Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Concepts, Skills, Functions, Development

Some friends and I have been discussing development and remediation of the core deficits of autism. Specifically, we've been discussing referencing, among other skills and functions.

A lot of folks who work with individuals on the autism spectrum emphasize eye contact for the sake of a behavior we label eye contact.

We shifted gears a few years ago when we began to learn that most of us don't simply make eye contact as a behavior observable from the outside. Nope. Instead, we reference. And we reference abstractions in situations where eye contact will not be meaningful, because the referencing involves mental engagement that exists beyond mere eye contact.

A non-RDI(r) resource has been helpful to me: Ruth Beechick's book continues to help me think about how skills and functions develop. I have been pondering on her words about how concepts of math develop in her book, "The Three R's", thoughts I happened to find on a web site about preschool math (so I'll provide the link for you in case you're interested).
Children develop through three modes of thinking about numbers:

manipulative mode – working with real objects e.g. beans, cups, spoons

mental image mode – using mental images or pictures of real objects

abstract mode – using number concepts without thinking of images of objects

I am not limiting these concepts to math, but am thinking about them as they apply to all development, both social and emotional as well as academic. I don't believe those stages are limited to concepts of math. I believe they apply to concepts throughout development. I see parallels in stages of intersubjectivity. Every new concept or skill develops in a similar fashion.

Including referencing.

As adults, we reference abstractions all the time. Meanings. Connotations. We can interpret all kinds of information from one glance or facial expression, one sigh or smile in context with other information that we reference simultaneously. That kind of abstract referencing begins in infancy in the concrete.

Referencing's roots are in emotion sharing, between-baby-and-mom-back-and-forth moments.

Like concepts of math, referencing also begins in what could be described as a manipulative mode, with REAL objects, a teddy bear, a rattle, a noise or sound, some sort of concrete, tangible referent as a prototype, giving the baby experience with mom's reaction to this new object, experience that lays a foundation toward moving into mental image mode and later abstract mode.

There's more to referencing than just the visual check, the "eye contact". There's a mental engagement piece happening, too. And that's important to note, so that we don't stop at eye contact.

Just because a child references you visually (manipulative mode) doesn't mean he/she is capable of referencing with mental image mode or abstract mode. Just what is in mom or dad's mind? Remember Dr Gutstein definition of communication? (I wrote about it here) "…as the desire to determine the relationship between what is in your mind and what is in my mind…". That's abstract mode.

Back to that web site (above) that describes Beechick's way of teaching math:

"All children develop these modes of thinking in this same order. They can switch back to an earlier mode but cannot jump ahead until they have grasped the previous mode."

"Since young children are only able to use the manipulative mode, preschool math activities must use concrete objects to teach numeracy awareness."

"…the secret is to begin the child's arithmetic at a young age by using real objects. Then spend a year or two having the child do a lot of arithmetic in her head …finally begin working with abstract symbols."3 (Ruth Beechick, The Three R's)

Some professionals and families choose to bypass the child development ladder in autism and instead work on rote memorization with discreet trial for everything from eye contact, interaction and turn taking to "social skills" to academics. It's popular. But does it do what it sets out to do? For us, it did not.

Developmental approaches lean heavily on beginning in the concrete, remembering that children can move back to an earlier mode, but not forward until they have grasped the previous mode. Developmental approaches have parents and involved adults slowing their pace to allow the children to be active participants, offering the child opportunities for development to play out, watching for milestones to emerge and discoveries to be made.

Sometimes I forget to begin in the concrete, manipulative mode. I assume that I am understood, when I am not, because I'm too abstract. I'm a work in progress. Still learning. I'm glad there are folks along the way to teach me and to guide me.


walking said...

Great post!!!! I love how you tie Ruth Beechick (who based many of her ideas on Charlotte Mason) and RDI together! I see the same parallels . . .

Penny said...

Tammy, I am counting on your writing about the discussion for your blog from a CM approach--I want to link this post to yours when you do!

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