Down a hall, noisily

It’s amazing just how much hallways comprise the problem-solving part of my day, compared to the actual amount of time I am in them, instead of the classroom.
But in our program for secondary students with emotional and behavioral problems, hallways (like lunchrooms or busses) comprise that part of the space-time continuum that is just so fraught with issues.  Part of the reason for this is the somewhat unstructured quality of the time.
Sure, they are supposed to just go between the classrooms.  We don’t even have a full “passing period”, because allowing these students to loiter around the hallways or hang out together in the bathrooms just invites problems with bullying, making interpersonal or sometimes illegal deals, petty theft, tardiness and so on.  Instead, we just herd the troops to and fro, like so many wayward cats.
And still there’s all sorts of nonsense that goes on in the hallways: Continue reading Down a hall, noisily

Backwards Symphonies

“It’s been a long week — I bet you’re ready to decompose.”
I stared at my husband, blinking through the mental fog of too-many-jobs-not-enough-sleep.
“I’m not ready for the compost pile yet,” I replied, trying to figure out what his latest malapropism was meant to be.
“Or whatever the term is,” he added.
My brain finally catches up. “Decompress,” I answered.
What an incredibly long week.  I can’t remember the last time I had one like this, and in my over-busy world that’s saying something.
Wednesday last week I had a pneumonia vaccination, which left my arm so sore I couldn’t take off my jogbra without assistance, nor even get my hand up to head level until the weekend.  Moreover, Continue reading Backwards Symphonies

Mystery Jam and Other Achievements

I lost a label. I don’t mean the sticky label missing from the jar of “mystery jam” in my pantry (the goo is yellow, so I’m pretty sure it’s last summer’s ginger-pear jam), but rather a diagnostic label. For many parents, one of the highlights or milestones in life is for their child to “lose the label”.
Once-upon-a-time the getting that label (or labels) was highly important, so everyone knew what the problem was (well, sorta) and so the child could get some kind of educational or therapeutic services. Getting the label was oft times a relief because it meant that Someone Official had recognised that the child’s problems were not due to bad parenting, moral failure, or general laziness on the child’s part. Usually parents suspected something was “off” for quite a while, so having that validated is a bit of a relief.
Of course, then once the suspicions are confirmed, there are often new kinds of feelings while adjusting to the new daily reality. Frequently there are skirmishes with school districts or other bureaucracies. Sometimes there’s a bit of a grieving process for not having the perfect little darlings imagined during pregnancy. Some families have issues with relatives not understanding, accepting or even “believing in” whatever problem with the child is dealing with. Nasty episodes can erupt in extended families if one of the parents is accused of “causing” the problem or bringing “bad blood” to the lineage.
And of course, a number of parents eventually realise that the child’s issues are echoes of some of their own issues. Going through these things is very complex, sometimes stressful, and often enlightening. Having a child with a disability does not automatically tear a family apart or make the siblings resentful; depending upon how the parents respond to the issues and to each other, it can strengthen the family members’ ties to each other, and lead people to be more compassionate and less judgmental.
So losing the label can mean that the family has (finally!) managed to get beyond a lot of those stresses. Or so it seems.
But what does it really mean to “lose the label”? It can mean a number of things. Continue reading Mystery Jam and Other Achievements

Box? What box?

When I first read this job advert, I began to weep. I didn’t know anyone else understood what it was like to be this sort of person – to have this kind of mind – much less that anyone out there valued it.

Miscellaneous Vacancies
Are you:
• A creative, articulate scientist with research experience in biological, medical, chemical, electrical, mechanical or materials engineering disciplines?
• A lateral thinker, passionate about science and your own discipline, yet able to think outside of the box and make connections to other fields?
• A great listener with highly developed interpersonal skills, with career goals in commercialisation, technology transfer or business development and able to manage relationships with clients in a highly fluid environment, respect confidentiality and work with people across all levels of an organisation?
Do you:
• Thrive on change and derive great pleasure from making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas?
• Get a buzz from finding new routes that others have not trodden before and yet would be comfortable with working collaboratively to develop your ideas and those of others without expectation of extra personal or monetary recognition?

Sadly, the closing date for the position had long since passed by the time I read it. But like so many dangerous ideas, knowing that such a thing even existed reverberated up and down my mental timelines.
In graduate school, the entomology professors didn’t understand how or why I kept making connections between ecology and learning disabilities. Such details were certainly not necessary to researching insect behaviour, no matter how much they might apply to some of the students in the department.
In a recent New York Times article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike”, Janet Rae-Dupree describes the “so-called curse of knowledge” where experts are so familiar with traditional means of getting things done that their expertise gets in the way of innovation. The article also describes how bringing in people who have other fields of knowledge, but who are not bogged down by the specialist jargon that reinforces and limits the current understanding, can free up boxed-in thinking and create new ideas.
It’s a conundrum how organisations (academic or otherwise) claim to want innovation, but are resistant to novel suggestions that often go against what everyone knows will work. But as the saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”
More recently, an education professor was not only unfazed by my entomological background, but thought it “wonderful” and mentioned that Jean Piaget had worked on snail behaviour before working with children. I was flabbergasted. I so rarely get such unexpected, sincere kudos that such a moment can keep my spirits buoyed for weeks.
“Thinking outside the box” has always been easy – rather, it’s trying to figure out just what the hell others perceive as The Box that’s hard. I’ve spent decades struggling to understand what people’s boxes are like, how they construct and use them, where the boxes came from, and when I am supposed to intuit and conform to those boxes.
Unfortunately, because of everyone’s jargon-constrained knowledge boxes, it’s hard to describe my own kind of lateral, inter-disciplinary thinking. Trying to convince others that they can benefit from such seems almost beyond my abilities, as I’m not a natural salesperson who can schmooze and easily persuade others.
Meanwhile, I’m still buzzing about, looking for a good niche. At least now I have a few more um, “buzz-words” that will help me describe what I can offer.

