ALDs in the Classroom

On my page about Auditory Processing Disorder, someone had enquired if using ALDs (Assistive Listening Devices) in the classroom would be helpful. Her daughter, like many students, did not want to be singled out by using them and perceived by her peers as being “weird”. I thought I would expand upon the response to include more information. Please note that these suggestions are slated more toward APD and general educational design suggestions, rather than toward ALD equipment for students with severe hearing loss.

Although ALDs do work to an extent, they may not be the best choice for some situations. We should also note that although schools focus on the deficiencies of the student’s hearing, listening comprehension, or attention, quite frequently some of the deficiencies are really in the design of the school classrooms. These make it more difficult for students with APD, ADHD, or hyperacussis, and they also make it more tiring for the instructors who must spend all day trying to talk over noisy environments, and for the other students. (More on this aspect in the latter part of this post.)

One type of ALD is an FM or infrared system that involves a microphone (for the teacher) and receiver headphones (for the student). Naturally this is highly visible, so not everyone wants to be singled out in this manner.

The microphone must be positioned correctly, so the speaker’s voice does not fade in and out of range (you may have experienced this yourself when sitting in presentations or conferences). Of course, both pieces of the equipment needs to have fresh batteries and be in good repair, or it’s useless.

Sometimes microphones with speakers are recommended for teachers so they can broadcast better to the students in the back of the room. Usually the speakers are not high quality, and such systems just add to the amount of noise, rather than improving the clarity of communication!

Because the microphone is used by the primary speaker, it presents problems if anyone else in the classroom speaks. Either the mike is passed around when there are group discussions or questions, or the listener does not get comments and queries by the other students in the room. The latter not only removes a layer of information, but can also lead to reduce social inclusiveness because the person with the headphones loses the small commentaries that may not be part of the formal instruction, but are part of the socialisation and informal culture of the classroom. Even if the microphone does get passed around, the other students’ lack of familiarity with holding the mike where it can pick up their voices and the considerable junk-noise of passing the microphone do not improve the listening experience.

I will say that there are special situations when an ALD such as this would be especially good, such as when the teacher is doing instruction during a bus ride, in noisy places like zoos, factory tours, science museums and so on. It should also be made clear (and probably reminded) to the teacher that PA announcements are often unintelligible to people with APD (or hearing loss) — this means that messages will need to be passed on, and the teacher should not rely on the student being able to follow those announcements, except where they are simply following the herd of students. (I’ve had my family page me at airports and other places, and I not only couldn’t understand the page, I couldn’t even tell that I was the one being paged!)

There are alternatives to using an ALD, which should be considered and probably tried before deciding to use the ALD.

Students with APD should get “preferential seating”, which is often used for ADHD students as well. This means sitting near the teacher and/or instruction board or instruction area. The point is to reduce the amount of space and distractions between the student and the source of information. This is especially helpful if the student does some lip-reading (not everyone with APD is even aware they do this).

The teacher should be careful to not address the students when writing on the board. (Unfortunately, most teachers start out very conscientious, and then after a few days revert back to their old habits.) The student will have to get in the habit of asking, “What was that?” or “Can you repeat that?” or may have to advocate after the fact. Meaning, when everyone has started on the work, raising her hand, and then when the teacher comes by to talk with her, point out that the teacher was talking to the board (again) and she couldn’t understand everything. She could also have a special hand-signal to make when the teacher turns back around from the board, to alert the teacher of the missed communication.

Have the instructor turn on captions to broadcast media — these are good for the ESL students, and they help the other students catch the terms and spelling of details they need from the program. It’s best for the teacher to not point out that they are turning on the captions for your daughter specifically — just turn them on, and if anyone asks, simply explain that they are on so everyone can more easily understand the dialog. That’s the truth; there’s no one need for one person to be singled out.

As I referred to earlier, the classroom design can aggravate APD and ADHD difficulties. Not all of the problem should be set at the feet of the student!

“Noise” is composed of a number of factors. Most people just think of the volume (measured in decibels). But there is also the complexity factor — it’s hard to focus on one sound source when there are other sound sources going on at the same time. There is also the noise-to-signal-ratio factor where clarity is important, and clarity can be lost from not just background noise, but also echoes, unclear speech, and poor transmission equipment (fuzzy speakers, tinny receivers and so on).

ALDs are often recommended because the student (or employee) is having trouble hearing or understanding because the room is atmospherically noisy. This is in large part due to bad environmental design — too many hard surfaces, noisy HVAC (air conditioners, radiators, fans), various kinds of equipment, lots of voices at once and so on. Please note that “noisy equipment” does not mean it has to be loud by OSHA standards — students who are distractible and/or have APD problems and/or hyperacussis will find the noise levels in an average classroom to be more of a problem than many of their peers. (This also applies to many students with autism.)

Things like area rugs, draperies and acoustic tiles (or new, much more effective acoustic tiles) will help muffle a lot of the echo and reverberation. Turning off equipment when it’s not being used helps more than people realise, and is also important to save energy. If there are times when multiple instruction is going on (for example, an aide helping a few students) then setting up an area with a couple of those portable, upholstered cubicle-type dividers will help not only your student, but also be more effective for the aide and the other students. It’s always easier to “sell” an idea when the benefits to numbers of people are described.

I don’t believe that students with ADHD or APD should not even be in settings with the “open classroom” design that was in vogue some decades ago, as having several different classes and multiple instructions and larger numbers of students milling around is just too much to deal with effectively. Schools that have tried to retrofit open classroom areas into individual classrooms often end up with inadequate materials (due to budgetary issues). Unfortunately, merely pulling a folding divider wall between two rooms does not adequately damp all the noise that seeps through. A suspended (common) ceiling that is sometimes added along with the partitions does not effectively mute sound, but rather serves to transmit the sounds from one room to the next.

Likewise, rows of file cabinets are also poor excuses for walls between “rooms” in libraries or other resource rooms. It’s hard for adults to work in such environments, so I don’t know why we expect that children should find it easy. Furthermore, pretending that experiencing classes in such poorly-divided greatrooms is good practice for working in “cubicle farms” is nothing more than piss-poor rationalisation, what Alfie Kohn refers to as “getting hit on the head lessons” (justifying bad educational practices as preparation for more of the same).

Sadly, there are a great many districts that are suffering from insufficient classroom space. Teachers and students end up in a variety of locations that were never meant to be classrooms, and have had only minimal modifications, usually hanging up a whiteboard and cramming in some desks and chairs. In addition to features like thin, hollow “temporary” walls that have been there for years, odd room shapes or cramped conditions (including putting the board on a free wall rather than one that works with the traffic flow or desk orientation), and ventilation quirks we often find that these ad hoc classrooms are poorly placed with respect to other functions of the school.

Usually school architects try to create noise-buffer zones between the classrooms and the other functional areas of the school, such as the gymnasium, lunch room, kitchen, power plant, or specialty classrooms such as shop (wood/metal/engine working) or band instruction. These desperation classrooms are stuck in all sorts of bad locations, even in part of the custodian’s storage area. I remember having my Government class in a tiny room set in the back hallway by the gymnasium (it was probably once the coaches’ office), and the students reached the room by virtue of going through the boys’ or girls’ locker room. We spent the entire time assaulted by the locker room and pool chlorine smells, and the instructor had to talk over the noise from the adjoining gymnasium and natatorium.

Many older school buildings were designed in eras when passive lighting and ventilation were more commonplace. These frequently have high ceilings hung with banks of fluorescent lights and tall windows that are usually shaded by metal blinds. Those high ceilings and the hard surfaces combine to accentuate the noise echo and reverberation, and the banks of fluorescent lights are often noisy in their own regard. Because the fans are beneath the windows, the air flow will create ripples and rattles in the blinds, even when teachers try to pin down the bottoms of the blinds with stacks of extra textbooks. These are the sorts of rooms where general amplification speakers are especially un-helpful.

In summary, Assistive Listening Devices are helpful for reducing some of the noise-to-signal ratio.  However, they cannot substitute for effective interpersonal communication skills, and can only mediate some kinds of environmental noise problems.  They are not an easy fix to the problems faced by a student with APD.  As I have mentioned before, our various assistive devices do not remove our cure our problems, but rather, are part of the system of coping methods.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

Resolved

I want to find a local coffeehouse / restaurant / pub that is quiet, damnit! Not whisper-quiet, simply quiet enough where my hubby and I can talk and both hear and understand each other.

I want to find a place that does not employ the latest design conceits of noise magnification: “Hey I know! Let’s eliminating the ceiling tiles to show off the HVAC ductwork. Let’s add lots of sheet metal and concrete floors and other hard surfaces. Let’s have the kitchen open to the dining area, so they can hear the staff yelling at each other, and doing all that food preparation. Let’s eliminate any room dividers, and skip curtains on the windows. Let’s put on loud background music or several televisions — maybe even both!”

