone, or so the artist hopes?  Isn’t the point that there is more in any work of art than the artist intends, because the audience brings their own realm of experience to the work?  Isn’t that part of it, too?  So, why do my boys’ interpretations get dismissed as wrong?  Don’t their observations matter?  Sure, it’s a different focus than the general population, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

I believe in teaching the boys to see the point of a story—or, rather, the point as it was intended.  But I worry that teaching this skill—the ability to think about the story as a whole—is being done at an exclusion of respecting their way of seeing the world.  And that worries me.

I wonder how I can teach my boys to see the point as it was intended without disrespecting their attention to details and their own interpretations of works of art.  It’s so easy for me, as a writer and a student of stories, to say to Willy, “That’s the wrong answer.  The point of the story is…”  But saying that is the wrong answer.  How do I communicate in a simple, direct way that—while I appreciate his observations and there is room for him to share them—there are expectations that need to be met to satisfy his assignments?  How do I teach him to see the whole, without taking away the pleasure he gets from the details?

Teaching: New Zealand vs. Arizona

  • Posted on June 6, 2010 at 1:32 AM

Compare this:

In May 2009, the team decided he had met the goals of his plan. His family asked for a new review, but Bruno said school-district officials declined, saying Luke was fine.

In October, two months after Dr. Daniel Kessler of St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center confirmed autism, it was clear Luke wasn't fine.

The kindergarten teacher complained repeatedly in e-mails to Bruno of Luke's misbehaviors - spitting, hitting, throwing sand at other children and defecating in the classroom.

The teacher also said Luke seemed "defiant" but she didn't believe it was because Luke had autism.

In March, Gentry confirmed autism. The education team created an IEP to address autism.

A week later, Luke's teacher wrote to Bruno, "I don't even want him in my classroom to be honest with you."

Bruno filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to investigate discrimination. The teacher was placed on temporary leave as punishment.

To this:

New Zealand schools should view autism as a learning preference, rather than a difficulty or disability, says UK educationalist Neil Mackay.

His comments come in response to Autism New Zealand’s statement that social stigma, intolerance and ignorance in the education system are holding back the development of children with autism and driving many parents to remove their children from mainstream learning environments.

Neil Mackay is in the country this week presenting training workshops to over a thousand teachers and principals on how to meet atypical learning needs without affecting the classroom experience of other students.

He says that with the growing numbers of autistic learners, teachers need to support their inclusion in the mainstream by understanding their learning preferences and employing practical tools and strategies to improve outcomes in the classroom.

“This means fine-tuning learning so students feel empowered and supported to achieve. For children on the autism spectrum, it’s about helping teachers to understand that these children often need detail, order and certainty in their learning environment and finding practical solutions so these students can operate comfortably and confidently in the classroom,” says Mackay.

Which “z” would you rather live in?

Discovering the Wrongness

  • Posted on February 13, 2010 at 5:27 PM

Yesterday morning, I sat at the dining room table after what had already been another more-hectic-than-usual morning, reading through Willy’s notebook one more time.  The words struck me as wrong, and I puzzled over them, growing increasingly frustrated with myself.

“Willy knows to…”  It said.  Why did those words strike me as wrong?

I call Willy over to me.  “Willy, did you lose your recess again?”

“Yes,” he says sadly, hesitantly, expecting a lecture I suppose.


“Because I didn’t do my spelling,” he says.  “I’m sorry.”

“Why didn’t you bring your spelling homework home so you could do it?”

He shrugs.

“You know you need to be organized at school.”

He nods his head, his face melted with the disappointment of disappointing me.

It still struck me as wrong.

“Do you know how to be organized at school?”

He nods and says, “C-a-l-m-d-o-w-n,” in the deep, drawn out way we say it to him.

“But how do you be organized?”

“Use my head,” he says, poking his skull.

“What steps do you take,” I ask him softly.

His body gets stiff.  His voice gets quiet.  “I don’t know,” he says timidly.  He waits for the lecture.  And he waits.

I sigh, and suddenly the wrongness makes sense.  Both calming down and using his head are important.  But neither is enough by itself when the steps to do what needs to be done are not in his head.  Willy knows to be organized.  He knows his homework needs to be in his folder.  He knows each assignment needs to be written down in his planner.  And he knows to do his work when he gets home.  But there are steps in between that make these things happen.  It is these steps that make the disorganized organized.  It is these steps that Willy doesn’t know.

He’s failed to do each of these things on numerous occasions, not because he’s not motivated, or doesn’t care, or doesn’t want to do them.  It’s because he doesn’t know how.  He’s been lectured.  He’s been punished.  But not because it’s his fault; it’s because I failed him.  It’s because the school failed him.  He’s ready for more independence, but before we hand it to him we have to teach him to handle it.

Sometimes the parent disappoints the child, even when the child doesn’t know it.  So, I sat at the dining room table and I wrote a long note in his notebook.  We’ve failed him, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make it right from here on out.  This is a problem that can be solved with a bit of effort and a lot of coaching—something we should have been doing all along.  And so I wrote to his teachers what we need to do so that Willy can succeed.

