Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Talk less; Write/Draw more

I am quite sure every person who has used a computer has made this particular mistake: The task you are undertaking is moving along too slowly, or not at all. What do we all do? We start clicking, moving the cursor around (if it is willing to move, that is) and click on boxes, words, icons, whatever we find. We make the mistaken assumption that we can hurry the process along. And then we often find ourselves completely "frozen" and have to shut things down and start over.

The same thing happens when we are interacting with people who struggle to communicate. Since they have something different about their neurological wiring, and since we really do not understand just what that might be, we make a serious error every single time we repeat a verbal instruction.

Instead may I suggest the following: Say it once, let them start to process what has been said, and then WAIT! Don't repeat. I repeat: DON'T REPEAT. If they don't respond in some way in a minute or so, switch to another sensory system. Touch them lightly, show them a picture, pantomime what you are asking of them, point, or put your comment in writing. Anything is worth a try - but if we keep repeating spoken words, we are essentially restarting the process over again from the beginning, wasting valuable time and energy, and risking a meltdown, or at least getting stuck or frozen and unable to act.

It's a grandma thing that works with kids who aren't on the autism spectrum as well. We had our two youngest granddaughter with us recently and were excitedly getting ready to go to the zoo. Correction: Grandpa and Grandma were getting ready, while the girls (ages six and almost three) were causing multiple distractions and delays. As I tried to finish packing a somewhat healthy lunch for all of us, I found myself talking to the girls, making suggestions that were clearly falling on deaf ears. I got a little louder and they got sillier. We were NOT moving forward, and I was getting frustrated.

Then I remembered a lesson learned long ago, but forgotten in the moment. I stopped talking, found a piece of paper and started making a list. The six-year-old is a new reader and so very proud of her ability. She was immediately interested in what I was writing (and I suppose also wondering why I had suddenly gone quiet). Carefully she sounded out the words on the list - jackets, shoes, bathroom, umbrella, lunch . . . And right away (being a very smart granddaughter, of course!) she caught on. She still had to irritate her younger sister, but in between the teasing and chasing, she started doing what she could to help us get ready to leave.

I had a wonderful paraprofessional working with me years ago. She accompanied one of our students to his regular classes, helping him with academics as needed, but mostly helping him overcome his many anxieties. Among many other worries, he lived in almost constant fear that there would be an announcement on the public address system - even though such announcements were extremely rare. She discovered that she could draw simple stick figure pictures to help him understand that the voice of "the MAN" was actually coming from our very kind principal. Through a combination of pictures and words along with the universal NO sign (cross-through) she could put him at ease so that he could make it through most of his classes. They visited the office regularly and involved the principal in the drawing/writing adventure.

With younger children, pictures may be most effective, but please do include the printed word as well. While we really don't know precisely how or when kids learn to read, I am totally convinced that the human brain is programmed to find the patterns, unlock the mystery and learn to make sense of written language. All kids need regular exposure to the printed word, along with picture and contextual clues. If we provide them with enough of this, they WILL learn to read - all of them!

If you must talk, talk quietly. If they don't seem to be listening, try talking even more quietly. Or stop talking entirely and switch to paper and pencil to get your message across. Repeating things orally or getting louder are all too often counter-productive and almost always lead to frustration.

Has this - or some other suggestion - worked for you? Do let us know!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Social group

We've been meeting monthly with a small group of nonverbal young adults who type to communicate. Attendance has been excellent, structure is minimal, and we have been slowly moving forward as we all become acquainted and a little more relaxed in a social setting.

And then I boldly invited two additional young people (high school age, also nonverbal typers), without taking the time or making the effort to run this idea past our original group of three typers plus various support people. As luck would have it, everyone showed up. Our rather small meeting room suddenly became quite crowded and warm - not an easy situation for people on the autism spectrum and not an easy situation for their support people either. What was I thinking?!?

First of all, my apologies to those directly involved. This is NOT my usual style at all, and I admit I surprised even myself.

And then to all who read this, here's what happened. For the most part, our original participants had one of their best days yet. They typed that they were happy to have new friends, they remained seated longer than usual, did more typing, and even seemed to be smiling more. One of the two new typers joined in readily, while the other had more difficulty. Both were obviously excited and happy about being there, but entering the room and staying there was not easy for the second young person (let's call him Nate).

Jump ahead an hour or two. Once I was back home, I logged onto my computer and did one of my daily tasks along with reading email, checking Facebook, and playing my favorite games. I read the following message on Daily OM (Check it out at: http://dailyom.com/ )

". . . There is nothing wrong with being afraid as long as we do not let it stop us from doing the things that excite us. Most of us assume that brave people are fearless, but the truth is that they are simply more comfortable with fear because they face it on a regular basis. The more we do this, the more we feel excitement in the face of challenges rather than anxiety. The more we cultivate our ability to move forward instead of backing off, the more we trust ourselves to be able to handle the new opportunity . . . . When we feel our fear, we can remind ourselves that maybe we are actually just excited. We can assure ourselves that this opportunity has come our way because we are meant to take it."

To Nate (and his mom): You looked fearful at times and yet we KNOW you were excited. I hope it helps to know that everyone else in that room has dealt with similar fear and anxiety. I myself have operated from a fear of failure most of my life, and daring to push all of us forward as I did must have been one of those opportunities that came my way because I was meant to take it. The young people who were seated around the table, appearing to be so comfortable and at ease --- every single one of them --- all started out where you were, frozen by fear and unable to participate. Look how far they have come. You will be there too. We are all anxious to hear what you have to say.

There's more from Daily Om that is relevant here:

"Framing things just a little differently can dramatically shift our mental state from one of resistance (AHA -see my previous blog posts!) to one of openness. . . . As we do this, we will feel our energy shift from fear, which paralyzes, to excitement, which empowers us to direct all that energy in the service of moving forward, growing, and learning,"

So let's all shift from fear to excitement, let's enjoy the emotional ride as we move forward, and let's appreciate and celebrate the amazing people we are getting to know in the process.

Again, my humble apologies for throwing things out of whack.