It’s one set of issues for me to feel overwhelmed by overly-sociable waiters who want to play “best buds”, or to flinch at the inevitable crash of the broken glass du jour, or pick through menus that are dietary land-mines, but it’s quite another when the two of us have to spend the evening recursively repeating, rephrasing, lipreading and periodically abandoning lines of discussion just because it’s too f—ing loud! (Pardon the cussing; been watching Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant shows.)

Does the general public really think that the background has to be loud for them to have fun? When even the ordinary people can hardly converse without yelling at each other, that means the noise level is too much.

Please. We would be glad to spend our rare dining-out money on a nice cozy place where we can enjoy our food and chat with each other. Good heavens, we might be persuaded to linger long enough to bother ordering a bottle of wine, or some desserts and coffee. We would even want to come back — with our friends.

(Oh, and while you’re at it, could you install some hooks somewhere so I can hang up my hat instead of balancing it on my knee all through dinner?)

I Have Something to Tell You

Well, with all the buzzing going on around more noisome news, I was certainly glad to find something sweet during a recent forage of my news source trapline*. It’s a new-ish piece of Assistive Technology (AT) for communication! But this post isn’t just about a nifty little mechanism (which I’ll get to in a minute); it’s about the social stuff around using ATs to communicate.

A variety of disability bloggers have discussed different electronic mechanisms they use for communicating with others**. There are a number of hurdles faced by users of augmentative communication (aug-comm), and unfortunately they are often greater in number than other kinds of AT. With any tech, there’s always the issues of finding out about it, trying it out, affording it, the learning curve, dealing with maintenance issues, upgrading to newer models when something gets too worn out or is simply too archaic for customer support or technical compatibility, working it in with other hardware in your life (“It’s a great piece of equipment, but my chair doesn’t come with a trailer so I can’t simply schlep it everywhere”) and other annoyances (“How is anyone s’posed to type on these tiny buttons?”).

But communication AT has its own strange set of social-disability type hurdles. Our culture so inextricably links communication with speaking Read the rest of this entry »

Welcome to the first ring of Hell

I’m going to send in a couple of job applications for biology teaching positions at community colleges. With some 200 credit hours of college education, I’ve been exposed to enough teachers to know that I teach better than some of them. I’ve had a course in college teaching, over a decade of teaching continuing education (designing my own courses, content, handouts & my own photography), and have been tutoring biology for several years.

But of course I’ve not actually applied for such a job before. So here I am re-doing my teaching philosophy, checking over my resume, chewing over application letter drafts and whatnot.

Like everyone, I’m really nervous about the prospect of interviews. Unlike a lot of people, I have particular difficulties with interviews, such as the prosopagnosia. This means not recognising people from one day to the next, at least not until I’ve been around them a while. I hate it when people drag you around a building and introduce you to a gazillion people. I can barely mentally file away some vague identification characteristics for one interviewer, and even then I never know which details will prove to be the useful ones for recognising them in the future. Yes, I know … I spend an hour talking with someone, and then (aside from the name on the business card) I truly can’t remember who the hell they were the next day. It’s awful.

During the actual interview process, I’m running mental circles around the auditory processing difficulties, fidgety-scatterbrained ADHD issues, unconsciously suppressing little motor tics (I shouldn’t have to theoretically, but it’s ingrained habit under such situations), concentrating on trying to make “enough” eye contact (whatever the hell that is), concentrating on speaking clearly and avoiding stuttering, ignoring the tinnitus and joint aches (and hoping against migraine). And being nervous is bad enough without those damn menopausal hot flashes!

Of course all that detracts from the amount of energy available for composing brilliant answers. So my usual interview plan is to anticipate interview questions and then prepare and practice answers. I spend days ruminating over and practicing my short “scripts” while in the car. Fortunately, I can never remember my answers verbatim, so they don’t come off as sounding “canned”.

Unfortunately, for all I have a large vocabulary and am a well-practiced writer, I’m less able to produce clear, concise answers to unexpected questions. It’s not that I can’t think of what to say, but rather that all the details of things come to mind at once, and I can’t prioritise and sequence them easily, nor compose paragraphs and then remember them all the way through.

So … anyone out there have specific tips for teaching interviews? (I’m good on basic interview stuff like professional wardrobe.) But this is a new kind of interview situation, and I don’t know what sorts of questions are likely to be asked, nor what sorts of unspoken conventions are typical for such a process, or what committees look for.

More captions, w00t!

This is a really quick post, owing to the fact that I need to try for getting more sleep than I got last night, which was of the “not more than four hours, total” interrupted variety.

I just found that those great folks at public television station WGBH in Boston, who pioneered closed-caption television shows lo-these-many-years ago, are taking their captioning efforts further.  They are YES! going to work on providing captioning for all those teeny-tiny screens, our iPods, PDAs, mobile phones and other hand-helds.

This is totally fabulous, because just when we had finally gotten nearly all the television shows captioned, out came these small media players, which then displayed those programs without their captions!

You can read all the details in this press release. 

Power surges and outtages

“Power surges” is the common joke phrase referring to having menopausal hot flashes.

Oh, yes. Because what’s life without something new to deal with? And naturally, it’s something inter-twined with everything else. Generally when women experience menopause, it’s because their hormones are going from the usual monthly oscillation to a damped oscillation, where the ups and downs get smaller and smaller. Mine aren’t — this is the thrill of quitting my HRT (hormone replacement therapy) that I’d been on after surgery five years ago. In a mere day’s time, I went from a low dose HRT to nothing. Klud.

First I had what my OB/GYN described as an ovarian cyst the size of an orange, which cyst+ovary she somehow managed to remove from a mere 1″ (2.5 cm) incision. (I suppose that pulling out large objects from narrow passages is the specialty of OB/GYNs.) Having been relieved of that painful annoyance, things went well for about a year, and then I started having the periods from hell again. They turned into the periods from hell with interperiods that were nearly as bad — now I had endometriosis.

That was bad enough, but the worse part wasn’t the surgical solution — Read the rest of this entry »

But it’s NOT the same

Dave Hingsburger recently had a very nice column about the pros and cons of labelling. He made some very fine points, including the key idea that, “the issue is how we value the difference that is labeled.” This reminded me of something similarly related, which is how we value the accommodations. With many sorts of disabilities, we have ways of getting around the internal disabling factors, and the environmental handicapping factors. Some of those ways involve assistive devices (ADs), also known as assistive technology (AT).

One of the problems we run into, sometimes unexpectedly so, is that our ADs do not “fix” the problem and make it go away. This is discouraging for the person who is newly diagnosed or newly treated for an issue, and who hoped that simply by getting some snazzy piece of equipment, everything would “be back to normal”. Well, no. Being disabled is the “new normal”. Arguing for, with, and at one’s assorted pieces of equipment is yet another layer added to our lives. Read the rest of this entry »

How hard can it be?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of providing the annual Inservice training session for a university’s tutoring department. One of the themes I explored in brief was how tutees, especially those with various learning disabilities, may have processing difficulties. We have to take information in, make sense of it, retrieve information, and then be able to relay information back. Various kinds of learning disabilities interfere with steps in this process, and the interference can happen at more than one step, especially when a person has more than one kind of difficulty. (Learning disabilities and other physiological issues are often co-occurring, technically known by the dreadful-sounding term of “comorbid”.)

The upshot of all this is that any “speed-bumps” or “road-blocks” in the processing will result in slow processing (it takes longer to do things), or uneven processing (some days it’s more difficult to do things, not always for apparent reasons), or intermittent or chronic inabilities to do things (being able to do things on some days or in some hours, but not others, can be more frustrating than never being able to do them).

There are a variety of disabilities out there, but instead of describing how each one can affect a person’s ability to respond in educational efforts, I’m going to describe how processing works in general, and at which steps some disabilities become apparent.

Whenever we interact with the world, there is a whole series of steps that has to happen. Let’s take the subject of, “Answering a question asked of you”. Most people assume that this is really simple, and thus, easy. Hah! Read the rest of this entry »

Syd

This sucks. It’s one of those problems that has gone from intermittent to nearly-constant. There’s really nothing to be done about it. I ask my doctor every few years, just in case. But no, there is no cure. There’s not even much to do about tinnitus. When at home or in the car, I mask it by playing music. At school, our students are generally noisy enough to drown it out.

My tinnitus is usually a high-pitched squeal, about 14-17 kHz, like a mosquito that whines for long periods, seemingly next to my left ear. The whine gets louder or softer, but rarely goes away. When it does, it returns with a sudden *pop*, as though someone turned on a radio. Once in a great while it’s stereophonic buzzing static in both ears, or even a fluttering sensation like a butterfly stuck on my left ear, but those are pretty rare. I know that I’m not just hearing actual machinery because I’ve heard it when standing surrounded by hectares of prairie, without a single operating machine in sight or earshot.

