Starting With Strength

TRANSIT-articleLarge The New York Transit Museum has started a new program that is aimed at kids with autism. Knowing that autistic people are drawn to trains, their regular routes, and patterns of tracks, they have started a program that uses their love of trains to build social skills. 

At a meeting with Ian's school last month, his teachers' eyes glazed over when I told them about the amazing robots that he was creating with Lego and his prodigious memory. They had no interest in robotics or computers or the fact that he can mulitply 15 x 7 in his head. His speech teacher told me that they preferred to work on his deficits. I didn't say anything, because it is useless to argue with them. But I was thinking, "how would you feel if you only had to do things that you were bad at all day and didn't get to do the things that you were good at?" 

Autism education is still in the dark ages. Even the best programs still regard autism as just another disability. The primary goal is just to push the kids into a regular classroom as fast as they can. But, for many kids with autism, a regular education program isn't right. It's too focused on things that they are bad at. For example, many kids with autism are terrible at word problems in math, but are fantastic at computation. But the poor scores on the word problems leads to F's on the report card. Maybe they shouldn't have to do word problems. Or maybe the word problems should be just about trains and robots. 

Every week at school, Ian gets pulled out of his classroom for speech therapy. In these 20 minute sessions, Ian is shown pictures of various scenes and he has to explain what's going on, what's going to happen next, and so on. These sessions are incredibly boring, but the poor kid has been in therapy since he's been 2-1/2, so he either particaptes willingly or stares blankly and pretends to be dumb. He never protests. 

His best speech lessons happen outside of the school at the local YWCA. He attends a special swim class where high school volunteers teach disabled kids how to swim. Most of the kids in the class aren't like Ian. They are severely disabled, but they learn how to swim. It's incredibly inspiring and I'm nudging my brother the reporter to write about it for the Times.

At the Y, Ian is now swimming across the pool with his face in the water. And he's also getting speech therapy, even though it isn't officially speech therapy. The high school kid, who is completely untrained in these matters, talks with Ian the entire time. He and Ian go back and forth discussing what he is supposed to do in the water and what exercise he wants to practice next. There are no xeroxed pictures to discuss and no cubicle. 

The exercise is also fantastic in and of itself. I swear that his speech is better after the exercise in the pool. 

So, kids like Ian learn best when we start with their strength, they learn naturally, and there is a lot of exercise. But, you know, I think we all learn better that way, too. I think that one of the promises of special education is that it has the potential to reform the existing classroom model for all kids. 


29 thoughts on “Starting With Strength

  1. I cannot begin to imagine what parents like you and my friend/blogger Aliki (and Penelope Trunk, et ali, obviously) have to go through to try and advocate for your sons. I mean… what you’re writing about is just SO OBVIOUS and what you describe their teachers and therapists do is SO DUMB that makes me want to scream.
    That’s why I strongly believe what I told my husband last week when he emailed me a link to an article about unschooling (he’d never heard abt it and was fascinated) and we were discussing it: I think that school (traditional schooling) is a necessary evil. If one could do away with it one definitely should! (and I think Penelope Trunk is very right in pulling off her son from school, something not every parent can and is willing to do and you obviously know I’m in no way suggesting that to you)
    Anyway… I wish you could find a way for Ian’s days and weeks to be filled with the high-schooler swim instructor’s kind of therapy. And why, oh, why, can’t they be evaluated on their strengths rather than their weaknesses? 😦

  2. Traditional education is such an unnatural way to learn things for so many people. I’m glad for Ian and his swim class. Maybe those high school kids should be running the school districts?

  3. Back in my semi-corporate life, I used to read a lot of leadership books and “how to be a better leader/worker/etc.” books. The ones that struck a chord with me, and that usually netted some kind of results, were the ones that suggested focusing on strengths (yours and your employees). The main point was that it’s easier for someone to improve upon what they’re already good at than to change something they’re not good at. It’s frustrating for everyone when you’re trying to get someone to do something that they’re just not good at. I do work on my weak areas from time to time, but usually I do so by finding ways to tap into those areas I’m already good at. For example, I use technology to help me with exercise. πŸ™‚
    I would hate to be in your or Ian’s shoes. I’m not good at advocating for my kids–mostly because I don’t usually need to–and I would feel sick at the response you’re getting from the teachers.

