Chapter 1: Applying the Research on Instruction: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
I've been writing this week about autism and pseudo-science because I want to introduce you to what real applied research looks like. You will see no better example of it in the educational field than Classroom Instruction that Works, by Robert J. Marzano, Debra J, Pickering, Jane E. Pollock. The authors surveyed educational research, and identified nine practices which are most likely to result in student learning.
This sounds unremarkable, and it is only because education is so dominated by pseudo-science in the service of ideology that this book is as revelatory as it is. If you are a teacher, and you do these nine things, your students are much more likely to learn.
Since Classroom Instruction that Works is about educating all students and has no material specific to the needs of students with Asperger's syndrome or autism, it might seem like an odd choice for a series about learning with Aspergers. But most of these things have to do with making the process of learning more explicit for students, helping them understand and manage the process of learning. Those are the things that kids on the autism spectrum need help with most.
It's also important to remember that great education for students with autism has to be individualized. It is useful to learn tips for helping young aspies succeed, and I have plenty of those to offer. But the needs of kids on the spectrum are so different that a teacher who really wants to reach all of her autistic students will work first on simply being the best teacher she can be. The more and better the tools you have, and the more skillful you are with them, the better equipped you will be to show the flexibility you need to teach kids with autism.
This series is for regular education teachers who have kids with Aspergers or Autism Spectrum Disorder in their classroom. It is not for special education teachers or for people working with students who have Kanners' autism, simply because I do not have the experience or expertise to trust that anything I have to say will be useful to you.
I know how to help a kid with Aspergers succeed in a regular classroom. That's what this series is about.
And I decided to direct it to parents, older students, and adults as well, because learning is difficult for most people with autism. I'm going to explain to parents how to use these techniques to support your kids in school, and to students how support themselves. With adults, I'm going to use these techniques to lead a process of learning about you autistic self.
Chapter 2: Identifying Similarities and Differences
The most effective thing that teachers can do to help students learn is identify similarities and differences. This technique gives students an average percentile gain of 45 (page 7). And it's especially crucial to students with autism.
Remember that we learn by making physical connections in our brains, and that autism is a tendency to make these connections in unusual ways. The only way to learn something is to attach it to a piece of previous knowledge-- physically, that's what learning is. Telling the brain how new learning is similar to or different from old learning reinforces those connections.
When you give a student with autism specific guidance in how something new is both similar to and different from something already familiar, you help the brain make desirable connections and avoid undesirable connections.
Assignment One: Using Similarities and Differences to Think about Aspergers
Get the content of an inservice on teaching a kid with AS for free over YouTube
I'd like you to watch the video above, and do a little writing about it, from your perspective. The video is a great approximation of what you'd get from a decent inservice presentation about teaching kids with Asperger's syndrome.
If you are a teacher: Before watching the video, take a moment and imagine what skill and qualities a student needs to have to be successful in your class. Think about the parts of your class that students typically enjoy and the parts they typically find challenging. As you watch the video, pause to note ways in which students with Aspergers are similar to and different from the successful students you thought about before watching the video. and how they are likely to be similar and different in how they react to the class.
After watching the video, write three paragraphs. In one, explain how students with Aspergers are similar to students who succeed in your class, and how they are likely to be similar to other students in their experience of your class. In another, explain how students with Aspergers are likely to be different from students who succeed in you class and how they may also be different in terms of what they enjoy and what they have difficulty with. In the final paragraph, what about what these similarities and differences suggest to you about how difficult your class might be for someone with Asperger's syndrome, and what you might do to make it more likely for an aspie to succeed in your class.
If you are a parent: Imagine that you are going to send a link to this video to introduce your child to next year's teachers, something I recommend doing. Watch the video. As you watch, take notes on how your child is similar to and different from the typical students with Aspergers described in the video.
After watching, compose a letter, using similarities and differences to introduce your child. Four paragraphs. In the first, briefly introduce yourself and your child's diagnosis and ask that the teacher consider taking the time to watch the video. In the second, explain how your child is similar to what they see in the video. In the third, explain how he or she is different. In the fourth, add any additional things you want the teacher to know and the most complete and clearest contact information you can.