The good news is that I have no reduction in my general hearing. The problem did make itself known after I’d been working in noisy labs for several months. Well, I thought they were noisy labs. Read the rest of this entry »

Social Captioning

Hubby & I were taking a walk down the neighborhood park pathway. After several “hundred-year-advent floods” that happened within the same decade, the diverse planning committees finally realised that the streamway areas will flood and that it’s easier to work with nature, therefore, they shouldn’t allow building permits in these zones. Instead, they created public use areas that can more-or-less withstand periodic flooding, turning them into neighborhood parks with extensive pathways connecting them like green arteries snaking across the county. The pathway is tarmacked, following the winding curves of the steam, and nicely shaded. Bicyclists, rollerbladers, pedestrians, children seeking adventure, and dog-walkers all use these trails.

Shade also means increased cover, so what one gains in relief from sun exposure one loses in breezes to cool the skin and disperse personal clouds of gnats. I keep forgetting how this obnoxious part of summer affects me personally. Unless most people, I don’t quite have that marching gait where I swing my arms when walking, but am more inclined to hold my free hand(s) near my chest. This means that the insides of my elbows get obnoxiously sweaty and uncomfortably sticky because the tee shirt sleeves don’t reach that far (perhaps I need to apply a couple extra dabs of antiperspirant). On the other hand, it’s easier to reach over and gently nab my husband’s elbow and pull him close to me, which I do a number of times.

The first time, he protests, “I’m on the right side of the middle!” Indeed, he is more capable of walking in a straight line than I am. Every now and then I trip over my feet, running into curbs or wobbling onto turf.

“On your left!” announces an approaching bicyclist behind us. Read the rest of this entry »

Which Is Better?

When people ask, “Which is better?” for most anything, my response is, “Better for what?”

The same is true for any kind of debate about different teaching approaches, whether the subject is language, mathematics, or how we design classroom environments.

Take for example the whole debate about phonics versus whole-word approaches to reading. Each method is useful in different ways, and to different people. Phonics does give you tools to decode a great many words. But because English is not a strictly phonetic language, phonics can break down in the pronunciation ability, and especially in the spelling ability. One can usually come up a number of phonetically rational ways to spell a word, but only one or two will be correct (e.g. the British kerb and the American curb). So, let’s spell a word (I bet you can come up with even more ways than I’ve listed here!): Read the rest of this entry »

Is it CC?

Description: The Closed Captioning symbol, a black frame in a horizontal rectangle, with a white television screen shape inside, displaying a pair of letter Cs.

This icon is used in North America to denote television programming that carried the accessory closed captioning signal. (I like to give artists credit, so I’ll mention that it was designed by Jack Foley, a graphics designer for that closed captioning pioneer, public television station WGBH of Boston, Massachusetts.) I’m pleased to see this icon on video boxes or in a television guide by a show listing, because it means the program is captioned, i.e. subtitled. Captions aren’t exactly the same as subtitles, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Captions also describe other important auditory information, such as the type of background mood music, that a phone is ringing, there’s a knock on the door, or putting a musical quarter-note symbol by the words to denote that someone is singing, rather than speaking. The captions provide necessary clues to understanding the activity onscreen.

So … who cares? Read the rest of this entry »

Colony Collapse Disorder : Blogging Against Disablism Day

This post marks Blogging Against Disablism Day. (Yes, I’m late getting this post up. It got postponed after finishing audio-recording the last chapter of a textbook this morning before going to jobs #1 and #2, and after getting groceries, and after making dinner, and after unloading moving boxes, and after more-or-less-sitting and watching an episode of House with the family. I’m so lazy.)

(photo description: close-up shot of a fluffy, golden honeybee sitting calmly on a person’s hand)

 

 

 

The honeybees are in danger.

I don’t care; I hate bugs!

Too few people with disabilities complete their education or are fully employed.

That’s not my problem; I don’t know any of Those People.

Curiously, these two things are more related than you might imagine, at least on the social level. Read the rest of this entry »

The Glass Box

It’s a strange hollow, invisible kind of feeling. As though I could fade away just sitting there, because my own personal reality has so little bearing on what happens.

There it is again in the after-school period. Read the rest of this entry »

Recess: Sunday Funnies

Recess means we take a break and play; it’s important to do that once in a while.

Today I have a cartoon from today’s funny pages, “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephen Pastis. This one made it to our refrigerator. Everyone has difficulties understanding voice-mail messages once in a while. Those of us with auditory processing problems or hearing problems have difficulties understanding voice-mail messages all the time. We dread listening to voice-mail messages, and hate having to listen to them repeatedly to try and figure out what someone is telling us.

 

(Description of cartoon: This is a seven-panel cartoon of a pig and a rat standing by a table with a telephone message recording machine. In the first panel, Rat is listening to a recorded message, with pencil poised over a notepad; the recorded message says, “…and so … if you just … uh… meet me … like … uhh … at the uhh…” In the second panel, Pig joins the annoyed-looking Rat and asks him, “What are you up to, Rat?” In the third panel, Rat answers, “Listening to this idiot’s endless message … all I want is for him to say his stupid phone number.” The recorded message continues, “sooooo, anyhoo…” In the fourth panel, Pig responds, “Yeah I hate that … it’s–” and Rat interrupts him, “Wait wait wait .. shut up … I think he’s about to say it …” as the recorded message continues, “so … uh … give … uh me … a … call … uh… the number … is”. In the fifth panel, Pig and Rat are listening to the message, and Rat is bug-eyed in disbelief, as the words of the recorded message are just a solid blur of indistinguishable numbers. By the sixth panel the message has stopped, and Pig is staring at Rat, who is now an angry red color with steam coming out of his ears, and is shaking his fists. In the last panel, Pig turns to leave, commenting, “Why are the slowest message talkers the fastest phone number givers?” Meanwhile, Rat is beating on the answering machine, BAM-BAM-BAM, and yelling, ” ‘Cause people are morons!! morons!! morons!!”)

 

Centenary Retrospective

“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
~ Carl Rogers

Wow. The other day I was looking at my blog stats, and it said that I had 22,000 hits. I have also recently written my 100th post since June; that’s close to thrice a week, for the mathematically disinclined. So I thought I would take a step back and review what has gone by, to see what kinds of topical trends emerge, and pull up some of what I think are the better posts, for those of you who are newer visitors.

Bloggers are usually loquacious and opinionated, a description I do not fail to meet. But why do I blog? Some bloggers just natter about their lives, others blog as an outlet for kvetching, some are pushing a specific agenda, and still others like to analyse what they see. I do a little of all the above, but mostly I like to analyse. I am less concerned about persuading you than I am about giving you something to think about. After all, if we all believed the same things, the dialogues would get pretty dull!

Now that there is data from which to draw a pattern, what kinds of things do I blog about? In a way it is hard to sort posts into single categories, because topically there is an n-dimensional hypervolume of intersecting sets. But as an approach, I like to explore themes from personal experience or news events, and also from philosophical perspectives. I feel that philosophy loses some of its significance without grounding it in the phenomenal fields of people’s lives. And telling stories of lives without examining the what and wherefore of those events falls short of the ultimate value of storytelling: revealing the patterns in human relations, and learning from them.

Some of the greater categories revolve around education, from both student and instructor perspectives, and they revolve around the politics of disability and advocacy. In contrast, there are some themes that connect those categories. One of the most important themes is taking the traditional understandings of how social systems work, and taking those apart to reveal very different perspectives on what is happening.

These systems include how we communicate, such as when the language of “choice” is really just a distractor, or doublespeak meant to transfer the apparent (symbolic) power to the one person who in actuality has little power over the situation. These systems also include power paradigms, including how we “help” people, how people miss the mark when trying to create “inclusiveness”, and why pity is such a evil force because it creates distance between people. (There is no need to congratulate me for having “bravely overcome” the insults and artificial obstacles that people put in my way.)

I also look at how the assumptions we make determine how we define groups of people, from the way that we create diagnostic labels, to the sometimes-absurdities of “person-first language”, and concepts of “tolerance”.

In the end, we don’t need better ways of “beating” the system, because we are all part of the system, and the beatings must stop. (They haven’t improved morale yet.) What we need are ways of overhauling the system by sidestepping these terrible games and introducing different ways of working together.