  4. “I swear that his speech is better after the exercise in the pool.”
    I expect it is.
    “The main point was that it’s easier for someone to improve upon what they’re already good at than to change something they’re not good at.”
    Right. You wouldn’t want to try to turn IBM into Google, or vice versa.

  5. “Word problems aren’t all about trains? That doesn’t jibe with my memory.”
    Not in 3rd grade.
    “Even the best programs still regard autism as just another disability.”
    Maybe “some of the best” rather than “the best.” I’ve mentioned Spectrum Academy in Utah before. I don’t know if they are as good as their theory, but their theory is very good. Their methods page quotes Temple Grandin saying that “People on the spectrum who have a fulfilling life now often had four important assets earlier in their life: early education and treatment; medication or other treatment for severe anxiety, depression, or sensory sensitivities; development of their talents; and mentors and teachers to help them.”
    I also liked some other stuff on the Spectrum Academy methods page.
    “Each of our students is assessed in the areas of reading and math prior to the first day of classes in order for the student to be assigned to classes that are on their academic performance level.”
    “By utilizing a differentiated instruction method, or leveled placement, a student who may be by age in seventh grade, but is performing on a fifth grade level in reading, will receive reading instruction presented on a fifth grade learning level. Additionally, a student who may be by age in seventh grade but is performing on a tenth grade level in math is placed in a class commensurate with his academic abilities.”
    “Students at Spectrum Academy receive daily social skills instruction…”

  6. “Word problems aren’t all about trains? That doesn’t jibe with my memory.”
    Oh yeah, those train programs. Singapore math seems to like them a lot. It’s funny to remember them, but I’m guessing those problems aren’t emphasizing the characteristics lots of kids find fascinating about trains (the commonality I’m seeing about, trains, pokemon, dinosaurs, and other focal interests is the systematization of masses of information).
    I agree completely that current educational strategies for children with autism ignore the “talent development” part of the equation (to use Temple Grandin’s words). I remember thinking that when watching a video of a interview between a client with autism and a psychologist and thinking that we were seeing extremes of a social interaction spectrum. The psychologist was someone who was highly social and interested in communication to start out with and then had trained in it. Most typical people would have looked atypical interacting with that psychologist (especially if they were men). I think he same issue exists in education. The teachers are trying to train for the characteristics they value and find reinforcing, and not enough attention is paid to reinforcing characteristics that the child might value and find reinforcing (not to mention society in general). That can be a problem with education for everyone, sometimes, but the problem is amplified in this case.

  7. Oh, I for one, want to hear more about I’s amazing lego creations. Every mom should have a time to brag about her kid’s amazing talents and have folks appreciate them.

  8. GeekyMom refers to Marcus Buckingham’s “StrengthsFinder”, which is a corporate approach to helping people find their strengths and play to them. This is usually positioned as finding the right role for each person. Corporate jargon sometimes refers to this as “finding the right seat on the bus”, again a Buckingham-ism.
    I can see where you might have to take a different approach with kids, arguing (for example) that everyone needs social skills and thus you can’t just ignore it. But Laura’s point is made – there are strengths lurking in there as well, and they are not being taken into account.

  9. By the way, I think one of the most interesting things in Temple Grandin’s memoir “Emergence” is her description of her different educational experiences in different settings. The least successful one (that she got expelled from eventually) was a big Jr/Sr high girls’ school, where she was really lost and got in trouble a lot. The most successful one was a sort of very small (and no doubt very expensive) alternative high school for emotionally troubled kids where they had horses, carpentry, etc.

  10. Jen–you spotted it! πŸ™‚ Though I don’t buy all the corporate jargon, I know I’ve been a lot happier focusing on what I’m good at and capitalizing on it. I try to do the same with my kids.