I’m sorry, Willy!

Because that needs to be said too.

The Relevance of Self-Efficacy

  • Posted on January 29, 2010 at 3:05 AM

Another thought spurred by my studies starts with this definition:

Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s convictions (or confidence) about his or her abilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources, and course of action needed to successfully execute a specific task within a given context.

The Fundamentals of Organizational Behavior, 4th ed., by Andrew J. DuBrin, 2007, pg. 126

The chapter is on motivation, particularly as it is applied in work situations.  It relies heavily on psychology.  Two particular applications of this definition of self-efficacy stood out for me.

First, there is expectancy theory.  Basically with expectancy theory, the idea is that people will be highly motivated if they have high expectancy, high instrumentality, and high valence.  Expectancy involves the belief that more effort will improve performance.  Instrumentality involves the belief that improved performance will improve the outcome.  Valence involves the belief that the outcome is worth the effort.  If someone does not expect that their effort will improve their performance, they’re not likely to try harder.  If someone does not believe performance is instrumental in getting the results they want, they’re not likely to perform.  If someone does not value the outcome, they’re not likely to care enough to try.

(Realize that each of these high/low values are subjective, meaning they rely on individual belief not independent reality.  For example, trying harder may really lead to doing better, but if I don’t believe that it will, I’m not likely to try harder and so I won’t do better.  Therefore, belief is a very powerful, especially belief in oneself.)

One of the things that struck me as I was studying this concept was how it serves, at least in part, to explain some of the issues in relation to autism.  So often it is easier to assume someone with disabilities, especially cognitive disabilities, cannot do something.  This assumption is so easy that people often do not stop to question why they don’t do something.  It’s like the possibility that the individual does not choose to perform is never even considered.

The first time I ran smack into this concept was when I was concerned that Alex could not catch.  I understood, at least to some degree, the complexity of the catching action and its association with later skills development.  So, that Alex couldn’t catch was something that deserved attention.  Sitting with the physical therapist, I learned the distinction between can’t catch and doesn’t catch.  Specifically, if a child does not catch a ball, first you have to discern whether the child has any interest in the ball; if not, you must then find something the child does have an interest in.  Alex can rarely be induced to catch a ball, but if you throw a Veggie Tales plush toy at him he’ll probably catch it.  Unfortunately, the perspective of this therapist seems rather rare, but I’m certainly glad she shared it with me.

The next relevant way this concept of self-efficacy is used is in social learning theory.  Social learning theory is the process of learning through observing and mimicking others.  Many parents of young children with autism will recognize the significance of this, even if they’ve never heard the term.  It was drilled in me when the boys were young that children with autism have to be taught to mimic so that they can learn.  But, in looking closer at the concept through its business applications, once again the issues of expectancy theory come into play.  Expectancy (the belief that more effort will lead to improved performance), instrumentality (the belief that improved performance will lead to a better outcome), and valence (the level of desire for the outcome) are key aspects of social learning.  Some of the things that teachers and therapists are bent on teaching my children are of no interest to them.  The valence simply isn’t there.  Yet, if they watch me use the VCR or the computer, they pick those skills up quick.  And, yes, it is through social learning—observing and mimicking desired behaviors.

And now, we’re back to self-efficacy.  While the significance of instrumentality and valence cannot be ignored (yet seems to be ignored more often than not), when teaching people with autism self-efficacy has its own relevance.  Self-efficacy (belief in one’s own abilities) is a component of self-esteem (which also includes the person’s belief that he or she is worthy of happiness, also called self-respect).  Having fundamentally different neurological processes, and growing up learning in a million different ways (some subtle, some quite obvious) that your neurological processes are inferior, is going to affect any person’s self-efficacy and self-respect.  Yet, when attaining a new skill expectancy is essential, which requires self-efficacy.  If one has high self-efficacy, then one is more likely to believe that more effort will improve performance.  If one has low self-efficacy, then one is more likely to believe that more effort will not improve performance.  If one’s expectancy is low enough, then the individual will not even try to perform.

And it all comes back together.  If we insist on trying to teach people a task for which they have low instrumentality and/or low valence without first successfully raising their perceptions of instrumentality and/or valence—then claim that since they did not learn the task they must try harder or are incapable—we are eroding (and eventually destroying) that individual’s expectancy, self-efficacy, and self-esteem.  In the long-run, this erosion creates an environment of systemic disempowerment.  Essentially, we are teaching people they can’t, because we are trying to force them to learn something for which they have no interest and for which we create no sense of value.  That “can’t” attitude further pervades their lives.

The more I learn about “normal” psychology the more I believe that the worse thing psychologists ever did was divorce “abnormal” psychology from “normal” psychology.  I suspect if psychologists opened their minds to the possibility that the assumption that “abnormal = bad” is wrong, the more they would be able to see how “normal” psychology relates to their own ineffectiveness.  Perhaps then more people would get genuine help that repairs and re-builds their senses of expectancy, self-efficacy, and self-esteem, which would lead to improved performance on the behaviors they value.