Our perceptions of the world influence how we act, including how we view and understand others. Sometimes people mistake better identification or newer kinds of identification with “epidemics” of autism, AD/HD et cetera. But I bet if we’d had these kinds of identifiers decades ago, a lot more of us would have been better understood. Hyperactive kids are kind of hard to miss, even those who otherwise do not misbehave. (You wouldn’t believe how many ways there are to sit inappropriately!) More boys than girls are diagnosed, but I have to wonder if that isn’t due more to diagnostic criteria than actual prevalence rate. Why didn’t we see kids with these kinds of “needs” in previous decades? Partly because some of those kids didn’t even go to regular schools — they were kept at home or in institutions. Those who did go to regular schools just had to struggle along. They rarely had IEPs and such because their parents didn’t – couldn’t – ask for services that simply did not exist.

When we make these changes in understanding systems and in our perceptions, they can be outwardly expressed by seeking to become a better advocates. Being able to create a new rôle for one’s self includes being able to learn about the various rôles that others have played. (But just try to find sources on disability studies at the local bookstore!) Advocacy requires overcoming inertia and moving into commitment, and moving into commitment and inclusiveness. We also have to be able to recognise our own sources of ability and power, especially if we’ve been convinced otherwise.

Advocacy is complex, and the concerns of parents for the futures of their disabled children is an important part of that. Unfortunately, people whine about how hard it is to have an autistic child, or any kind of exceptional child. All too often there are terrible news reports about parents who have killed their handicapped or autistic children because they were such a horrid burden. Even more horrifying is when the press perspective or quotes are full of sympathy for the murderer because killing your own child is “understandable” because a person can’t help but be insanely stressed from dealing with the child’s abnormality.

It’s hardly not a new trend. But this millennia-old attitude does a terrible disservice to disabled people everywhere to be cast as either devils or angels. It is dehumanizing, and removes us from our humanity, and thus our basic human rights. In light of the fact that many things have a genetic basis, then hating disabilities in our children involves a curious kind of denial and self-loathing.

Distraught parents also need to understand that there is a difference between getting cured and being healed. The unresolved grief leaves parents susceptible to errors of judgment, and these well-intended but scientifically ignorant people who buy into these things are being duped by charlatans, sometimes with loss of life as well as with great monetary expense. Then the problem is propagated because those well-intended but scientifically ignorant people become meme agents, earnestly spreading the false gospel. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to weed out the “Astroturf” of faux grass-roots efforts.

Advocacy efforts include those in our schools, and involve administrators, educators, parents, and the students themselves. Sometimes teachers and parents worry about school accommodations because they fear it will leave the students unready for when they have to venture into the “real world”. Or, by misunderstanding the differences between equity, equality and need, teachers fear that giving accommodations “wouldn’t be fair” to the other students.

Parenting our students with learning difficulties is not easy – the traditional methods do not work, which is often why the students end up in “special” education. In turn, the students also get frustrated, and attempts to deal with the unmotivated student can sometimes create further problems. We also have to be careful to distinguish between challenging our students, and just making things more difficult for them. Distinguishing between cause and effect in misbehaviour is important – we need to address the causes to resolve problems.

The teaching end of things can also be rife with issues, and college professors can sometimes fall prey to pedagogical myths. Equally absurd is how learning difficulties are often not recognized until the student has been failing or near-failing for a while, thus allowing the student to get further behind and more entrenched in negative mind-sets. On the flip side, we identify exceptionality by contrasting it to what’s common for the group, or by how well a person functions. But what if our sampling group is far from average, or if the environment is less disabling?

Tutoring and teaching is another means of engaging in advocacy, and one of the best means I have is to share with my students the tools for how they can solve new kinds of problems in the future, for themselves and by themselves. It also gives me the opportunity to constantly learn from my students. During this co-educational process, we often need to figure out where in the learning process they are getting stuck, then come up with different ways of helping them learn new information, and different methods for studying. Sometimes the educational changes we make can be as simple as the way a test is typed up, making it more accessible to all the students. The way the audio-visual equipment is set up also makes a significant difference, including the kinds of computer monitors and lighting used. As a tool for engaging your students’ attention, novelty can be a big help. It can also backfire in unexpected ways…

On the more personal scale, I’m always seeking better ways of dealing with my own challenges of “Executive Functioning”, like dealing with all the stuff, stuff, stuff that piles up, losing something in the Dreaded Safe Place, coping with the inertia of task paralysis, or just getting “stuck” when the Plan B falls apart or I unexpectedly get engrossed in something. In worse cases, this means pulling myself out of an awful case of the Betweens, which condition you won’t find listed in any manual, but one that any ADD or autistic person will surely recognise. Regardless, it still helps to remember that strategies for compensating are just that – and that when there’s too much load on the system, those strategies won’t all succeed. That makes it difficult for me, but sometimes others’ lack of understanding is the greater problem.

When I sat and contemplated my place in the grand scheme of things, I found myself wondering just how it was that I could be “doing things the wrong way” and yet still be producing the right results. Were the processes really as important as the results? Doing things “normally” is very important to the general public. People with a wide variety of differences go to extreme effort trying to “pass for normal”, but this can be perilous. Some parents spend great effort to ensure their autistic children learn how to do “good eye contact”, but this may be a poor goal for some unexpected reasons. People can get hung up on developmental timetables, or they worry and wonder why their child likes to spend lots of time lining things up (it’s a good thing, really).

Adults can come up with some pretty off-the-wall assumptions about what is, or is not, going on in a child’s head; we cannot always assign mental processes to the results we see. Then there’s the situations that an earnest-yet-clueless ADHD or Aspie kid can find themselves in, such as failing to cheat. The really scary part is how these children who have difficulties socialising with their peers will fall prey to bullying and abuse, and general depression. Then we grow up into adults, and there’s the whole sticky territory of trying to make Small Talk, and the repercussions of just having a different sense of humor.

On the lighter end, a few posts are just for fun; about once a month there’s a “Recess”. Recess means we take a break and play – it’s important to do that once in a while. During dinner our family discusses why “resistance is fruitile, and how to be “underly pedantic”. Meanwhile, I have fun with repeating words, and enjoy taking photographs of improbable things.

My thanks to you for stopping by, and please to leave comments!

andrea

Running With the Red Queen

Everyone in life has to compensate in some manner or another, because no one excels at everything. If you are not mechanically inclined, you take your car to a shop to get the oil changed, and you call a plumber to fix leaks or replace worn faucets. If you’re not comfortable with arithmetic calculations, you have a tax specialist do your annual return, and you arrange for automatic payroll deposits and bill payments with your bank. These are ways that ordinary people deal with ordinary difficulties, and no one thinks any less of them. In fact, the economy depends upon people’s interdependency — earning your living doing things for others is important to the Gross National Product, is important to a town’s sense of community, and is important to a person’s self-worth from feeling useful.

It is curious that people who have others do everyday things for them because they are rich are envied, whereas people who have others do everyday things for them because they are unable to do them are looked down upon. People with ability sets that are different than the “average” person’s run into problems because they are being “inappropriately incompetent”. Some of those “should be able to” things are related to sex-rôle stereotypes: a man should be able to fix a leaky faucet, a woman should be able to sew her own shirts. Among more traditional or conservative populations, a person is not faulted if they are incompetent at a skill that is reserved for the other gender. However, when someone cannot do something that is expected of everyone, or cannot do it well, or cannot do it consistently, they are then open to derision.

The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler noted how people compensated and even over-compensated as ways of dealing with perceived incompetence and avoiding feelings of inferiority. Not all “incompetences” really are gross difficulties — they may merely be assigned as such by others around us.

I’ve mentioned before that my life is a mass of compensatory strategies. I compensate for auditory processing problems, and the tinnitus that increases the background noise problem. I compensate for prosopagnosia (difficulties recognising people from their faces). I compensate for all those organisational, time-sense, and executive-functioning issues related to ADHD and Asperger’s (planning, executing tasks including the getting-past-the-inertia stages, self-monitoring). I compensate for the hyperacusis, and my general clumsiness, tics and stuttering, and migraines. Generally speaking I compensate fairly well. So much so that most people don’t realise that I am working much harder to achieve nearly as well. I “pass for normal” most days, so people can’t understand why I’m having problems when I’m ill or stressed or simply trying to compensate for too many things simultaneously.

Adler would probably say that I over-compensate.

I had to go through Driver’s Education class twice to acquire the necessary motor skills. I did eventually learn to drive stick shift (manual transmission) and have even driven in both the UK and US. The day that I parallel-parked in front of my high school to request a transcript to be sent to a college was indeed a threshold moment in my life. (Even the transcript part was a highlight, as assaying higher education was uncertain due to my previous academic difficulties.) My husband once asked me, “What, can’t you drive and talk at the same time?” and I did not feel that it was unreasonable to answer, “No, I can’t.” I cannot drive a stick shift vehicle through city traffic, trying to find a business I had never been to, and talk on a cell phone. (I have Auditory Processing Disorder and he has a severe hearing loss — talking on the phone can be inherently confusing in its own right.)

