When Waiting Isn’t Enough

I posted a long comment over at Every Waking Hour under the post, “Thinking About Readiness”. Although I published it there, I thought I would post it on my own blog as well.

Willa said:

I’ve read some Piagetian theory in the context of special needs education…. just a very little. One very interesting book that talks a bit about Piaget’s theories is “When Slow is Fast Enough” . It is a thought-provoking book about the flaws in the way Early Intervention programs tend to be set up nowadays. The author Joan Goodman discusses Rousseau, Locke and Piaget in terms of their ideas of child development. She thinks that EI nowadays tends to be Lockean (”filling the vessel” or “writing on the blank slate”) with a thin and slightly hypocritical overlay of Rousseau’s child-centered theories.

And the later conclusion was:

The point of her book is that all the therapy tasks in the world cannot jumpstart or advance a child’s readiness.

Her solution is to create a rich environment both in terms of open-ended resources AND in terms of creative, warm personnel who are willing to play with the child on his or her own terms and be sensitive to the child’s developmental timetable.

As an unschooler type myself, I embrace so much of what is being said about learning in Willa’s post. As it pertains to the plethora of “school-created labels” such as ADD, ADHD, gifted, LD, etc., I think the biggest problem with school is that they blame the child instead of the system that doesn’t account for the child’s learning timeframe nor their learning style. So, that connects huge with what was being said throughout Willa’s post about a rich learning environment, honoring different learning styles, and waiting on each person’s timeframe. In fact, I present a workshop on this very idea called “An Individualized Education: Learning Styles and Time Frames.”

However, I take exception with trying to connect these ideas with more challenged children, such as those with autism (not high functioning or Asperger’s), Down’s Syndrome, mental retardation, etc.. I have first hand experience in this area, and it is very, very different than just providing an unschooling environment. I have several children with autism and one with other pervasive developmental difficulties. If all it takes is the typical learning environment that values and respects the child’s timeframe, there would be no such thing as autism! There are some biologically different brain structures that prevent a child with autism, for instance, from learning from their environment.

The intervention that ended up being my son’s learning style is not about “writing on a clean slate”, but about helping to “rewire the brain” in the areas that were not functioning or did not develop in utero. The brain is an amazingly elastic thing, and it has been shown that it can create new pathways around “disabled parts” or non-existant ones.

I would like to share two examples. Adam had zero imitation skills at 3.5 years old. This is how children learn a LOT, right? Such as speaking, which he was unable to do. (I wonder if learning to walk and eat is a biological response versus an imitative one, by the way.) Well, we worked and worked on retraining the brain to create such a pathway, and when he was tested three years later, it was listed that “imitation is a relative strength”. Pretty exciting, huh? He was also finally able to learn to speak and potty train once he learned even the basics of imitation. It took years, but at about age 9-10, Adam was beginning to learn from his environment naturally, although not to the level of someone without his brain differences. As another interesting side note, social interaction is a more complex imitative skill, so imitative progress has to be made to a more abstract level in order to accomplish this.

William had near zero visual-spatial abilities at 5 years old. He couldn’t even place one block on a piece of paper in the same manner as another person. We worked and worked on blocks and 1.5 years later, after some testing, it stated that he demonstrated a “strength in his visual analytic skills (block design).” It was the only place he did not have a weakness, besides his natural strength in gross motor skills!

To share a different outcome, Alex exhibited the same type of difficulties as his brother Adam. He was diagnosed with autism at two years old. For three months, I had the EI people in our home six hours a week of one on one for speech, occupational therapy and play therapy. It was all very child-led learning . . . joining in with him, etc. He learned nothing in that three months except bye-bye. I started the intervention that worked so well for his brother with him, and within the next three months, he had accumulated about 50 words, some imitative skills, and playing some games and songs. After another four years of consistently and actively helping him learn in the way that made sense to him, his brain was able to do whatever it does, and the floodgates were thrown open.

Alex had strengths in areas his brother did not that helped this transformation occur when it did not for his sibling. We were then able to help him delve deeper into the social arena, abstract reasoning, etc. Alex would be considered a person living with high functioning autism now.

If difficulty with learning is about being slower, or learning differently, then all that was said in the book cited by Willia would apply! If learning is about something serious missing in your brain functioning, then it is about something else. One extra copy of a chromosome causes serious differences in learning for those with Down Syndrome. Lacking imitative skills causes serious differences in learning for those with autism (that’s just one of many differences that combines to make living with autism difficult). It’s not about waiting, but helping them learn in a different way. It’s not going to change if you wait.

