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Different Roads To Learning

As you may see throughout this website, I focus on my son’s strengths, the things he is good at and I work from there. I encourage his strengths, pay attention to them, and value them no matter what they are. And that’s how I feel about all my children, not just Ewan. When my daughter gets excited about ballet and dancing, we enrolled her in ballet, we take her to see The Nutcracker or Cinderella. We encourage her to practice, to listen to classical music, and to enjoy dance in all its forms. When my youngest son says he loves cars, we buy him toy cars, a car bed, books with cars in them, and of course, movies with cars in them. When my child with autism likes jumping we buy him a trampoline or a spring horse. When he likes volcanoes we buy him plastic volcanoes to make eruptions with, and we watch shows about volcanoes. When he likes to spin we let him take over our office chair and go at it. When he gets an interest in letters we let him type on the computer, buy magnetic letters, use his communication device keyboard, and look at letter books. When he hums over and over sometimes we hum with him or sometimes we steer him to hum a song. For all my children, there is a balance to life. Life is not all ballet, or cars, or volcanoes, or jumping and spinning. This is the difficult part for the child with autism because so often life is all about volcanoes, letters, or spinning and jumping. So where’s the meeting point, the middle where it all comes together and allows a child on the spectrum to do what he loves, what he must and what else there is in life?

It’s a good question that I don’t know the answer to. I don’t have an answer to that because every autistic child is so different from the next, just as each typical child is so different from the next. Individuality is important in all children and how they develop. How often do we tell our typical child that loving cars and ballet is wrong and it should never be liked or done? We respect the child’s independence and individuality in the typical child yet we don’t often respect the individuality expressed in the atypical child, whether that child is autistic or has any other disability. Yet I think this strength, this love whatever that may be is the springboard, it’s the switch that creates exciting leaps and connections, it’s the bridge to each other’s world. In helping my son reach his fullest potential in all things I feel my focus should be on what my son is good at and what he loves.
Generally, we think of this as something new that we’ve just discovered. That children with disabilities have strengths or deficits and how to work with children to help them learn and grow. Yet a Russian psychologist was thinking of this particular topic back in the 1930s. I’m speaking of Vygotsky. After thinking a little about strengths and deficits, I went back to a book I refer to quite often, Seeing Voices and went looking through the footnotes. Seeing Voices is a book about the development of language in the deaf and about deaf culture. Here I found the author of Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks, commenting on Vygotsky and his thoughts on language, generalization, and perception but also a bit of reference about Vygotsky’s essay Defectology. 
From Sacks on Vgotsky’s Defectology pgs. 152-3:
            …for it is not defects that it is concerned with, but the very opposite—adaptations, compensations (perhaps indeed it should be called ‘intactology’). Vygotsky was passionately opposed to the evaluation of handicapped children in terms of their defects or deficits, their ‘minuses’; he valued them instead for their intactnesses, their ‘pluses’. He did not see them as defective, but different: “A handicapped child represents a qualitatively different, unique type of development”. And it was this qualitative difference, this uniqueness, Vygotsky felt, that any educational or rehabilitative enterprise must address: ‘If a blind or deaf child achieves the same level of development as a normal child’ he writes, ‘then the child with a defect achieves this in another way, by another course, by other means; and, for the pedagogue, it is particularly important to know the uniqueness of the course along which he must lead the child. This uniqueness transforms the minus of the handicap into the plus of compensation.”
            But cultural tools and languages, he argues, have been developed for the ‘normal’ person, the person with all his sense organs, his biological functions, intact. What then will be best for the handicapped, the different person? The key to his development will be compensation—the use of an alternative cultural tool. Thus Vygotsky comes to the special education of the deaf: the alternative cultural tool, for them, is sign language—sign language which has been created for them and by them. Sign language addresses the functions, the visual functions, that are still intact; it is the most direct way of reaching deaf children, the simplest means of allowing their full development, and the only one that respects their differences, their uniqueness.”
The first thing I notice about this selection is Vygotsky’s notion of valuing a child’s ‘intactnesses’, ‘pluses’, in other words their strengths. If we do this with our typical children why on earth wouldn’t we do this with our atypical children? Not only does Vygotsky see the strengths but he also see the road to achieving a disabled child’s fullest potential as being different than a typical child’s, thereby recognizing that ‘uniqueness’ not only in the ‘intactnesses’ or ‘pluses’ but also in the way to develop, to learn, to grow. The goal for those who live with, work with, or teach autistic children is to find the ‘intactness’, the ‘pluses’, to cultivate them and encourage them and to respect the differences all while understanding that the road to development may often look drastically different than the typical child. The other goal is to find the cultural tool, the ‘key to his development’, the compensation. For some it’s sign language and sensory integration therapy, for others it’s high tech communication devices and social stories, and yet for even more we haven’t found the cultural tool yet. As Vygotsky believes, the best way tools are often created by them and for them. Think of where we were before Temple Grandin spoke out about her experiences, or Donna Williams, or others who are out there on the internet now blogging about their lives and their experiences.
As you’ll read through the website, one our tools with Ewan has been a communication device. It was visible to see the switch in Ewan's brain when he first got the device.  Not unlike a deaf child who has just been given the sign for something and understands this means something and goes hog wild wanting to know more and more and more.  Much like sign is the tool for deaf individuals and plays to their ‘intactness’, the communication device played to Ewan’s ‘intactness’ and let him explore the world, language, thoughts, desires by using his visual strengths and his technological strengths. Often families don’t see strengths, they see deficits often because they’re so much easier to see and label. My thing is that most people don't take the time to find out what autistic Jack or Jill is absolutely into like stacking cans and try to make that Helen Keller connection--they take the cans away because it's inappropriate behavior instead of using those cans, those strengths, as a bridge or a tool. 
Before Ewan learned to speak and even now that he does speak, one question I've always thought of is this:  I often describe Ewan as someone who is speaking / learning English as if it were a second language, as if he were a foreigner just plopped down on U.S. soil and trying to navigate around communication and social / cultural norms here.  I want to know if English is Ewan's second language, what's his first?
I then kept reading the footnotes in Seeing Voices, past the Vgotsky reference to another part about St. Augustine and his description of how we acquire language. In describing Augustine’s beliefs about language, Sacks refers to a remark made by an Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein…
From Sacks pg. 156: 
Wittegentstein remarks: “Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And ‘think’ would here mean something like ‘talk to itself”. 
Again, I think if we are to truly understand how autistic children think, speak, develop, and use their ‘intactness’ to grow, we need to learn from autistic adults about how they think, speak, have developed, and use their ‘intactness’ to grow we’ll be closer to understanding not only what the tool or bridge is but what that original language is. So I have no concrete answers about what is right or wrong but it has got me thinking about different ways of being, different roads to learning, and what that means for our young autistic children.


If you find yourself with a consistently noncompliant child, I can guarantee you that the child is not the problem.