There are classes when I struggle to keep my attention focused on the instructor, and also to understand what they are saying, especially if the classroom is mechanically noisy, or if the instructor mumbles or talks while facing the whiteboard or doesn’t present information in a clearly-defined format or use supplementary visuals. Because I am very good at being able to distinguish the important material in an educational presentation and record those details in sensible paragraphs, I have been a note-taker for dysgraphic or hearing-impaired students. But I have only been able to do that in those subjects where I was already familiar with most of the information — I could not be a note-taker for others if I was still learning all the vocabulary and concepts myself.

Mathematics presents special difficulties for me because of problems with sequencing, slow working speed, and occasional transpositions. It took me four years to memorise my multiplication tables, and I have flunked a number of tests over the years, and nearly had to take a class over. In university I dropped a course that I was getting D or F grades, to try it again later on to get C, B or A grades, and did that with more than one course. It was slow, difficult work slogging through college algebra, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, physics, and four semesters of chemistry. One of my current jobs is working as a special education paraprofessional. I help in the science classroom, but my main assignment is in the math classroom. The extremely ironic thing is that not only am I helping students with mathematics, but also that I am doing so in the very same school I attended years ago, in the same classrooms where I had once sat flunking math tests. (My first work week was not only difficult from the prosopagnosia-aggravated new-job disorientation, but also from “post-traumatic school disorder” as I had ongoing flashbacks.)

I actually did flunk a semester of secondary English and had to re-take that portion of the course. I have also written a book and hundreds of articles (on a variety of subjects) for magazines and newspapers. I tutor college students in composition classes.

Given these examples, it might sound as though my difficulties were all in the past, and have been made up for by my recent successes. That isn’t quite true. What I have done is learned how to work around some kinds of difficulties. With others I simply have to work harder to puzzle through consciously to figure out those things that most people do easily and without conscious effort. Some days I feel like Alice Through the Looking Glass, running as fast as I can just to stay in place.

The problem with over-compensation is that although I have at times felt that I had vanquished my personal demons of incompetence by having overcome various failures with landmark achievements, those successes do not mean that I cannot or will not have future problems! What helped more than those moments of personal glory (exhilarating though they were, despite lacking exciting soundtrack music), has been finding out why I have problems, how those problems manifest in my daily life, and how to work with them. Self-understanding improves self-image because it gives me tools for those ongoing and future difficulties. Self-understanding means that the next time I fail something (not “if” but “when”, because everyone does fail periodically), I will have the necessary cognitive and emotional tools to handle the disappointment. I will be able to handle defeat graciously, because it is a failure of task-specific achievement, not moral failure. Furthermore, I can extend that same grace to others, because we all have such problems, even though the details differ.

Out in our various communities, we need to be able to not only acknowledge that Yes, not everyone can do the same thing, but also destigmatise that fact. One of the tragedies with the current paradigms in the helping professions is the disdain and depersonalisation from “care-givers” to that people who need personal attendant services or other forms of assistance. We can’t all do the same things. Needing someone to change your diaper should be no more stigmatising than needing someone to change the oil in your car. There’s really something sick about people who feel superior those whom they serve — there’s an element of self-loathing transferred from one’s self to one’s job to the client. It is overcompensation of the soul-eating malicious sort. Service to others is about sharing strengths, not about bolstering one’s damaged self-worth at the expense of others’.

We should not have to overwork ourselves to over-compensate just to earn other’s acceptance.

Whining From Another Hysterical Female

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve actually had good results with most of the professionals whom I have seen. It would be rather a fallacy to broadwash a whole bunch of specialists on account of a few fools. But boy, when you run into an fool, it’s usually a doozy!

It’s been a long few years getting various difficulties sorted out and identified. Over a year ago I saw someone who was touted at being an expert on learning disabilities, to investigate ongoing scholastic difficulties and possible auditory processing difficulties.

Well, I saw Dr S. (a PhD, not physician) when I was otherwise free from the bulk of my work and school activities, as at the time I’d been having a number of health problems, including insomnia, migraines, worse tics and stuttering, hyperacusis & tinnitus et cetera.

I brought in with me documentation including previous test results, transcripts, and descriptions of my difficulties. This was because I can often get tangled up and forget stuff when trying to explain things, especially to doctors. (Hey, I’m an organism capable of learning — over time I’ve realised that remembering stuff is a problem, so now I take in a list or hand over a page of notes. My new primary physician does great with this, because in the couple of minutes it takes her to read a few paragraphs, we can fast-forward through a lot of rote questions, without omissions.)

Dr S. had me fill out a couple of online tests, and then had someone else administer some more tests to me. Oddly, one of the tests he gave me was for ADHD, for which a coöperating team of a psychologist and psychiatrist had already evaluated me. In fact, he said I had no ADHD and no real problems, except a little figure-ground discrimination hearing things in noisy environments. He had no recommendations, except that I needed to see a psychiatrist for psychosomative disorder.

Well, hell. Was I bordering on depression? Yes, and I knew that and was working actively against that — half a year of chronic sleep-deprivation and pain will do that to a person. Was I having difficulties with my husband? Yes, my health problems were requiring me to take a semester off school and work, and he was wanting to know “when I was going to be a productive member of society”. I already knew about these things, and had explained to Dr S. that I was working to deal with them. But that wasn’t why I was seeing Dr S. — I was trying to address learning and hearing comprehension problems. I even paid a few hundred dollars out of pocket for all that.

There’s a big problem here, and it’s not mine. Nor am I the only one with it.

The word “psychosomatic” has gotten warped or twisted. It literally acknowledges the interdependency and functionality of brain/mind and body, but now has come to mean that problems are “all in your head”, as in imaginary and/ or self-inflicted.

They used to call women “hysterical” and thought it due to having a uterus that “wandered around the body”. Holy cows. Obviously I’m not hysterical. (Hell, I don’t even have my uterus or ovaries any more, due to cysts and endometriosis.) So now they say that women who have problems have “psychosomative disorders”.

The issues with my husband were not seen as his difficulties in accepting my disabilities, but as evidence of my mental disorder.

The near-depression I was facing was not from months of chronic insomnia and pain, but rather caused by my mental illness.

The documentation I had brought with me to aid the man in his understanding of my problems was not data, but symptoms of my mental illness.

I was seen as “attention-seeking” rather than as solution-seeking.

Shit like that can drive a person nutz.

The good news from all that was that I got a referral to a CAPD specialist who said that Yes, I definitely do have such problems, and could even recommend some concrete ways of dealing with the problem and gave me documentation for such. But it makes me wonder, if Dr S. couldn’t really diagnose such, why did he put me through tests for APD, and tests I didn’t need for ADHD?

Has it ever occurred to clinicians that many of their clients don’t exhibit stress symptoms due to having psychosomative disorders, but rather than having various (unacknowledged) disabilities will make a person stressed?

It’s all ass-backwards. Shit like that can drive a person nutz.

Rush Hour Traffic

No one likes rush hour traffic. But the reason it exists is because thousands of people feel that they have to take the same road at the same time. Then they get upset because they can’t all do it fast.

Rush hour traffic is highly over-rated. So are developmental time-tables.

One of the important points is that a lot of the “developmental disorder” end of things is developmental slowness or unevenness – it takes longer to get certain skills, and they may not necessarily be reached in the same manner as most. Comparing a child with such to the standard developmental timetables may only serve to increase stress at the seeming brokenness.

So many schools are trying to fast-foward children, expecting kindergarten social, cognitive and physical skills from preschoolers, and gradeschool social, cognitive and physical skills from kindergarteners.

Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are integrating a humongous amount of information in a variety of spheres, including receptive and expressive language, physical skills ranging from gross and fine motor to bodily functions, single-interpersonal skills, group interpersonal skills, acquiring subject knowledge in concrete things in their lives, cause-and-effect stuff, abstract stuff like numbers and reading and time (seasons, special events etc), and a bunch of other stuff that’s not even coming to mind right now.

Then we throw in things like developmental variability in sensory realms and proprioception and language processing and …

I couldn’t tie my shoes until I was in 3rd grade. Bike riding was even later. I didn’t know all of my multiplication tables until 8th grade. I required speech therapy in primary school, and that was back in the 60’s when most kids didn’t get anything.

Sometimes I think that too many people turn all these developmental timetables into bare minimums, when in fact they are simply averages, which means that some kids do things sooner, and some kids do things later. Given how uneven our kids are, they think that everything should be as advanced as our kids’ best skills. They also spend too much time evaluating how well children participate in herds, when in fact most toddlers and preschoolers really aren’t so much herd animals yet.

School is not about racing to the finish. Nor is it about everyone taking the same path to get there. Despite what people say.