Definitely all my opinion, from my experience . . .

The top picture are the people who all lovingly worked with Adam to bring him his smile the first two years after his diagnosis of autism.

The middle picture are the people who all lovingly worked with Alex to bring him his social outlet the first year after his diagnosis of autism.

The bottom picture are all the children after the party I held to thank everyone for all that they did for the two youngest before we moved away to another state in 1998.

Adam’s Circle of Love

Alex’s Circle of Love

The Children, May 1998

12 responses to “When Waiting Isn’t Enough

  1. Hi Cindy,
    I found your post and found it very informative and thought-provoking. I think that I didn’t do complete justice to the book I mentioned in my original post. I was trying to bring out the part of it that dealt with the different conceptions of how children learn, not so much the part about the targeted therapy to special needs children, particularly ones with lower-functioning autism and significant retardation.

    The point I was trying to focus on was that pushing isolated skills ahead of the child’s developmental timetable is non-productive or even counter-productive. The part of the Early Intervention agenda that the writer of the book described was, for example, trying to bring Down’s syndrome children, who were still developmentally in the concrete operational stage (eg putting things in and out of containers) into, for example, imaginative play more suited to their chronological age than their actual developmental level. The way the book described it, this confused the children and didn’t help them where they actually did need help, in mastering the next steps of the stage they were actually in.

    Another example that I had personal experience with in Early Intervention was gearing activities towards preschool-readiness — for example, trying to get my 2 year old, who was functioning at a year old level, to sit in “circle time” and play with peers with me outside of the room. Just not appropriate for him developmentally.

    The book was not intended to criticize appropriate, specific brain-retraining such as you describe. (at least, that is not how I remember it after a few years’ interval and not the aspect of it I was trying to bring out). It was more a critique of some of the less effective aspects of the programs. THe aspect of it I was trying to bring out was more in line with what you said about individualized education. When I look at the part of my post that you quoted, though, I could see how it might be misunderstood since at that point I was generalizing to the typical developing or higher functioning child. Thanks for bringing out that other aspect of it.

    I am finding this conversation interesting and valuable. Sorry to practically write a post on your blog here : ).

  2. Just wanted to add I absolutely love your blog and the way you describe your unschooling of your family. I don’t know very many people who unschool a handful of children, including some with special needs. So I soak up everything you write on here. I especially liked the examples with your Adam and Alex because my Aidan had some of the same problems with lack of imitating skills.

  3. Pingback: everywakinghour » Special Needs

  4. You are right. I have several children who have received early intervention services for special needs, and it is essential. It is important to distinguish between a parent just wanting to speed things up to satisfy her own agenda (a thing I sometimes have to fight against!) and addressing delays or learning disabilities.

  5. The only part of your post I don’t agree with (if I understand it correctly) is this:

    “As it pertains to the plethora of “school-created labels” such as ADD, ADHD, gifted, LD, etc., I think the biggest problem with school is that they blame the child instead of the system that doesn’t account for the child’s learning timeframe nor their learning style.”

    I agree that schools try to fit children into their programs and expectations, instead of crafting the programs to fit the needs of the kids. In some respects, labels such as “LD” and “gifted” are school created, to fit children into a niche in their system. However, I feel that issues like learning disabilities and ADD are very real, and create challenges for a child whether he is in school or not.

    Also, while the issues that go along with a diagnosis like Asperger’s Syndrome are not the same as those that accompany autism, they are pervasive and significant and require more intervention than simply creating an enriching environment and respecting the child’s inner timetable.

    I am not suggesting that you’re minimizing these problems. I think I “get” what you’re saying and agree with most of it.

    Basically, I need to take some time (when I don’t have a kiddo waiting for breakfast – LOL!) to re-read your post, think about it a bit more, and compose a more thoughtful and intelligent response. I don’t seem to be capable of thoughtful and intelligent at the moment. Wait … it’s because I haven’t had my caffeine yet! (Off to make tea)

  6. I read your post quickly last night and have been thinking about it ever since. Both my homeschooled kids have significant “issues” (developmental delays, serious mental illness, and neurological concerns) and I have struggled with wanting to follow a child led path in learning, but fearing that my children would be “stalled” because they aren’t able to learn from their environment as most children do. My daughter especially picks up very little “naturally”… most everything has to be very deliberately taught. However… my own inclination is to unschool… let them learn by doing. So I’m usually feeling torn in two different directions about our homeschool.

    I have to agree with Steph’s comment about early intervention being important for some kids, but the need to provide those services only to the kids who really need them, not just to satisfy a parent wanting to “speed things up”.

