by Penny Ray
What happened between the student and his teacher? The meaning between them broke down. The meaning did not work well. And one of the two people involved had no clue that a breakdown occurred.
Interestingly our own Michigan Department of Education would interpret that as an inability to communicate. Allow me to spotlight a couple of quotes:
The essence of the English language arts is communication—exchanging and exploring information and insights. We are meaning-makers who strive to make sense of our world. We use the English language arts in every area of our lives, not just the classroom. They help us deal with other people in the world around us. Listening, speaking, viewing, reading, and writing are naturally integrated in our attempts to communicate. We continually improve our understanding by using our past experiences, the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and what we are hearing, reading, or viewing. Only when we understand or when we are understood are we communicating—only then are we using the English language arts.
Standard 7. Skills and Processes
All students will demonstrate, analyze, and reflect upon the skills and processes used to communicate through listening, speaking, viewing, reading, and writing. Effective communication depends upon our ability to recognize, when attempts to construct and convey meaning, work well and when they have broken down. We must monitor, reflect, and adjust our communication processes for clarity, correctness, purpose, and audience. We need to learn multiple strategies for constructing and conveying meaning in written, spoken, and visual texts. Our literacy development depends upon on-going, personal, self-regulated assessment.
In recent years, several educators who work with students with autism have admitted to me that we are not giving graduates the skills they need to be successful after high school. They've admitted that the missing piece, the piece that school is doing poorly, is the "people" piece and that we (parents and educators) need to work the relationship piece into the school day in a practical way. Social skills groups are not the answer, I hear over and over.
According to RDI(r)'s Dr Gutstein, 70% of our communication is NON-VERBAL.
When professionals refer to people on the autism spectrum, we often say that their developmental delay in perspective taking (which is non-verbal) is a lack of "theory of mind". Psychologists often use a test that is referred to as the "Sally – Anne" test to determine if children have developed "theory of mind". In a nutshell, children are introduced to a "play", using two dolls, Sally and Anne, where Sally puts a marble in a basket while Anne is watching. Anne goes for a walk and Sally moves the marble to a new location. When Anne returns, the children are asked where Anne thinks the marble is. Children on the autism spectrum most often identify the new location of the marble, indicating to evaluators that they are unable to perspective-take from Anne's point of view.
In order to remediate deficits in the relationship piece or "theory of mind" (also known as dynamic information processing), we must approach the deficits in developmental order, and in order to do that, parents and educators must KNOW and UNDERSTAND that developmental "ladder".
Let's think about the boy with the dirty chin. The dirty chin is an object, or referent, that is not in the boy's mind. The dirty chin is in the teacher's mind. The dirty chin is in only one of the two minds.
Hold that thought. I'll bring you back to it in a few moments.
An early step in the developmental "ladder" of "meaning making" between people is focusing solely on one another, where the shared attention is on what we are making together (think: peek-a-boo).
As a student becomes experienced in sharing attention between you and me, adults begin to increase the complexity by including in an object that is present. I'll use the example of a picture book. We can both focus our attention on that object, the book, and shift attention back to one another again, observing one another's reactions to that very visible object. The acknowledgement and enjoyment of one another's reactions is more important than the content of the book at this point.
An even more complex type of attention sharing begins to grow from that "rung" on the developmental "ladder", and that is one where the object (or referent) is that is not present, not visible, but is one we both share. Let's use as an example the memory we shared of reading that silly picture book together. Days, even weeks later, we can laugh together at the memory of the fun we had, because we both hold that shared memory in our minds.
Let's take another step up that developmental "ladder", and get to the dirty chin. An object that is in only one of the two minds, (a dirty chin) is a more complex step of attention sharing, and requires a more experienced communicator to recognize when meaning is working well and when meaning is breaking down. In autism, we tend to skip the developmental foundations of meaning making as it is defined by the Michigan Department of Education and go straight to compensations, like teaching gross motor imitation without meaning and context and by teaching and reinforcing absolute rules. I believe that these compensations that work around deficits instead-of-remediation-of-deficits are what educators are referring to when they tell me "off the record" that we are missing components in educating students with asd.