  11. Yes, everyone needs social skills,, but we should work on weaknesses by piggy backing on strengths, like the transit museum. Give them a topic that they love and can master, and then put them in situations where they can talk about these interests with others kids.
    Yes, bj, one of the problems with special Ed teachers are that their talents lie on the opposite end of the spectrum as autistic children. Their instincts are often completely off track. Also, they haven’t been trained in how to understand these kids better. They have zero exposure to the latest scientific research. And a rarly do they read these books on their own. They also hate getting lectures by some idiot mom, by the way.

  12. “They also hate getting lectures by some idiot mom, by the way.”
    All the more reason to run. Let me know when your PAC/superPAC starts up.

  13. “Yes, bj, one of the problems with special Ed teachers are that their talents lie on the opposite end of the spectrum as autistic children.”
    One of our old family friends had a daughter in special ed and then when her kids grew up, she went into special ed teaching herself. Those mothers are potentially a very important talent pool. (The daughter was quirky as a child (she wore a leopard suit and growled at a pretty advanced age), but has since grown up into a lovely, bright, responsible woman with a family and is in education herself.)

  14. Laughing out loud at the thought of the typical special ed teacher interacting with the extremely spectrum-y individuals at my software development office. Guess what? Some of these guys will forego walking across the room to pick up serving implements and just take their portion of salad with their hands. And this is laughed at and considered quirky and evidence of their dedication to efficiency. These guys typically consider anyone who can’t compile as being a lower form of life. Pity the HR or marketing director who has to get up and give a presentation at a company meeting.

  15. One more question for the group: how is corporate jargon any better or worse than other forms of jargon? It’s just something to learn and use; IMIHO it’s no better or worse than teenage jargon, academic jargon, non-profit jargon, etc. I don’t understand why corporate jargon gets its own call-outs for ridiculousness when frankly any jargon can sound stupid out of context.

  16. …how is corporate jargon any better or worse than other forms of jargon?
    Corporate jargon is used by people who have too nice of teeth to not be evil.

  17. I don’t like *any* jargon. A lot of corporate jargon, though, commodifies everything, especially people, who are resources to be exploited. I don’t like that. Also, a lot of corporate jargon uses very macho war and sports metaphors–very off-putting for women. I’m reminded of The Politics of the English Language, something I think everyone should read. There is a tendency, with a lot of institutional language, to dehumanize or to otherwise separate us from the reality of what’s being written/talked about.

  18. Well, I for one have made my peace with being referred to as a resource. It happens all the time; who cares? It is perhaps driven by the great project management triangle: if quality remains constant, the only things you can alter to get your project back on track are scope, time, or resources. In a software dev context “resources” typically equals people’s hours, but can also mean budget.
    This type of jargon appears benign to me when compared to the sorts of veiled threats and deliberate obfuscation that seemed to typefy academic jargon when my dad was a professor. (Although computer people have taken obfuscation to amazing heights, I’m the first to confess.)

  19. I waged war with “resource” briefly in my first job out of college. It didn’t do much good then, and now I probably use it myself. “Spend” as a synonym for “expenditure”, however — that’s just awful.

  20. “Laughing out loud at the thought of the typical special ed teacher interacting with the extremely spectrum-y individuals at my software development office”
    Yup, exactly what I saw on the video, though the “typical” person was a research psychologist (rather than special ed). That was followed by a presentation by a rather famous psychologist who was barely able finish a sentence because her scientist audience did not know the rules of polite society.
    The key here is that concentrating all their energy on developing the lacking social skills (as opposed to spending some time on it) means that the kid doesn’t have any time to develop the talent that will allow them to be accommodated.
    Kind of like an individual with CP being forced to spend all their time on trying to walk and little on fully developing their cognitive talents.
    A lot of people get caught up in whether the skills that some people with autism have are related to their weaknesses — but that’s irrelevant to the value of developing them.