But people get Terribly Concerned because their children are not learning things at the proscribed rates. They become afraid that their children won’t learn at all, that somehow they will be “stuck” at whatever stage they are in. So there are children who spend 40 hours a week in a variety of programs for speech, for movement, for scholastic tutoring, for mimicking social interaction …

Once upon a time, long ago in a galaxy far, far away … we didn’t have all these “programs” for things. Which is not to say that some kinds of programs might not have been helpful. It would have made 40+ years easier if people had known about my considerable Auditory Processing Disorder difficulties, instead of saying I “wasn’t paying attention” or was lazy or whatever.

But people get Terribly Concerned that their child “doesn’t know how to play”. This boggles the mind – how can a child “not know how to play”? But what people are really meaning is that their child is not playing the way they expect them to, i.e., not the “right way”. It’s pretty sad when children are graded on whether or not they play correctly. Play is a personal exploration of the world, for one’s own learning and delight.

One of the things commonly ascribed to autism is a “lack of imagination”, because autistic children don’t always play with the same toys that neurotypical children do, or don’t engage in make-believe games the same way that neurotypical children do. This is really ironic, because Hans Asperger himself said, “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.” Hmn … And indeed, you’ll find autistic people in most every sphere of endeavour.

If the child doesn’t show an interest in typical toys, then they are simply not interested in them. Let them be available — they may later, or they may end up using them in different ways than other children. (Toy cars are for lining up, right? <grin>) It may be also that other things not generally considered to be toys will be more interesting to them.

For example most kids of all sorts find a manual eggbeater to be fascinating. But an eggbeater is not considered to be a “toy”. Nor is graph paper or a weight scale or a Latin dictionary or an Army Corps of Engineers building manual for national parks structures, although I found all of these fascinating as a child. I still do, and they gave me background useful for my degree in horticulture — you never know how those particular fascinations can be useful.

You may not see the same style of role-playing activities as more socially-oriented children engage in. Those are called “imaginative” play, and many people assume that a lack of engaging in them is a lack of imagination. Rather, it’s a lack of role-playing, and imagination can take many other forms. I played with dollhouses — but spent hours arranging the furniture, not acting out stories with the dolls themselves. To this day I can remember what the furniture looked like, but not the dolls that were supposed to go with it. I have a superlative mental “CAD” type program in my head for arranging and manipulating elements in space, and if I tell my husband that the sofa is six inches longer than the wall, by gum it is six inches longer than the wall. I can re-arrange stuff and pack more into a dishwasher or suitcase or packing box than anyone else.

Let your children have time to explore their worlds by giving them a wide range of experiences, and letting him take those in, in their own manner. Give them what they need by way of therapies to help him deal with things that make their lives difficult, but please, don’t fill their days with them. Children do develop, and some of them do so on different time tables.

Classroom Audio/Visual: Spectacular or Just a Spectacle?

I’ve been teaching for 13 years, and have run into just about every conceivable technical glitch imaginable. Consequently, I’ve gotten picky over the years. I like machinery and environments that actually work!

VISUAL

Video projection problems generally fall within two categories: light intensity (lumens) and viewing angles. The projected image must be bright enough to compete with ambient room light, and must also not be compromised or blocked by either the angle of projection or the viewing angle of the audience.

To be able to effectively compete with any other light in the room, a video projector needs to put out 2000 lumens. (Watch out for those pictures in advertising brochures with their nicely sharp, color-saturated false images, because they don’t really reflect how the light reflects off the projection screen in real life.) It’s a false economy to buy equipment that doesn’t provide enough “muscle” to adequately serve the people using it.

When the image is from a projector that is bouncing the light off a screen (generally overhead transparency projectors, opaque projectors, slide projectors, filmstrip projectors and LCD projectors) there is a certain amount of loss of light intensity between the projector and the screen. There is also a lot of competition between the brightness of the image and the ambient amount of light in the room. Either we try to darken the room completely so the projection doesn’t get all washed out, or we try to leave some lights on for other simultaneous activities. This is problematic for teachers who expect their students to be able to take notes while also being able to see the projected image. Residual lighting in the room must be arranged so it is not shining or reflecting onto the projection screen. Unfortunately, lighting controls are rarely designed to accommodate this situation, despite the fact that projectors are often used in classrooms, and have been in use for half a century!

An alternative is an image from a projector that is mounted behind a translucent screen, or from a big monitor or plasma screen. In these cases, the projected image is emitting the light to the audience, so it’s less washed-out. Note that with rear projection, there will also have to be equipment modifications because the image has to be vertically flipped, meaning reversed left and right, or else everything will be backwards. There are but a limited number of students that can read backwards text, although they would derive great pleasure at being able to demonstrate such a rare and obscure skill.

Beware of using an ordinary television monitor, because any text (such as captions) on a standard 27” television screen will not be legible beyond a certain distance! Actually, this problem applies to all screens; text that is 1 inch (about 2.5 cm) is only legible for maybe 30 feet (9 meters). Frankly, that’s a bit difficult to read at that distance. Naturally, the larger the text is, the less text overall that can be put on a screen. And then, we have to be able to physically see all the text …

Unless you only work with preschool children who are sitting on the floor, projection screens need to be 5-6 feet off the ground, otherwise people’s bodies will block the view of the bottom of the screen to those in the middle and back.

Also, a ceiling-mounted projector should not be so low as to block the view of the top of the screen. It’s not always that the projector itself hangs too low from the ceiling, but rather the screen is so low that the image is partially blocked by people or objects!

In turn, the students should not sit more than 30-45° from the centerline of the screen, or else their viewing is compromised due to blurring and distortion from viewing angle. Please don’t try to squeeze two or three classrooms of children into one classroom, with the students crammed all the way to the walls. Go ahead and take everyone to the auditorium where there is a screen and seating more suitable to the program.

When placing projectors on a floor cart, the projection size must match the required magnification size, as well as the projection screen size for the students in the back, and don’t forget, the presence of the projector cart must not break fire codes for the student aisles. How do you do that? You make the aisles wider! Besides, you really don’t want someone sitting right next to the projector, because the machinery noise will reduce their ability to hear the program.

Overhead projectors can be problematic because if they are near the front for the teacher to change images or to write on them, then when the head is angled upwards to project high enough for the back of the audience there is often a “keystone” effect. Keystoning is when the projected image is wider at the top than at the bottom, and this is problematic because the words become distorted and blurry and thus difficult to read.

It’s not enough to stand in the center aisle by the back row and look at a screen and say, “Oh yeah, I can see everything okay.” Rather, sit in the back row at a corner, behind people and see if you can see all of the screen, and likewise can read the text without straining. Then sit in the front row at the other corner of the seating area and check to see if there is much text distortion from that position as well.

AUDIO

Audio projection problems often result not from the speaker’s ability, but from background noise. We can refer to the simple Shannon-Weaver model of communication which describes the communication between people as the “signal” between the sender and receiver, and the background problems that interfere with that as the “noise”.

Background noise from HVAC systems (Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning), fluorescent lighting, and projection systems all figure into the noise-to-signal ratio. So do ordinary human sounds of paper shuffling, binder snapping, dropping things, pencil sharpening, pen scratching, crayon rumbling, people talking, muttering to themselves, whispering between each other, laughing, coughing, clearing their throats, eating, chewing gum, walking around, opening doors, their shoes squeaking, chairs scraping and so on. Then there’s the exciting outdoor world, including playground equipment, cars with booming bass, or even a work crew putting on fresh roofing tar on the school building.

The amount of background noise must be low enough that the signal (speech from the teacher and the other students) is intelligible without spending lots of mental energy straining to hear, decode, and process what is being said.

An adult who is conversing in their native language about a familiar topic has the skills to “fill in” periodic blips in the intelligibility of the conversation if the talking is 6 dB louder than the background noises. (Explanations of dB and Hz and how they relate to human hearing are below.)

However, children don’t have that high level of practice. Students don’t have the high level of background familiarity with the topics they are being instructed in (they are, after all, learning). People for whom English is not their first language don’t have the ease of decoding. Students with ear infections, hearing impairments or auditory processing difficulties will likewise not be able to manage, or consistently manage, at that level. A deficit is not the only way to have a problem – a student with acute hearing may perceive a greater range and volume of background noise than others, and students with attention problems will also find the environment difficult due to all the distractions. They all will need a 25 dB difference between signal and noise.

If people are having to strain to hear the words, they have less brainpower to devote to understanding the words, and less brainpower to devote to thinking about the concepts being discussed, and less brainpower to devote to remembering what is being discussed.

When rooms have the HVAC fans located within the room (instead of elsewhere in the building), such as window air conditioning units or equipment set in cabinets underneath the windows, then those fans are adding extra background noise. In-room ventilation is cheaper, but “cheaper” in this case only reflects the builder’s costs, not the cost to the people who are trying to use the room with varying levels of success.