    I do have to say though, that M (13) had every EI service available. He had years of speech, OT, PT, therapeutic preschool (with me as classroom aide)… We did it all. By the time R came along, I was exhausted and she only received EI services until she was about 18 months. I honestly can’t say that all of M’s EI made much difference for him… R is the higher functioning of the two (despite a lower IQ) and many of the things we were targeting with M’s EI services are still a problem today. :o(

    I guess what I’m saying is that I think EI can be valuable for some kids, but not for all kids…there is no guarantee that they will make a significant difference in the outcome of the child.

    Hopefully this makes sense…

  7. Willa,

    Okay, I did notice you made that reference to special needs, and then spent most of your post on areas I very much agree with as it pertains to most children. Of course, as you probably know for yourself as well, I’ve become very attuned to even the slightest of references to special needs, and if I feel there is even a slight chance of misunderstanding, I find myself needing to speak up. The interpreter role I have taken up for my children with enormous challenges is hard to lay dormant . . . LOL!

    So, yes, I think there can be poorly implemented interventions out there for very challenged children. In fact, it runs the gamut from horrible to great. I find that it is a gift and talent to know the learning path steps our children need to stretch and grow in the way that excites them and helps them reach their potential, but I believe it can be learned, particularly with the plethora of information that has been disseminated in the last five years from the professionals to the parents. This is thanks to parents who demanded access!

    Anyway, that’s what my yahoo group, aut-home-fam, is about: helping each other with creative ways to help our children learn in the way that works for them.

  8. Steph,

    Alright, I did what Willa did, and only briefly mentioned a belief I have in that area, and then spent most of my time on the other topic . . . LOL! Soooo, I’ll have to write another post about my thoughts and experiences with things like ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, high functioining autism, gifted, etc. Yes, I have each and every one of these differences in my home as well . . . LOL! And what’s funny is that I thought my blog would focus a lot on these aspects, but it just hasn’t come up yet, and autism has, and I wanted my blog to become what it was meant to be naturally.

    So, although I agree with your point that each of these differences certainly brings it’s challenges to the table, leading an active facilitation role in parenting, unschooling and homeschooling can go a LONG way in providing a success-based, mentor-supported, skill-focused environment. And I wholeheartedly believe these children flourish in a learning environment that respects their learning style and timeframes, which often are completely different than that utilized in the public schools, and for which we have so often been conditioned to value most.

    Okay, better save it for my post 🙂

  9. Alright, Maura, I better be more clear about something myself 🙂 My personal belief is that early intervention services are about as useful as public school itself is with education . . . LOL! Oh, I’ll give them the ability to help your general, smaller issues, like not saying your “r’s” correctly, but any significant challenge, forget it! I think they are basically useless. The only EI professional that I felt had value for us was the occupational therapists. And once I learned about that, I could take it from there on my own (it’s not rocket science, ya know!) This holds true for special services in the schools as well.

    I only touched on it, but the EI services that Alex received exclusively for three months did nothing for him. In fact, I was heavily involved, and if I had not been, they may have actually even created some problems! It was a bit of an “experiment” for me . . . I wanted to see what EI could do on it’s own, and since I couldn’t get my program going until summer, it was a perfect opportunity.

    Again, it clearly showed me what I did not want to rely on in helping my children. In fact, I’ll have to share yet another experience about school services, etc., that clearly showed that I wanted to go my own way, which far outshone what they offered or were capable of providing.

    Thanks for bringing this point up!

  10. I hope my comment didn’t come across as being judgmental… or against EI services. I’m sorry if it did…

    Each of our “complicated” kids is a totally unique and wonderful human being, and I believe that there are as many successful intervention and teaching strategies as there are different kinds of kids. While many of us follow slightly different paths in our journey to raise our very unique kids, what we have in common far outweighs the differences. Our love and committment to our kids… our desire to do what’s best for them, even when it involves “swimming upstream”… our excitement as our child reaches each milestone (no matter how small).

    I’m happy to be in the company of so many strong, resourceful, “tiger mothers”. Reading everyone’s thoughts about this topic has been fascinating and enriching.

    Thanks everyone!


  11. LOL! Well, I stand by my comment about EI and special services through the school. There are good people, don’t get me wrong about that. But the services they provide are not NEAR to what is needed for a child who needs help learning EVERYTHING. I think they are equipped to help a child with differences, but not with significant global difficulties.

  12. Pingback: Apple Stars » Blog Archive » Learning Differences