  21. There’s a wonderfully quirky kid with asperger’s who plays in our local youth symphony. He’s taken to writing the program notes for all the youth symphony concerts — and they’re amazing! Last time, he listed the heights of all the composers, along with their weights! Apparently that was something that interested him. (We also tend to get A LOT of detail about the places where the music was written — including populations of the city now, and at the time the music was written.) We’re lucky to be associated with an organization which, like the transit museum, appreciates EVERYBODY’s contribution and really stretches to appreciate each child and make them feel welcome.

  22. And one of the hard things is figuring out what a spectrum child is/isn’t seeing that you aren’t/are seeing.
    Example: the other day we went to the playground F (4 yrs old) and Su (3 yrs old) were playing nicely on the equipment when another child showed up with face paint on (a cat I think). Su glanced up and went on with her activity. F nearly freaked out on me. He was completely unable to figure out what was going on. It confused and frightened him. I was able to quickly explain, but that child made him really nervous until he watched him for a while and saw that he was following the expected rules of behavior.
    This happens a lot- I have to stop and think about the cues that I’m picking up that he doesn’t, and I pick them up so automatically that I don’t always know that I have.
    Now imagine that you are in a classroom with several children with different difficulties and you are trying to help all of them…it’s a really tough place to be. There are real problems with the current system, but many of them aren’t unique to special ed. and many of them don’t even have that much to do with actual instruction in my opinion. I think (and I taught in a number of different environments for a number of years)that the two biggest changes that need to be made are reduction of classroom sizes and accepting that students need to be educated for their unique potential not a “one-size fits all” speed of completing school not an automatic “everyone goes to college”. Those two changes would benefit every student, but they require something our educational system is currently capable of- recognizing the individuals represented by the enrollment numbers and test scores.

  23. I read an excellent book years ago by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron, called “The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships.” One of the things that Grandin says (repeatedly, IIRC) is that kids on the spectrum have a right to develop their strengths — that it’s wrong, really wrong, to overdo the social skills therapy to the point that the kid never has a chance to discover his or her interests and passions. Because, she says, a major key to an independent life is to be really GOOD at something, good enough that your potential employers will put up with your quirks. And you’ll never have the chance to get good at anything if you spend all day looking at flash cards of faces (or whatever).
    FWIW, I’ve had mixed experiences with special ed teachers. At my daughter’s current school, they are super enthusiastic about working with kids on the spectrum and have an extensive toolbox of research-based techniques (like asking you at IEP meetings if your kid would benefit from sensory breaks). At her old school, they acted like Asperger’s was this wildly new concept that they couldn’t possibly be expected to have even heard of.
    I have both an aunt and a cousin-in-law who are special ed teachers who LOVE working with kids on the spectrum, but they both are the exception within their department, I think.

  24. I’ve been reading “The Unwritten Rules” just recently and concur with the recommendation above. Temple Grandin’s perspective is great, but the addition of Sean Barron really adds to the book, because their inner lives are different. Grandin is a “loner” — she repeatedly states that her social interactions always come through her joint activities/interests and that she likes it that way. She doesn’t have a life partner and she’s happy with that, too, according ot her.
    Sean Barron, on the other hand, describes a life of repeatedly trying to connect with others, but failing both because his choices about the “unwritten rules” were often wrong, but also because his rigid expectations were too demanding. For him, learning the rules of social behavior help him make the social connections that he wants.
    Both perspectives are useful. Though an n of two isn’t great, having two instead of one exemplars forces us to recognize that there is diversity of perspective (and not fall into the trap of thinking that every other person on the spectrum is like Temple Grandin).
    The book treats the rules like rules — it doesn’t try to explain all the reasons why people follow them. I find that interesting as well, a little bit like a prosapagnosic learning to recognize faces as a sum of their parts, while lacking the holistic ability most humans have.

  25. we held many of your same beliefs. that is why we wrote, starting with their strengths:using the project approach in early childhood special education. hope you will read it and pass along to your children’s teachers and administrators!
    yours, denise

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