Show me Show me Show me How you do that trick- Autism and Learning

This is part one of an ongoing series about teaching my autistic sons using hands on/concrete/visual work as the backbone of our learning. It may be useful to others who have an interest in teaching autistic children. (parent or outside educator, or whatever)

Early Intervention – “He can’t be autistic, he’s such a nice boy.”

My autistic son Peter (I have a few autistic sons, so its important to differentiate) began early intervention at age two without a diagnosis. He was severely delayed in speech and social milestones. The eye contact and social smile of his first year were gone, yet he was still cuddly, smiley, and ever babbling as well as continuously on the move and into everything. He had no expressive speech, but showed some receptive understanding.

We had a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, and a teacher sent to us from “Birth to Three” our state’s early intervention program.

They would come for hour therapy sessions in our home several times a week . Monthly a coordinator would show up to discuss how things were going.

The speech therapist would bring toys and books and generally spend the session chasing Pete all over the room attempting to engage him in the activities she brought.  He would hug her and giggle and run. She was kind, she never wavered in her determination to engage Peter in play, and she clearly knew her shit about speech.

She just didn’t seem to know her shit about autism. “Pete can’t be autistic… he’s such a nice boy.”  She blocked efforts by the OT to introduce alternative means of communication. “No I don’t want to introduce PECS or sign, I really think he’s going to talk someday. “

Since no-one seemed to have a clue, I decided to learn myself.

On the hunt for data- I cannot make bricks without clay.

While Pete was receiving his therapy, I was researching. I read that structured visual methods of teaching were effective in teaching autistic children. I didn’t read a few books, studies, or articles, but thousands.

Early on I rejected ABA and the idea of intensive therapy.  I wanted Pete to learn.

NOT to learn how to be “normal,” not eye contact, or not even not to stim. I wanted him to learn how to read, to communicate, to count. I was sure that the more cognitive aspects of learning developed, language would as well. I was undiagnosed at the time, but I recalled my struggles to learn as a child and felt learning, especially reading, would be a key to a broader world, just as it was for me.

Time to Get to Work

One morning as Pete was strapped into his high chair finishing breakfast, I pulled out a shape sorter and a puzzle. As a captive audience member, Pete was engaged. We took turns putting the shapes in and completing the puzzle.I copied the style of the therapist in terms of the language she used as she attempted  to gain attention, and a patient even tone. For those five minutes I had his complete attention.

It went so well I began adding activities for both after lunch and breakfast. We played with manipulatives. I read him stories. I sang to him. We learned sign. Five minutes stretched out to fifteen. I began reading about teacch structured work and the idea of using visual activity schedules and visual clues. I’d put the toys and activities on the table, and as we completed them moved them over to a laundry basket on the floor. One Saturday I bought two plastic wash bins at the dollar store . One I marked “work,” the other I marked “finished. “ I used this method to give Pete a clear idea of just how much we had to do. He enjoyed the time and was picking up HOW to play with toys.

I shared my successes with both the speech therapist and OT.

The OT just shook her head and said, “I think what he really needs is ABA.” The next week she brought over an ABA book. “Thanks but, I have a structured activity book on order.”

The speech therapist was also unreceptive, but in the opposite direction, “I don’t believe in that sort of thing, it’s important he learns during free play.”   (I didn’t bring it up to the teacher.  She was sour and uncommunicative with me.  I thought perhaps she disapproved of us in some way, and I believe Pete felt it too as he would NOT engage with her.)

We kept on at odds with both therapists and learned our way through it. Peter loved this “work” and was gaining skills. THAT mattered more to me than whether the approach was popular.

(A month after he turned four, he said his first word, “crackers.” He also showed that he recognized the word when written.)

Whenever he began to seem bored I’d add new activities. If agitated, I’d cut the time back. Before he went to kindergarten we were doing 45 minutes of an independent work schedule with visual supports, twice a day as well as one on one to learn new tasks. He was reading independently (still does).

I learned that if I could SHOW Peter a concept in a concrete visual way, that relied little or not at all on speaking, he would be able to learn it, no matter what it was. Now that he is home to learn, we’re back into that. It also has proved to be very effective elementary education method for ALL of his siblings. That is at the heart of our structured, hands on work… SHOWING somewhat abstract concepts in a concrete way.

So with that in mind,  I’m going to write a series of posts showing you guys our hands on work, and also relating some of our effective past methods.



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