Epidemiology Bass-Ackwards

Again.
A short news item caught my attention today. Unfortunately, it looks like a fabulous example of bad science, with lousy sampling methods, correllation trying to equal causality, and a heavy dose of confirmation bias. Add in a big dose of well-connected media personalities, and it’s absolute chum-bucket for indiscriminate news sharks.
Dr Lawrence Rosen thinks there is probably some kind of “environmental problem” causing an “autism cluster around St. Anthony’s school in Northvale”, New Jersey. Why is that? “The initial study included interviews with 24 current or former school employees who had children after working at the school. Their 42 offspring included 24 with developmental disorders — and 10 of them have autism.”
Oh, and “The school serves children with autism and other learning disabilities.” Are we not surprised. ( /dry humor )

Saying that something around the school “causes” large numbers of autistics (et cetera) is like saying that swimming pools “cause” large numbers of bikinis. Continue reading Epidemiology Bass-Ackwards

Argh

So here I am, still trying to find a way to make the job scene work.
Don’t get me wrong, I really like my college student tutoring, and special education paraprofessional, and noncredit instructor positions. It’s just that I’d rather have one job that paid decently, rather than three jobs cobbled together into something that leaves me overworked but seriously underpaid. (“underpaid” = $11/hr for someone with a MSc)
Lots of schools need teachers. No matter what employment resource I search, there are lots of positions for secondary science and special education teachers. School districts in every state need them, not just in the US but also in the UK. But to teach I need certification, and for certification Continue reading Argh

"For no reason"

(Coffee-spew warning)

“I don’t know; he just started biting the other kid for no reason. But you know, children-with-autism just do those things.”
“We were just going over the lesson when alla-sudden she just BLEW UP for no reason, and started cussing and calling me an F-ing B and threw her folder papers all over and stormed out of the room!”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with this kid. He’ll just pitch an absolute FIT. We tried to restrain him but then he starting kicking the para and screaming and banging his head on the floor. Honestly, he does. It’s awful, believe me. He’s just uncontrollable — if you want, we can set him off and you’ll see what I mean!”

These are re-created quotes, not verbatim from documentation. But I’m sure you get the idea. (The behavior specialist was naturally horrified Continue reading "For no reason"

A very painful problem

When you are looking at a particular problem behaviour in a child (student), the big question is, “Is it really a problem?” “Problem” does not mean it’s unusual, or that some people are uncomfortable because it’s a “stereotypical autistic thing”. “Problem” means someone is getting hurt, or in danger, or poses a considerable social issue. Rocking is not a problem, head-banging is. Lining toys up is not a problem, biting people is.
A great many of people’s responses can be categorised as trying to get something or to get away from something. If you’re trying to get rid of a problem behaviour, then you need to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure out what the stressor is, then you can avoid or reduce it. If you can figure out what the behaviour provides to the person, then you can figure out a more suitable replacement behavior that will provide a benefit, without the problematic issues also associated with it.
Let’s say you have a student (client, child) who is hurting themself. Continue reading A very painful problem

Learning Nothing

“I don’t know what to do with my son. You don’t understand what it’s like. He CAN’T LEARN. He’s been in school for FIVE YEARS and has learned NOTHING! I’ve been to all these meetings. It took him MONTHS of therapy to teach him how to sit down! He’ll NEVER be able to talk. He’s severe.”

This is a made-up letter. It’s a highly shortened version of letters I’ve seen a number of parents post on various discussion boards. It’s alarming on several fronts: the parent is stressed beyond their limits, and is of the belief that their son has not learned anything and cannot learn anything, and not surprisingly, has all but given up on the school he’s been attending, and also that because the child cannot [reliably] speak at this age that they will never speak or never be able to communicate by other means. The parent is certain that the child is DOOMED and will never mature into a capable, happy adult. (The grammatical and attributive errors of “he’s severe” also make my brain hurt, but that’s another issue.)
Judging by the complaints of parents who blog about their frustrations with schools or with their children, there is no lack of bad pedagogical examples.
You try something. It doesn’t work. You tweak it, and persist at employing Instructional Method X for a semester. For an entire year. New IEP, with a few tweaks, new room, different teacher. Still pretty much a variation upon Method X for another semester and another year, because X is the method that the teachers learned when they went to teaching college, and the tweaks were what the SpEd specialist learned from when they went to teaching college, picked up at a seminar, and heard from another SpEd specialist that worked on another kid who was also diagnosed with “A”. By all accounts, it should work.
Let’s work on that some more. Continue reading Learning Nothing