Feb 05

Temple Grandin: the movie

Posted: under communication, disability issues, education, employment, interventions, life on the spectrum, parenting, sensory processing, socialization.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,  February 5th, 2010

You’ve probably heard of this movie.   If not, or if, having heard of it, you had reservations about it (I did), here’s the good news: it’s better than you think.  It’s an incredible, brilliant movie that shows Temple Grandin’s triumph over both the problems autism gave her, and the society that did not have a clue and did not believe autistic people had a future.   And it shows the value of her life’s work, her designs for livestock management.  Because of her, half the livestock facilities in the world–not just here–handle their stock more humanely.  And–(yes, there’s more) it shows how she thinks–because it is a visual medium, a movie can show the pictures she thinks with. Read the rest of this entry »

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Jul 26

Science: new data, new ideas

Posted: under communication, disability issues, interventions, sensory processing.
Tags: , , , ,  July 26th, 2009

Sometimes I feel like jumping up and screaming “FINALLY!” at the research end of things.   This summer there have been several really good research reports, some mentioned in national media as well, on autism-spectrum issues.  But what I want to highlight tonight is the one that sparked the “FINALLY!” reaction.

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Mar 31


Posted: under communication, life on the spectrum, sensory processing, the book, the writing life.
Tags: ,  March 31st, 2009

Today I gave a presentation on The Speed of Dark over the internet to a group at Howard Community College in Maryland–while sitting on a comfortable couch in Texas.  Technology has advanced to this point, and I wanted to try it–besides, I knew I would not be able to travel to Maryland in person in the time-frame they wanted.

What fascinated me, besides playing with technology I didn’t know, was the degree to which this particular setup messes with sensory input.   I had a light-bulb moment when I realized that the audio breakup (just enough of one) and the blurriness of the faces looking back at me–blurry enough that I could not see any of the usual cues of facial movement–and the delay between when I said something and when they saw/heard me say it–all made my experience more autistic than I’d expected.   I was having to put way more energy and concentration into figuring out their reactions, and what they were saying than usual.

The organizer sent email telling me that discussion went on in the hall after I “left”, which is a good sign.   I hope it was as valuable for them as it was for me.

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Mar 21

Language and Music: Auditory Processing

Posted: under life on the spectrum, music, sensory processing.
Tags: , , , ,  March 21st, 2009

In another venue someone asked if anyone else’s child on the autism spectrum hated to hear their mother sing.

My answer was yes: when our son was pre-verbal, he didn’t much like singing at all (with the exception of a lullaby I’d made up for him early on) but he did like music…until the 18 months when he didn’t.   For about two years I was choir director for a very small church’s very small choir, and I could not have him in the church while we rehearsed–he’d scream the whole time.

Once he began to talk (a process that took years to achieve) he complained about singing.  He liked music–he liked to have me play the piano, and began playing himself very early–but singing, especially in groups, seemed almost to hurt him.   (His early ability on the piano, combined with being nonverbal, made us consider if he might be a musical savant.  Not many preschoolers will start playing along with very complex difficult classical music.)

Though he gradually came to accept some vocal music, with a single (very good) singer,  things changed again for an 18 month period.   Suddenly (as in, within one week) he could not stand any music at all, even music he had enjoyed before.   Music in the mall, music in a restaurant, music on the radio or TV–none of it.   His language  at this stage was what is called “right-brain”–the way people speak who have had damage to their left-brain auditory processor,  the main language center (Broca’s area.)  Stilted and downright peculiar syntax, little emotional expression, etc.    And music is processed (for most people) mostly in the right-brain auditory processor.  Were the two interfering when both words and music came in together?

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Feb 04

Mapping Development 101

Posted: under communication, interventions, life on the spectrum, opinion, parenting.
Tags: , , ,  February 4th, 2009

Uneven development across various cognitive domains is more common than most people realize, but people with autism usually show extreme unevenness.    Anyone working with autistic children needs to be aware of these extremes–and mapping developmental levels in each domain can help target interventions to that particular child’s actual needs.    These interventions should not be aimed at raising the child’s gaps to equal his talents–or stifling the talents to the level of the gaps.  Instead, the goal should be to scaffold progress in each domain from where the child actually is, at the best rate that the child can manage in each.

