Education in Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Education in Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

According to Wikipedia and dictionaries, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is stated as a delayed progress or a deficit in certain fields like social interactions, communications, and activities.  (In this article, the word ‘communication’ will be used for social interactions and activities as stated in Wikipedia.)  Families with ASD children receive great support from many federal and local programs.  With the support, some ASD kids grow up and become recognized as successful people in our society.  We find musicians, painters, scientists, and more.  Because of the potentials to become harmonized in our society, government and social-support groups cannot give up on any of these children.  This would be one of the major reasons that there are many different and invaluable programs dealing with ASD.  However, we have to stop and ponder how some of these kids managed to break out from their isolated world and what made this possible?  We may say it is because of all the programs that have been implemented on these kids. Ideally, if we consider that these programs successfully guide ASD children to break out from their isolated world, we should be able to see a higher success rate.  However, we only find a few cases.  This implies that these programs are helping ASD kids, but there are still more options to explore to improve the programs.  The question is then, whether we can find a way to make most of these kids break out from their isolated world?  To explore any possibilities of finding a new way, we have to explore how some of the children were able to breakout from their isolated world.  To do this, we may have to start exploring autism itself by asking following question – what is autism?

What is autism?

As mentioned above, autism is considered to be a disorder that shows either developmental delay or different mental state in certain areas.  The word ‘delay in development’ implies that when compare to average children, autistic children are below the curve in certain areas.  With this explanation, autism is now a kind of disease that has to be cured or treated.  Many ASD programs have been developed to have these children to catch up to the average children or at least fit in society without major problems.  However, if we explore another possibility rather than treating ASD as something to cure or treat, we may be able to find very different approaches for these children.  For example, if we consider the ASD children as children with a different learning style rather than disorder, we might be able to find a way for these children to break out from their own world.  With the assumption of differences in learning style, we can ask the following questions, “how do autistic children learn, and how can we develop a program that fits ASD kids?”  To understand the differences in learning styles, we will need to define how average people learn first.  The learning process for average people is via verbal communication.  Teachers talk to their students to teach.  Majority of people teach their children by means of verbal communication.  However, Dr. Temple Grandin states most of ASD kids are not verbal enough to learn from verbal communication (ref 1).  Many of them are thought to be visual learners (visual communicators).  This also means that ASD children wouldn’t be able to learn effectively by verbal communication.  Thus, it would be important to explore the differences in learning patterns and teaching strategies for these children.  To begin the discussion, here is the very important question, “Why is verbal communication important for humans?”

Language – A tool provided for humans to think             

As described in ‘Key to the joyful life’ published in Natural philosophy session from Pondered Education, humans are meant to be thinking naturally.  Nature provides each species to have fun while they learn their survival skills.  For example, lion cubs are learning hunting skills while playing.  For humans, it is thinking that is provided by nature as a survival tool.  This means that thinking is the most joyful activity for humans.  For example, some people enjoy playing electronic games because the electronic games stimulate the players’ thinking process.  In other words, people do not like mindless work that does not involve much thinking.  At this point one may wonder what does this have to do with verbal communication.  In fact, verbal communication and thinking cannot be separated in our lives because verbal communication stimulates our thinking processes.  As we look back to our childhood, we remember that there were times when we asked many questions.  We can also find children around us who question relentlessly.  Asking questions are natural process for average children and they stimulate their brain to think about these questions.  This means that verbal communication is a tool for human to develop thinking processes.  Then, we ask the next questions, “What does verbal communication have to do with children’s development in communication?” and “Why do autistic children show delayed development in the area of verbal communication?”

Relationship between verbal communication and development in communication skills

It is clear that verbal communication is very important for children in their early life.  Children acquire their needs from the people that are around them mainly by verbal communication.  This indicates that without verbal communication skills, their development in the communication area would look appear impaired when compared to average children.   For example, when a child is not able to express his/her needs verbally, the parents wouldn’t be able to understand what they need.  As these children are failing in achieving what they need, they are being isolated from the surroundings thus, being delayed in development gradually.  From the parents or people’s viewpoint, these children are below average since they cannot express what they need.  This is simply because we don’t know how to communicate without words.  In other words, we look at ASD kids delayed because we don’t know how to communicate with non-verbal children.  When people think ASD children abnormal, people look for treatment or cure and this is why we find many ASD programs that are focused on ‘helping ASD kids to fit into society’ or ‘catch up average children’.  Then the next question would be, “Would there be any other ways to communicate with these children so that they can make connections with the rest of the world?”