If you are a student: Watch this video. As you watch, consider how you are the same as and different from the sort of student described in this video. Write one paragraph about the parts of the video that describe you well. Write another about the parts that are different from you.
If you are an adult: Watch this video, thinking about your current work situation. Write two paragraphs, one in which you explain how your challenges are similar to the ones the video says kids with Aspergers have in school. Write another paragraph about how they are different.
I encourage you to actually do this writing, and to consider posting some of it, either in the comments here or on the Facebook page. If you would like to do this lesson, or any of the other lessons, individually with me, contact me. I am available for coaching, consulting and tutoring online.
I guess I have to make this clearer: I am not opposed to Applied Behavior Analysis. A lot of very good education is done using its methods. What I object to is the denial of the inner reality of the autistic person. Richard Bromfield wrote so moving on this topic recently that he forces me to break my rule and link to the Huffington Post (still not a credible source for autism information or opinion):
Any understanding of this disorder that suggests the child with autism has an internal emotional world has been neglected. For example, this past summer I discovered that since its founding in 1979, the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, a premier journal "devoted to all aspects of autism spectrum disorders [...including] clinical care ... and treatment for all individuals," had published 2,262 articles, not one of them focusing on psychotherapy or counseling with a child with Asperger's.
The bias is undeniable, even if understandable and defensible. Early research announced loud and clear that autistic children lack a theory of the mind, a capacity for symbolic thought, rich and varied affect and so on. That fundamental knowledge was aimed at extinguishing the belief that any child with autism, however high-functioning or mild the form, might benefit from play and talk therapy. The notion that a clinician could sufficiently modify the techniques of traditional play and relationship-based therapy to befit the child's special needs and deficits never occurred as a possibility. The conventional thinking in autism judged any kind of therapy that addressed the child's feelings and inner experience to be psychoanalytic, misguided and, some went so far as to say, negligent.
I've been watching a lot of B.F. Skinner videos on YouTube lately (beats reruns), and the extent to which the real founder of educational behaviorism was willing to deny that people are more complex than starving pidgeons is pretty shocking:
B.F. Skinner considered free will an imaginary internal force.
Behaviorists only attempt to deal with things that are easy to measure in experiments-- they tend not to believe that other things actually exist. This means that they have an automatic advantage in experiments that gage the efectiveness of interventions-- the intervention designed only to deal with things that can be seen in a experiment will tend to outperform interventions that take a more holistic approach.
But that has more to do with the tools used for measurement than anything else.
There is a very real problem with behaviorist interventions: they get less effective the longer they are applied. They work extremely well in the short-term, but effects tend to wear off. I think it's important to see behaviorism and psychiatric medication in much the same way: they create a window in which actual education or therapy can begin, but they don't replace intrinsically motivated learning or talk therapy.
In the worlds Skinner imagined, a world Beyond Freedom and Dignity, there would be nothing wrong with trying to change the identity of a little gay boy to make him straight, as Ivar Lovaas, Great God of ABA, did, because there really is no inner reality. Only behavior matters-- everything else is imaginary.
In the autism world, experts and educators tend to ignore the experience of autistic people. I think this comes at least in part from the extent to which behaviorists have been allowed to define autism. You have been trained to ignore how we feel and what we think.
People with autism need to learn to live in two worlds.
Amphibious animals live part of their lives in the water and part on dry land. Most of them switch--- living in the water, for as example, as tadpoles and on land as frogs. But some actually go back and forth, living on land some of the time and in water part of the time.
That's what we need to be like as people with autism. We need to learn to live part of the time in our own internal worlds and part of the time in the external world of other people.
Most people who try to educate people on the autism spectrum focus only on the external skills that we need to master:
The "dry land" aspects of an autism education program.
People with autism need help learning how to function in the "dry land" of the world created by and for neurotypical people. We need to learn how to simply survive in situations like work and school, which can often be hostile and confusing. We need to learn how to communicate effectively with people around us. And we need to learn to form satisfying relationships. None of those things come easily to most people with autism. We need additional education in those areas as we grow up, and we continue to need it as adults.