A teacher who is talking while facing away from the audience, such as when writing on a board, is going to be difficult to hear. Imagine being seated between a thrumming window air conditioner and an LCD projector with its accompanying computer, both of which are emitting high-pitch whines. The student behind you is chewing gum with their mouth open, and another scratching out notes. Meanwhile, the teacher has turned away and is wrestling with the projection screen and says:

“The exam mumbleday is going to cover –“ tug, ziiiip, tug, rattle, ziiip, tug, clunk “—and page fiftee-.”

When’s the exam? What and page fifteen? Or was that something and page fifty; the two numbers sound very similar …

It’s easy to dismiss the problem and say that students can simply ask for clarification. But neither the teachers nor the students (or even the rest of the classmates) will tolerate frequent requests for clarification. Many students are unwilling to “bother” the teacher, or don’t want to attract attention to their selves. It’s also not helpful to wait until the end of class, for a variety of reasons. There’s the simple logistical problem that stopping to ask the teacher several questions makes it hard to get to the next class on time (then the student would be considered chronically tardy as well as inattentive). More importantly, it’s hard to remember everything that was unclear, and much worse, the content of a class depends upon being able to understand things in a sequence – lose parts of that sequence, and the flow of concepts or the steps in a process fall apart.

That teacher who is facing away from the students is also impossible to watch for those who actively (or unconsciously) lip-read. Although it is possible to equip the teacher with a microphone, this doesn’t help the students to hear each other. Worse, most speakers are designed to amplify music, not human voices. The range of tones for speech is narrower than for music, the range of comfortable volume is narrower than for music, and in contrast, the level of clarity for understanding speech is greater than that for music. If the clarity is not there, then amplification will not help – louder garble is still garble.

With the exceptions of students who need the more focused auditory input of an infrared system, or the echoic dynamics of a large lecture hall or auditorium, we don’t need to amplify the speaker, or blame the student for not trying hard enough – we really need to quiet the background noise.

* Explanations of dB and Hz and how they relate to human hearing:

Loudness is measured in decibels (dB): a whisper is about 20 dB, and a loud concert is 80-120 dB. Sounds over 80 dB for a few hours’ time can cause hearing loss, although the pain threshold is above that level, at 120-140 dB, so pain is not a good measure of danger to one’s hearing.

The tone or pitch of a sound is measured in Hertz (Hz; which is the number of sound waves per second): a low bass note is about 50 Hz

Human hearing is tested in a couple of different parameters; the tone (pitch) and the loudness. The normal speech range for humans is 250 – 1,000 Hz (Hertz). A tone of 250 Hz is a man’s low-pitched voice, and 1,000 Hz is a woman’s high-pitched voice. Good human hearing is 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz ( = 20 kHz, 20 kilohertz).

It’s interesting to note that a regular hearing exam only tests within the 125 – 8,000 Hz range, so a person can pass a hearing exam and still not have a full range of hearing up to 20 kHz. Normal hearing is considered to be in a range of 0 to just 20 dB of hearing loss. Mild hearing loss is 20-40 dB, moderate hearing loss is 40-60 dB, severe hearing loss is 60 to 80 dB, and profound hearing loss is 80 dB HL or more.

Failing to Cheat

My fourth-grade teacher Miss V is standing at the front of the classroom, writing something on the board and announcing the next assignment to the class. I am bobbing and straining to see around the four ranks of students in front of me, watching her gracefully stroking the chalk along the board to produce words in her perfect penmanship. The capitals swirl impressively, and her near-lack of spacing turns the words into ribbons of elegant loops and curls. I blink at it several times, and my focus finally shifts; pop! the calligraphy resolves into the vocabulary words “Huron” and “Michigan”.

I realise that today’s social studies lesson must be about geography, and we are studying the Great Lakes. I bet she’ll ask who remembers all of them, so I am mentally scrambling to remember all five lakes; there are always one or two that escape my mental list, as I don’t know any mnemonics for them. (Then again, remembering mnemonics can be even more difficult than remembering the original names.)

Wait a minute! Didn’t we color a map last week? I’d better pull that out to have it on hand. I feel proud for having thought of that, and know that Miss V will be very pleased that I’d been able to anticipate that part of her teaching strategy. Humming contentedly, I scoot my chair back so I can rummage around the inside of my school desk. In this classroom the school desks are solid metal shelves underneath heavy tabletops. I have what will decades later be known as ADHD, and not surprisingly the interior of my desk is a chaotic tangle of pencils, crayon bits, mashed-up assignment pages in various stages of completion, cool rocks, a forgotten/unsigned permission slip, well-worn erasers including one with thumb tacks (push pins) stuck in to turn it into a car, text books, treasured bits of shiny colored foil, pages of stories and drawings, Matchbox cars, and other débris.

I finally find my map and some of my colored pencils and slap them triumphantly on the desk. Then a pencil rolls off the edge and whilst retrieving it I lean over too far and crash into a neighboring student. Feeling foolish, I concentrate on finishing my preparation by smoothing out the crumpled map. Then I make yet another effort to refocus myself and sit up nice and straight to take a deep breath, responsibly looking toward Miss V – I am ready!

At that point I can see what the students around me have been doing for the past five minutes, and crushingly, I realise that I am totally off task. They aren’t doing anything at all with maps or colored pencils. The other students have some purple mimeographed worksheets out, and are writing on them. The class is quiet, or at least what the Miss V refers to as “quiet”; for me the room is still abuzz with scratching pencils, stuffy breathing, creaking chairs and desks, the ticking clock, playground noises, and the arguments of crows fighting each other for something that had fallen out of a lunch sack. Uh-oh … I freeze, feeling clammy and prickly, and my focal field tunnels down to encompass no more than a swirl in the desktop laminate.

Oh no, what am I supposed to be doing? What had I missed when she was talking towards the chalkboard? I’m stuck in short focus – I have peripheral vision but am not making any sense of it, so anything written on the chalkboard on the other side of the room has just become totally inaccessible to me.

This isn’t the first time I have gotten distracted, or have had an auditory or visual processing blip, or simply haven’t been able to see around the older-and-bigger students and thus misunderstood an assignment. So I know that if I once again ask the teacher what she just said I would get in trouble for “not paying attention”, and if I once again ask a nearby student what the Miss V said I would get in trouble for “talking out of turn”.

I need to do something to figure out what I should be doing … I will just check my neighbor’s page to see what the subject is, and what we are supposed to be doing. Having already annoyed one student by nearly falling on them, I graciously lean the other direction – thus unintentionally managing to annoy two students in as many minutes.

Suddenly Miss V is there looming over me, and her reprimands swirl around in my mind, the sentences weaving together and echoing in broken chunks. She is glaring at me, and once again I am unable to make eye contact so am staring at the ruffles on her pink blouse, stammering as I try to explain, “I was jus’JUST looking at oowwwhat she was doing …”

And that is why I appeared noncompliant and dishonest, and how I got into trouble for cheating on the reading worksheet about the Huron Indians.

Sometimes what looks like cheating isn’t. Rather, what we have is a student who is utilizing other environmental sources to get needed information. The distinction here is that the student is looking at another’s materials not for the answers to the assignment, but rather answers about the assignment, such as which pages or problems are assigned, or how the work is to be performed (e.g. in the book, on a piece of paper, writing out the questions or just the answers, putting spelling words in sentences or just writing them multiple times).

After all, it’s generally thought a child with perfect hearing should be able to understand directions. Included in this are the assumptions that in addition to basic sensory hearing, “hearing” includes being able to maintain attention (listening), being able to understand what is heard (decoding), and also knowing what is meant by those words (interpreting).

Corrective lenses should also mean that the child can see the board as well as anyone else. Included in this are the assumptions that in addition to basic sensory vision, “seeing” means being able to maintain attention from the beginning to the ending of the writing process (watching), being able to orient and select what is seen (discriminating), and also being able to decode what is meant by partially-written instructions (inferring).

Lastly, it’s generally thought that an intelligent child should be able to put it all together, to integrate the sensory information, and then turn around and express that processing appropriately, in task performance (planning and execution), in verbal responses (articulation), and in nonverbal responses.

Sadly, many people have never considered how many steps there are to processing sensory information. Next time you have a student who appears off-task, noncompliant, willful, rebellious or deceitful, don’t automatically assume that the student is misbehaving on purpose. This is too simplistic. It’s not always about the student trying to aggravate you – it may not be about you at all. Sometimes won’t is really can’t. And sometimes can’t is really can’t always.

Jump For Joy

So there’s the aspie kid, frustrated about a sophomore English writing assignment, a persuasive essay. It wasn’t coming up with the topic or the supporting details, but rather, figuring out why there needed to be any explanation about how the evidence supported the assertion. It was perfectly obvious! Well, at least it was to the author, and complaints about the explanation being “redundant” resulted in my having to explain, “It’s obvious to you, but you have to explain it to someone else.”

