Thursday, May 31, 2007

From the annals of unhelpful advice

This past Monday, I spent my day off from work trying to help my son salvage a project for his science class. I explained the course of events that led to this emergency data collection here and elsewhere. The basics--Son in Ohio is almost 14, has a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, and is taking 8th grade science and math as a 7th grader. Demetrius was told on Friday that Son's grade was in jeopardy because he didn't have the data collected for a major project that was due this week. I put out an appeal for help, and the response was amazing. Son ended up with about 50 subjects for the study he was doing, when he was only trying for 32. Since I asked for help publicly, it seemed right to offer a public update of how the project went.

I wish I had a happy ending to report, but at the moment there isn't one. At least not for this project, but we continue to press forward in our efforts toward positive academic outcomes for our gifted, special needs son. We don't expect the job to be easy, or to have any magical "happily ever afters", but after all these years, it's kind of disappointing that we still need to butt heads like this with people who are supposed to be helping.

From a very unhappy e-mail I received from Demetrius when I was at work on Tuesday:

Apparently, after (teacher) told us on Friday that (son) might be failing science and math, we were supposed to spend our weekend consoling him to that fact instead of trying to help him. She keeps going on that (son) needs to take responsibility for his procrastinating.
Son's grade may still be salvagable, but the bigger issue is that his teacher is still saying stuff like this. "He has to take responsibility", he "has to learn" to do X, Y, or Z. Thank you for that headline from the esteemed research journal, Duh. Yes, of course he has to learn those things. When is someone going to start teaching him those things? Or even talking seriously with us about putting together a plan for how we are going to work together to teach him those skills?

I mean, what kind of social Darwinian attitude is it to say of an individual with any deficit, whether it be physical, cognitive, or emotional, "you're just going to have to learn"? How about tossing a non-swimmer into the deep water, and then "helpfully" shouting "You'd better start swimming or you'll drown!"

Shocking as it may seem, I really expect better than that from the people who are charged with providing my son with that Free Appropriate Public Education to which he is legally entitled. I'm even so bold as to expect that his teachers remember that Asperger's Syndrome is, by definition, a pervasive developmental disability--meaning that it affects many areas of his life. It's not just a social deficit. Yes, my son is classified as gifted, but that pervasive disability of his still has a cognitive component. He has trouble with something called "executive function", a set of skills involving

1. Working memory and recall (holding facts in mind while manipulating information; accessing facts stored in long-term memory.)

2. Activation, arousal, and effort (getting started; paying attention; finishing work)

3. Controlling emotions (ability to tolerate frustration; thinking before acting or speaking)

4. Internalizing language (using "self-talk" to control one's behavior and direct future actions)

5. Taking an issue apart, analyzing the pieces, reconstituting and organizing it into new ideas (complex problem solving).
And since that is a deficit our son has, it's something he needs help with. More effective help than urging him to "get organized" or "stop procrastinating". As far as helpfulness goes, those suggestions are right up there with "You'd better start swimming or you'll drown!"


AskALesbian said...

Wow! Thank you for this post. How informative. I have a little niece who has voluntary mutism.

Thank you.


TribeScribe said...

Hope this helps:

The difference between whole task absorption and tasks that inherently require chunking is akin to differences in the gifted mind
of a) being a sponge or b) being asked to fashion one from a rectangular piece of foam, hole by hole.

What the gifted mind often balks at, given its customary ability to absorb information, amoeba-like, or even through "osmosis", is the sheer imperfection of anything incomplete and, accordingly, asymmetrical. This is true in the human mind, generally, as in reluctance to accept other views that will cause any kind of cognitive dissonance. But in terms of the gifted mind, for which chunking is a rare occurrence, it seems to be doubly so.

A few strategies involve employing 1) paradoxes and 2) exceptions, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

By indicators of Son in Ohio's study of the MBTI, he is already attempting to categorize patterns of behavior, which usually come to someone with AS (I refuse to call it a disorder) in "whole" impressions. He probably doesn't qualify the impressions as much other than certain "vibe", which often defies description, yet is highly intuitive and distinctive to persons, places, and events. "Normals" do not have as intense a sensory experience. Whereas "normals" have plenty of words along the way to describe and learn people in parts, AS people get the subtle-energy impression first and then are challenged to break it into its parts.

So, to use paradox and exceptions to help operate around the natural information processing tendencies that surface as procrastination and perfectionism, the key is to (gently) point out and gradually become more acclimated to the exceptions that already exist.

Example 1: Eating a Pie
Cut a whole pie into 8 pieces.
Remove 1 piece and observe together. Remove another piece (for D) and another piece (for you). Consciously share that 'digesting' the pie slice also happens in pieces (i.e., further broken down in order to be absorbed). Make it his favorite pie. Help him to recognize that this is something he already does, it is a natural process, and that part of the pie-human body perfection is that the pie comes apart, is broken down, and it becomes a part of us.

Example 2: Paradoxes
Ask Son in Ohio, looking at the pie, how pleasant is it to look at on a scale of 1-10. This may bring up some interesting feelings on his part. It may be unappealing in its state of incompletion. However, paradoxically, AS info processing often reveals that life is asymmetrical (try though we might to keep the circle completely round). As an aesthetic, he may be attracted to asymmetry, as long as it is somehow "whole" in his mind. Herein is the paradox. Progressing through an scientific experiment or math problem may be asymmetrical in its incompletion, yet "whole" in terms of completing the step itself. Grasping that concept intellectually is 50% of the battle in being able to "emotionally" occupy the same space (stay with it) until taking the next step.

Overall, it is helpful to look for other similar, naturally occurring and experientially-based examples and to gently point them out. Make a game of it (or not). Ask him to come up with examples, too.

One final note, be careful wrt how emotionally worked up you or his teacher gets about his ability to interface in the traditional school milieu, especially in his presence. He picks up, records, and then has to slowly find a way to process and transform all that energy. Affirm his subtle-energy abilities, tell him most people spend their lives trying to develop them, and science is just now looking there as a new frontier to explore. Akin to our new awareness about how elephants communicate. (They can't tell us, but we now have the technology to understand and register ULF). He's ahead of the curve in some ways, and behind in others. Such is the nature of the wheel of where each of us stands (if we were to ever go back to conceptualizing our relationships in such a way).
In the meantime, you are on target in educating the educators about their methods of assessing your son's learning (validity or lack thereof). Keep at it. and feel free to get in touch.

P.S. wrt "osmosis," note that this operates on a gradient. The mind requires the belief that allowing the info "in" will somehow create a (desired) equilibrium with the surrounding environment. As AS often operates with the paradoxic assumption of "whole mind" (no differences from thou) yet "independent mind" (I is separate and even threatened by thou), the gateways (areas of interest) become that much more important. It is a rather simplistic 'operating system', yet awesomely complex in terms of understanding subtleties.
At times a mirror, or at times a microcosm, of each and all of us.