But we also need help learning about our internal worlds:
The "water" parts of an autism education program.
Because autism education is driven by behaviorists, there is a tendency to deny that autistic people have an inner reality which is distinct from that of NT people, and, in great likelihood, substantially different from other people with autism. Because our inner lives are unsual, and because emotions tend to be confusing for us, we also need education to help us understand ourselves. We need guidance and support as we explore the special interests that will bring us joy and be the foundations of our careers. We need help understanding our own emotions before we will ever successfuly understand those of other people. And we must be taught explicitly our own value. We must be taught that, although we must adapt our behavior to survive in a neurotypical world, there is nothing wrong or bad about our truest, strangest, most autistic selves.
I'm going to be teaching directly many of the things I know about autism education this summer. I'll be addressing myself to four distinct groups of people:
--teachers who want to learn how to be more effective with all their students, especially those on the autism spectrum
-- parents who want to learn how to help their children with autism succeed in school
-- students in high school and college who have autism and want to be better learners
-- adults with autism who recognize that we need to keep learning throughout our lives, and want to get better at it.
I'm going to be basing my instruction on Classroom Instruction That Works, the most useful book about education that I'm aware of. Even though it's technical and directed toward teachers, it will be useful to people in all of the four groups above.
What the authors of this book did was survey all the available educational research and identify nine techniques which are most effective for helping people learn. If you are a teacher, this book will transfrom what you do. If you are a parent or student, learning these techniques will tell you what to do when what a teacher is doing doesn't work for you.
I want to give you a few days to order the book, so I won't be writing about it directly until the end of next week. Until then, I'll be discussing some basics about autism. Especially if you know teachers who might be interested, I'd appreciate you letting them know.
A thAutcaster on Facebook asked an excellent question recently. A couple of days ago, I posted some tips for helping students with Aspergers end the school year successfully. My friend asked for advice that would help her, as a college student, because my other piece was geared to parents and teachers of younger students.
I think it's very impressive that she is self-aware enough to articulate the problem. Many college-age people with Aspergers are not yet able to recognize their own their own emotional patterns, let alone recognize that it's a good idea to get help dealing with them.
Here are my ideas for her, and for other college students. Many of these tips will also apply, of course, to high school students and adults who are in transition.
1) Be realistic regarding your own abilities. People with autism tend to be perfectionists, and we often become extremely frustrated, even to the point of being unable to move forward with our work. If you get stuck, get help. Go to your professor during office hours, show the work you've done, and ask for guidance going forward.
2) Remember that all forms of autism cause developmental delays. You will run into things in college that people expect you to be able to do, and that you will one day be able to do, that you can't do yet. This often happened for me when writing research papers and when working in groups. The papers required a level of organized abstract thinking that is still very difficult for me. The group work required social skills I developed in graduate school. If you can recognize these areas as they come up, you can get help figuring out what to do about them. Don't go it alone when you find a problem you can't solve, and don't let it hurt your self-confidence. Do your best to define the problem, them figure out who might be able to help you with it. If all else fails, contact me.
3) Make an effort to stay connected with friends. Decide who you would like to keep in touch with over the summer and talk to them. It's okay to explain to people that you have Aspergers and that it's difficult for you to make connections and read social cues. Explain that you would like to do something that sounds reasonable (get together once, talk on the phone a couple of times, email each other when you get your projects back-- something similar to what you have already done), and ask them to make the first contact if they are interested. Be clear that it's okay if they don't call you-- you don't want people to have a guilt trip. Be charming and funny, but explain that figuring out relationship cues is hard for you, and you are interested in a little bit of contact in the future.
4) Find a way to say goodbye to professors who matter to you. I think an ideal way to do this is an email sent after you get your final grade, just saying thank you for some specific element of the course you enjoyed and asking a single question. For example, if there is a book related to something you learned about in the course that they would recommend you read. Or, if they have recommended you improve in some specific way, ask about a course of action. Try to make clear that you do not expect a reply-- just if they have time and an answer would be easy to write. Some people will write back. Don't let your feelings be hurt by the people who won't.