Ways that connect the ASD kids with the world

As Dr. Grandin mentioned in her talk (ref 1), there are different ways of thinking.  Because majority of people are verbal communicators, we find most education methods are biased towards verbal communication.  This is simply because verbal communicators do not know how to communicate without words.  Therefore, one approach to teach ASD people would be to develop communication methods other than verbal.  However, this is easier said than done since the number of ASD people who manage to break free from their isolated world is limited.  Then the next question would be, “What other ways are there?”  To explore other possibilities, we need to take a look at the case involving Carly Fleischmann (ref 2).  She is an ASD child who was able to break out of her own world and has started to communicate with others.  The communication method she is using is typing on a computer.  In the television interview, she explained that ‘not able to talk’ does not mean ‘not able to communicate or learn something’.  This means that ASD children are as smart as average kids.  As she explained, people think she is a dumb simply because she is not able to talk.  Carly’s case identifies two very important facts.  First, she has been able to think and learn as others and second, she could learn how to write even if she wasn’t able to speak.  This means that if we can find ways to communicate with these children, they will be able to make connection to the world easier than before.

Finding a common factor in communication

As Dr. Grandin indicated (ref 1), people have differences in ways of thinking.  Some are verbal, some are pattern-recognition, and others are visual thinkers.  It seems to be impossible to find a common factor that represents all these different types of thinking.  However, if we take one step back, we can identify the common factor – written forms.  People cannot communicate verbally if a person is not able to speak.  However, as Carly shows, they are able to learn how to write.  The reason she was able to learn how to write is because writing is a visual representation of the patterns of language.  As we all understand, we speak with patterns.  The letters are graphical presentation of these patterns.  This means that regardless of thinking methods, we can communicate with writing since it is a graphical presentation of thinking. Since ‘not able to speak’ does not mean ‘not able to listen’, it won’t be hard for ASD kids to pick up the patterns of words to write.  Only question is then, what steps do we have to follow to get non-verbal ASD children to express their thoughts in the graphical presentation – the writing?

Building communication skills by making connections

As we know all too well, writing is not easy to learn for average children.  It takes years for children to learn how to read and write.  When it comes to non-verbal ASD children, it seems virtually impossible to teach them how to write.  However, since the words we are using are graphical presentation of what we speak and we speak with patterns, it could be relatively easier for ASD children to learn.  It may take a little more time when compared to average children, but it is feasible.  Thus, teaching how to write for non-verbal ASD children would open a communication channel with them.  At this point, we have to consider one more important fact, ASD children learn even though they are not able to speak.  As seen from Carly’s case, she was able to communicate as soon as she started to type words on a computer.  This means that her language skills were built before she was able to type.  This also means that she was learning even if people around her didn’t notice much of differences due to her lack of verbal expression.  This implies that we will need to consider providing real education instead of training them to catch up to average children to fit to society.  Because of some unique behavior that ASD children show, people are sometimes misguided to think that these behaviors need to be corrected.  However, since it could be physical responses that they are getting (as Carly explained) from the outside world, these behaviors shouldn’t be the reason to keep them from proper education.  Education for ASD children before the communication channel is established should be focused on making connections with the world.  Since there are not many people who can communicate with them visually, we can approach by verbal method but not expect verbal reply.  It may look one directional.  However, if parents and educators involved understand that they are learning, this will help these children connect to the world.  Only question left is ‘HOW?’

How to help ASD kids connect with the world and keep them connected

The method that makes connection to the world is as simple as ‘describing phenomenon around the children’.  But this does not mean that simple description would work.  Only the description that making connections will make these kids break out of their own isolated world and connect to our world.  For example, ‘wind is blowing’ does not provide connections.  But ‘wind is blowing and the leaves are falling because of the wind’ does providing connections.  In other words, whatever the phenomenon parents or educators observe, connections with following up on that phenomenon should be made.  The continuum of the connections will help ASD children to connect to the world little by little thus, eventually, they can connect to the world by themselves.  Describing phenomenon by making connections is also important for these children to learn the pattern of the language.  As they listen to the words repeatedly, they will pick up the pattern of the words being spoken.  Thus, when they are being taught to write, they will start to recognize the pattern.  As mentioned in the article ‘Education in childhood’ published in Education session from Pondered Education, this method is not just for ASD children but all children.

Developing new communication tools for visual or pattern thinkers would be very challenging since not many people belong to these categories.  Thus, using the tools that we have and enhance the usage would be one of the best approaches.  The letters/words represent the pattern of language.  Once it is written, they are graphical presentation.  This means that once, visual and pattern thinkers recognize the patterns, they will be able to learn how to write before learning how to speak.  Using visual as well as verbal communication tools are crucial in teaching, regardless of their preferred communication skills.