Friday, August 17, 2012

Asking Questions

A favorite high school teacher of mine had more of an impact on my life than I realized at the time - and I am guessing the same would be true from her perspective.  It was a Catholic school and she was a young nun (though we never really knew their ages, of course) teaching Honors English.  I loved the reading, the writing, and all the wonderful discussions we had.  Most of all, I loved the lesson she taught that has stayed with me for my whole life:  Never be afraid to ask questions; in fact, not asking is the more dangerous route to take.

I've thought of this lesson so often, and it has gotten me through what could have been difficult times in my life.  I have asked questions most recently about what I was taught in school about history and religion, and I have asked many, many questions about what I was taught in my college classes about my chosen career of special education.  All worthy topics for future blogging.  Today I am thinking about kids and questions.

From the time they can put two words together, kids ask questions.  In fact, long before that they catch on to the game of pointing to something so that we can give them a name for it.  Somewhere around age three, those never-ending "why" questions start - and go on and on and on till their rapidly growing brains are satisfied.

It doesn't stop when they leave toddlerhood.  My older grandkids are constantly asking me why I do things (who knows?!?) or what a word means when I use a term or expression that isn't familiar to them.  Asking questions is part of who they are and a critical part of how they learn.

For kids who are nonverbal, or have limited ability to speak, asking questions is often NOT part of what they do.  Their brains are growing also, at least as fast as those who can talk, but they have to find other ways to learn.  Based on what I have learned from so many of them, I can safely say most are very good listeners. We might think they are paying no attention at all much of the time, but we would be so very wrong.

Many of these young kids are drawn to visuals - pictures, TV, computer screens, iPads, books, the printed word in any form - and may even have what we think of as photographic memories.  They take all this in - everything they hear, everything they see - and it's stored inside, maybe forever.  (And maybe some day we'll better understand just what is going on in these incredible brains!)

But a critical piece of the typical learning process is missing.  These kids have no way to ask us questions to clarify the vast amount of input their brains are receiving.  We know their neurological wiring is different in many ways, and for most of us that is about as far as our understanding goes.  We accept that and try to help them find ways to process information and deal with the world around them in the most successful way possible.

What if we could help them ask questions?  Obviously this would help with learning basic academics.  Amazingly, many of the kids I know who are on the autism spectrum have relatively little trouble learning to read and spell or do basic math.  When I have asked them how they learn, the most common answer has been, "I just knew it."  So, at least for these kids, they have already found a way around our more typical methods of teaching/learning.

But I think about the many kids I have known who have problems with "behavior."  (I just have to put that in quotes because one of the many lessons I have learned over the years is that it's really not fair to lump everything they do in this category, mostly because it has such a negative connotation.  If we make the effort to understand why they do the things they do, it might make a whole lot more sense and not be so objectionable or inappropriate after all).

One of my all-time favorite - and most challenging - students was a boy who was quite verbal.  He actually DID ask questions.  In fact, he asked questions all day long - about every sound he heard (most of which I had not heard), about the lighting in the hall, about the schedule for the day, about the cars in the parking lot (he knew which ones belonged to every staff member), about the lunch menu . . . .   But he wasn't able to ask the hard questions that were simmering inside.  Once when he went through a long spell of rather troubling behavior,  we were able to use Facilitated Communication to get at what was bothering him.  In a very emotional visit to his home, I facilitated (in more ways than one) a discussion between him and his mother.  He shared with her that he knew his parents had been arguing about him (she thought they were doing it out of his hearing range) and he was afraid they were going to get divorced and send him to a foster home.

Another of my more talkative students --- whose questions usually related to things in your home:  What color is your refrigerator?  How many laundry baskets do you have?  ----  started getting sick every day at school.  It was usually either a headache or stomachache that he reported, never anything that could be verified  like a fever or rash.  After a few too many false alarms where we sent him home only to learn that he was  fine once he got there, I made a greater effort to use the letter board and FC to get at just what was going on.  This very sensitive young man, only about seven years old, was worried about his mother, who was dealing with depression at the time, and he felt he needed to be at home to keep her safe.

How much are these kids, and adults, dealing with that we know nothing about?  How often are we misled by what they actually say - or their demeanor or body language if unable to speak?

How much better their lives would be - and ours too - if we could find, and then regularly use, an effective means of communication so they can ask the questions that are swirling around inside.