5) Figure out how you are going to work with your special interests. One thing that can cause withdrawal pains when you finish a term in college is losing the experience of being immersed in topics that fascinate you. You can find a way to make your summer just as engaging, but it may be require effort, creativity, and, worst of all, flexibility. It's sometimes wonderful to focus on special interests other than your major field of study when you are away from school so that you can apply the skills for learning you have just gained to other other areas. On the other hand, sometimes the break between terms is just enough time to learn a topic related to your field in depth or do a special project.
6) If you are working over the summer, use that experience to focus on your workplace skills. Everything you learn now will help you in work situations later. All of the stupid stuff that drives you crazy that's completely unrelated to how well you do your job and that you shouldn't even have to deal with? It never goes away. Do your best to learn how to deal with co-workers and rules.
7) If you aren't working or going to school, try to set up some some of internship. Give your valuable skills away for free, so that more people will see their value. People with autism need to be able to sell themselves based on what they can do. You need chances to demonstrate what you are learning, and you need people from the world of work who will vouch for you. Talk to your family and close family friends about this-- explain that it's both very important and something that you will need a lot of help and support to find.
8) Set up a routine that works for you, and follow it. Not a routine that the ideal you would love but that the real you will only feel guilty for ignoring. Basics like how you are going to make sure you eat right and how you are going to get some exercise every day. Set a realistic fitness goal. Make sure you get an adequate amount of sleep. This is an an opportunity to get the machine that is your body into slightly better working order. Take advantage of it. No crash diets or steroids, though.
As the school year draws to a close, it's helpful to remember that transitions are often difficult for students with Asperger's syndrome and other types of autism. Here are a few things you can do to reduce stress.
1) Let them see what their classrooms and teachers next year might look like. Some people with autism have a very hard time imagining what a new environment will be like, and this in itself can be a subject of stress. Rather than telling an Aspie who his teacher next year will be, even if you know, situations change so often that it's better to let him meet most of the teachers he might have and see as many of their classrooms as possible.
2) Make deliberate decisions about what activities the student should or should not participate in. Things like class parties, special assemblies, and field trips are often too overwhelming for kids on the spectrum to enjoy. It's important to find out how an individual child feels about participating in these activities, and to support her so that she can enjoy them. Many problems can be avoided by having a parent or an instructional aide present as chaperone. It's often a good strategy for a student with Aspergers to go to a school party or on a field trip for part of time, and then be given time in a quiet place she can recover from overstimulation.
3) Support the student with organization and clean up. If your student has a locker, do not expect him to be able to clean or organize it without support. If your school does mass locker checks, see if it is possible for your student to do his earlier to avoid the minimal supervision and sensory overload. Talk to your student about what to do with his possessions at the end of the school year, and how you expect him to treat things like gym clothes that need to come home. Also, making clear that you are available to help with getting things done or figuring out what to do can help a lot-- kids get into all kinds of pointless messes because they are given tasks they don't know how to do and don't realize that they are allowed to ask for help.
4) Talk about feelings. Students with Aspergers will often have trouble identifying how they feel about something as complex as the school year coming to an end. This is can lead to acting out, especially if they have conflicting feelings. Encouraging them to talk about how they feel and giving them space to acknowledge that they may have emotions other than excitement and joy is a great start. A good strategy to help many kids with autism access their emotions is to bring up a character in a book or movie they like, and talk about the character's emotions in a similar situation. For example, talk about the mixed feelings Harry Potter has when leaving Hogwart's at the end of the year, then introduce the topic of how your kid feels. It's not as important that they make sense to you as it is they practice deliberately identifying and processing emotions.
5) Start to establish summer routines. Do not let an Aspie child run wild all summer-- help to establish routines and structured activities that will let her feel safe and develop skills. Start to practice those routines on weekend days leading up to summer vacation: get up at the same time, eat similar foods, do similar activities, get a a similar mix of freedom and supervision.