I remember having these slight “mindblindness” issues myself. It’s an inability to construct an imaginary understanding of another’s comprehension based solely upon their reading of your written material, because in any writing, you always can assume that the reader does know some stuff. It’s what you can assume the reader doesn’t know that is the tricky part. To build up that “Theory of Mind” (which really everyone does have, including autistics) you have to be able to build a set of common patterns about what different people know and don’t know, based upon their ages, genders, backgrounds and such. To create that you need a trend, and to create a trend you need multiple sets of data, which arrive from much conversing with people. Spending your lunch periods doing math homework is efficient for reducing homework (and backpack) loads, but certainly reduces the opportunities to socialise. Then again, it also gives one necessary time to de-stress and recharge for the rest of the school day. Everything is choices!

In this situation with the essay, our student doesn’t understand the difference between the data and the analysis (which frankly, some graduate students don’t), or rather, between the analysis and the discussion. “Here’s the opinion,” I explain, “here’s what the evidence is, and here’s why it supports that opinion.”

Hmn … finally aspie kid is getting frustrated with maternal explanations; the fact that I tutor college students in composition isn’t impressive — in this sphere, I’m still just Mom.

So when faced with these kinds of frustrations, there’s that tried-and-true solace: the trampoline.

I’m tickled that for someone who has never been into organised sports, aspie kid has become progressively more coördinated and agile over the years, especially with the not-inconsiderable adolescent growth spurt. In fact, I’m more clumsy than the kid is. This improvement is very reassuring, because during toddlerhood this child accidentally broke a number of things, including a window. I was in fact, amazed that no bones ever got broken.

I think much of that is due to the trampoline. It certainly seems to have improved the vestibular & proprioceptive organisation, meaning the sense of balance, and understanding where the body is in space and the relationships of different body parts. We bought it for fun, but this play equipment has (in retrospect) proven to be rather therapeutic.

Our giant backyard trampoline has gotten plenty of use over the years. During more hyperactive days, this ADHD child was sent to go bounce out excess energy in order to have enough focus for doing homework. Or even for sitting through dinner.

Aspie kid is no longer hyperactive. But the trampoline still gets used just for the sheer joy of bouncing, and for working through assorted mental knots, like this business of the persuasive essay. After the workout, our student returned to finish up the persuasive essay with the required elaborations.

When compared to equally atypical peers, our child’s difficulties have been not nearly as noticeable, most likely due to having had an enabling sort of childhood environment. The trampoline helps with the hyperactivity and coördination. The closed-captioned television (for hard-of-hearing dad) helps with the auditory processing disorder. The household routines are set up to be as ADHD-friendly as possible, lest Mom totally fall apart organisation-wise. This means that various mental quirks aren’t seen as being extremely odd, but rather as things that one simply deals with in stride, because everyone has different needs.

C’est Normal: The Enabling Environment

It was quite a while before we realized that aspie-kid was more than a trifle unusual. Part of that was not denial, but rather the mental yardsticks employed at home. An aspie kid with parents who have diverse disabilities doesn’t really stand out. (The neurotypical kid once joked about feeling left out for not having any kind of exceptionality. “You were speech-delayed,” I offered, but our dear loquacious English major pretended to not be mollified.)

For example, Aspie kid has some minor sensory issues, and has always been particular about not wanting to wear anything but soft, loose clothing. So what? Who doesn’t have clothing preferences? Aspie kid doesn’t like spicy foods, and even in high school will eat “naked noodles” (pasta without sauce) more often than not, and is quite content with plain white sticky rice. Hardly a crisis; as far as I can tell, teenagers’ natural forage is pizza, and as a subspecies, doesn’t really require an extremely broad diet beyond what’s required for nutritional balance. Only one style of nubbly hairbrush is acceptable to the kid (natural bristles are intolerable), so there’s no telling if the long hair thing is another sensory issue about not wanting to get haircuts. But hair elastics are cheaper and much less hassle than regular trips to the salon anyway, so no complaints here.

The extended family did note the disinclination to join into the chit-chat in favor of hanging quietly on the edge of the gathering. But what this child lacked in mobs of kids visiting our back yard to play has certainly been made up for in a steadfast friendship with a particular pal, which friendship has lasted more than a decade.

In later years the teenager’s bedroom floor became the stereotypical mess of clean & dirty clothes and books and snack wrappers et cetera (once again, heavy on the et cetera), but we have to find a certain charm with the periodically-resurfacing habit of lining up objects along shelves – there may be snack dishes piling up, but the computer accessories are tidy!

The other part of not immediately seeing the offspring’s exceptionalities is that they didn’t particularly stand out because we have an enabling home environment. I don’t mean “enabling” in the pathological sense, but rather that home life is designed to reduce problems on a variety of levels.

Dad is hard of hearing, so the children grow up reading television captions. This certainly seems to have aided reading and vocabulary skills, and reduces comprehension problems for those of us with Auditory Processing Disorder. Well, at least when we’re watching television. Mixing up people with hearing impairment and APD at the dinner table can lead to some incredibly recursive conversations as we verify and correct what’s being communicated. Text messaging (as a replacement for phoning each other with voice messages) was just made for families like ours.

For the teachers, yet another child who repeatedly has trouble remembering to finish or turn in assignments, and who loses winter coats et cetera (heavy on the et cetera) isn’t rather notable. (If the jigglyness doesn’t include interrupting the class, the teachers won’t have time to worry about it.) Thankfully this was the second child, so the ADHD mom had time to figure out some coping strategies of her own for keeping track of objects and tasks, and started working on them with the kid. Of course, dad despairs of the two of us ever sitting through an entire movie or television show without popping up for something-or-another. But gee, isn’t that why the Pause button exists?

In the natural environment of the home, our respective disabilities are relatively minor. Sometimes dad doesn’t hear people calling for him, once in a while the grilled cheese sandwiches get overbrowned because Mom gets distracted, and periodically the lawn gets shaggy because the kid is busily perseverating upon some obscure detail of computer gaming. When all else fails, you send the kid to track down dad and let him know that mom’s has finished making a fresh batch of sandwiches and it’s time to eat. The grass will of course, still be there tomorrow morning.

To Be A Person, or, Not To Be A Person-With

I promised to address “person-first” language. (And my pal David promised to “rip the piss outa [me]”, for which I’m curious what-all he has to say. Then again, I’m really curious as to what all of you readers here have to say; just who ARE you people??)

Person-first language refers to saying things like “person with a hearing loss”, as opposed to someone “being hard-of-hearing’. The philosophy behind this is that the person is more important than an impairment they have; that a person should not be known by a diagnosis. This is a reasonable goal, but like anything, it can be taken to extremes and has been.

I think “person-with” makes better rational linguistic sense when the “with” is a temporary (or preferably temporary) condition, as in “person with broken leg” or “person with cancer”. Person-first language makes all kinds of sense when trying to avoid the bad hospital habit of saying “the emphysema in 402”. The ENT says I am a person with hyperacussis and tinnitus.

Actually, I would end up saying things like, “I am nearsighted and have Auditory Processing Disorder”, and skip the whole person-with scenario. “I am brunette” is infinitely handier than saying “I have (or am a person with) brunette hair”. It’s understood that it’s my hair color we’re talking about, and that a description of me is only slightly delineated by that descriptor – I’m more than my hair.

When the condition is rather a state of being — something fairly permanent, whether acquired or developmental — then it’s (noun) as in autistic, Deaf, gay, male, dyslexic, Canadian et cetera.

Person-first can be prissy and awkward and sometimes is simply benign earnestness at being polite – well-intended but treacly. Or, person-first can be Politically Correct at its most obnoxious, demonstrating a belief that the condition is “recoverable” and thus meaning something should be done about it. At its worst, person-first demonstrates a belief that the condition is shameful, to be avoided or hidden, such as a person with homosexual tendencies who just needs a good dose of religious correction and a burning desire to be morally uprighteous and “normal”.

Early in my life I started doing things left-handed, so they made sure I learned to write with my right hand. And I’m still left-handed. My inner right-handed person was never “recovered” from that pathological condition, because that imaginary person was never there. I’m a lefty who has learned how to be ambidextrous, which often means that I’m clumsy any way I go about it. Trying to pretend I’m really a right-handed person and calling me such never changed that. Likewise, autistics are not broken or diseased neurotypicals, anymore than gays and lesbians are not confused or immoral heterosexuals.

(I just wish there was a better term for “I have ADHD”; ADDer just doesn’t cut it for me. Maybe they’ll rename it – again – and we’ll have a more euphonic term.)

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