I learned this first as a tutor, coming in to rescue a child who had started failing in a subject or had some other problem.   To do my job, I needed to find out what the child knew, what the child thought he/she knew, and what had gone wrong–as fast as possible and while building a working relationship with that child.

How do you approach this problem?   It starts with careful, precise observation of the child’s current behaviors in each domain.  Big sheets of graph paper help both the mapping and charting progress.   An ordinary “baby book” that gives general information about normal development allows parents to do at least a rough approximation themselves.

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Dec 21

Behavior Analysis

Posted: under communication, socialization.
Tags: , , ,  December 21st, 2008

Years ago I took a graduate school class in Animal Behavior.   The study of animal behavior had made great leaps forward in the decade before, after pioneer students of animal behavior learned how to analyze animal behavior in detail.   The study of human behavior lagged badly…it’s now catching up, but still bedeviled by the very assumptions we were taught to avoid when studying animal behavior.

All behavior, we were taught, is meaningful–it means something, it communicates something about the subject.  Probably not what you first think of, either.   For instance, most of us interpret behavior in terms of a critter’s conscious intent:  we think of a cow or a horse or a small child as “stubborn” when they don’t do what we want.  We may think they’re “trying to make me mad.”   In autistic terms, we fail to demonstrate a theory of mind–the understanding that reality, to the other person or animal, is not necessarily our reality.

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Dec 16

Senses & sensitivity

Posted: under life on the spectrum, sensory processing, socialization.
Tags: ,  December 16th, 2008

Autistic individuals have differences in sensory processing.   They may have perfect vision according to an eye chart…perfect hearing when tested with pure tone audiometry–and yet be unable to “see” and “hear” what others see and hear.   In addition, autistic individuals react to environmental inputs others tend to ignore, and do not react to those others find important.  Thus the autistic child’s near-universal intolerance of tags in the back of shirts, seams in socks,  “floaters” in orange juice, and inability to judge the speed of oncoming traffic when crossing the street.

One of my textbooks on autism dismissed the idea that sensory processing problems could be central to autism because the writer saw no way that these differences could result in the more obvious social and language deficits.    That person clearly had no experience in programming computers, where “garbage in, garbage out” is a common mantra.

If a person is not getting the same sensory information in, they will not experience the world the same–and will not behave the same.   The color blind person does not see that the traffic light is red–and does not stop unless its position warns him.   Normal social interaction rests on the senses–on our ability to extract information from our senses, assign meaning to it, and respond in a way our society approves.

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Dec 08


Posted: under music, the book.
Tags: , ,  December 8th, 2008

Many people have commented on the amount–and kind–of music in the book.   Lou (the protagonist) listens to music, hears/feels music in his mind even when not outwardly listening to music, and has distinct preferences for which pieces go with what tasks.

When our son was very young, it was clear that he responded emotionally to music, and I often used music to help him stabilize a good mood or manage a bad one.    One particular Etude of Chopin’s could be counted on to calm him; several pieces brought delighted laughter.

Since my husband and I both like classical music, and have sung in church choirs for years, the musical environment was almost exclusively classical–a wide range of periods–with some additional vocal bits aimed at children.

Our son showed an early preference for complicated music as well as responding to the emotional tones.  He wore out cassette tapes of favorites (including some Russian opera, a Bach cantata, a tape of Bach organ music) and now enjoys going to concerts if it’s music he likes.   We knew he had good pitch sense, but did not realize until a friend was tuning her harp with one of those electonic tuning forks that he has absolute pitch…she turned it on and set a tone (without him seeing it) and he said “That’s a D!” in a surprised voice.

I thought of that tonight on the way home from the dress rehearsal for a MESSIAH performance…there’s no sing-along MESSIAH in our area this year, but I’m singing in the chorus for a symphony performance and he and my husband will come.

Is music important to all autistic persons?   I have no idea.   But I know it’s important to more than one because I’ve met several who use music to regulate and manage emotional state, to aid concentration, and so on…just as I do.

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