The developmental foundations of what the Michigan Department of Education describes as "skills and processes", teaching students about PEOPLE, need to be understood by parents and educators, so that we can give our children and students experience and practice with "how people are" (others and self) in the correct developmental order. Foundations of attention sharing, perspective taking, gaze shifting, referencing for meaning all need to be targeted so that both parent and educator can see milestones like a child being able to check with the adult for the cue that he's gotten all the filth from his face.
We parents are often encouraged to look far ahead at what we want for our children with ASD, and then to work backwards to figure out what today's goals should be. Okay, let's look forward: The same functions of non-verbal communication are foundations to the skills needed to hang out at the mall with friends or to drive a car on our dynamic roads and highways. Two of the purposes of special education law include independent living and employment. Driving a car is important in independence (especially in a city like Detroit known for needing improvement in public transportation) and practice and experience in collaboration and socializing at the mall are foundations for collaborating on the job after high school.
Recognizing the importance of relationships, writing goals on the IEP that involve non-verbal communication is a step in the right direction, but both concepts fall short if educators can't evaluate a child for where he/she IS, and when they don't know where they want to go, and they don't know how to get there from here. If you're going to write a goal into an IEP, show me the developmental reasoning behind it, show me that you can target it for my child, show me evidence that it is emerging, and then move up the "ladder" to the next objective, and do it all again. I am still perplexed as to why an educator would acknowledge and even promote the development of IEP goals focused on non-verbal communication, and then work on aspects of non-verbal communication outside of developmental sequence?
There are academic and educational consequences to consider, as well, when our educational system ignores the relationship piece.
Here's one example of many: A student must be able to first recognize when meaning breaks down between people before he/she can recognize a break down as they read text. Part of guided reading involves making sure the student can self correct when a student mispronounces a word. That means the student recognizes when reading text that meaning is works well or that meaning breaks down.
One area the we (general ed staff and myself) failed to recognize the importance of this factor for my child was in the choice of leveled readers. Guided Reading books are categorized by level, not only by difficulty of text, but by difficulty of shared attention. No matter how simple the text, some fiction uses concepts on higher "rungs" of the developmental "ladder" than the student with autism is capable of comprehending. We make mistakes when we offer fiction to students with asd that falls within their capacity to decode text, but it falls outside their "theory of mind", experience and comprehension. The student experiences "meaning breaking down" from the get-go, never has a chance to have "meaning work well" if he/she is given a book that is outside of his or her "zone of proximal development".
Decoding text is a small part of what makes a reader. As a compensation for my daughter's inability to comprehend text in fiction, the school concentrated on the static facts of non-fiction, which did nothing to boost her understanding of people. Instead, it gave her more facts to regurgitate in inappropriate ways.
The idea isn't to get schools to change their entire programs. The idea is to get educators to change how they use themselves within what already exists. The shift is in focus and attitude, not in the daily schedule or activities. It's about where the child IS, developmentally, and how to use the opportunity of his dirty chin to give him an opportunity to experience a "just right" moment "between people", an opportunity that leads to his making discoveries about himself and about others.
Understanding the developmental progression in relationships (dynamic information processing) via "guided participation" is extremely important, and I have not yet met a school employee who has expertise in this area in terms of autism remediation. Schools need to do more than acknowledge the missing relationship piece, more than throw some non-verbal communication goals on an IEP. They must become active participants in the process. Once we know where to begin on the developmental "ladder", both parents and teachers must learn to successfully target, spotlight, and amplify each objective in developmental sequence, while de-emphasizing everything else in that moment for that student. Educators need to become flexible so that they are able to adapt frameworks (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly) as the students' objectives progress up the "rungs" of the developmental "ladder".
If educators do not understand development of how relationships grow, and are working without the direction of a professional who does understand development at this level, they are "working without a net". And, even with hearts of gold and the best of intentions, when educators are unable to recognize that they are working on the wrong "rung" on the developmental "ladder", they are not unlike the child who cannot recognize by the teacher's actions that he has something on his chin.