What Would Molly Ivins Say?

Oh, boy howdy! This article by Laura Hibbard, “Texas Republican Party Calls For Abstinence Only Sex Ed, Corporal Punishment In Schools” nearly made me choke on my cuppa tea. She described just a few of the details the 2012 Republican Party of Texas wants for their state schools. (The article also includes a nicely scrollable copy of their entire Platform Report.)

You know me, I’m a science person, with keen interests in education and social justice.  And I was flabbergasted. It’s like a car crash — you can’t help but gawp in horrified fascination. Well, I had the day off work, so after a house-painting break, scanned through most of the document. It’s one thing to hear soundbites on the radio or in video, but quite another to actually be able to read an entire position. For one thing, it gives a person the chance to notice internal inconsistencies, and look things up.

In addition to the aforementioned items listed in the title of Hibbard’s article, the Texas GOP’s document lists a lot more in their “Educating Our Children” section. For example, they also want to eliminate preschool and kindergarten, and require daily pledges of allegiance to the US & Texas flags (because that somehow makes one patriotic).

Ooh, get this:

“Classroom Expenditures for Staff – We support having 80% of school district payroll expenses of professional staff of a school district be full-time classroom teachers.”

You realize that means giving the ability to hire a number of part-time classroom teachers (and paraprofessionals if they opt to include some) who can be paid WAY less, which will keep a district’s budget way down. “Fiscal responsibility” as a loophole for loading up on part-time staff. Who of course often don’t get benefits — unfortunately, a common practice in education and other industries. (Yes, I’m calling education an industry.)

And of course, this next incredible ::head-desk:: concept that (for me) underpins a great deal of their platform:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Because you know, mastering the subject material and learning how to think critically will undermine the GOP’s fixed beliefs and enable challenging authority. Any challenges to authority will be dealt with accordingly:

“Classroom Discipline –We recommend that local school boards and classroom teachers be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems. Corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas.”

Under the “Promoting Individual Freedom and Personal Safety” section, this concept continues as, Read the rest of this entry »

Set the Wayback Machine

to 1994. Just the ordinary sort of 1994, when my children were two and six years old.

We are watching X-Men during Saturday morning cartoons. My son is really into super-heroes, and in case you don’t know, the X-Men are mutant super-heroes.

My daughter asks me, “What’s a mutant?” I take a deep breath, trying to figure out how to explain genetic mutation to a six-year old. Thankfully, with my children this wasn’t too difficult.

“Remember the other week when I told you what DNA is? The instructions that tell the different parts of your body how to grow?” She remembers. “Sometimes the DNA changes, and that’s called a mutation. A Monoceratops changing into a Triceratops s a mutation.”* We watch some more of the cartoon.

She asks me, “Are all mutants weird like the X-Men, and have super powers?”

“No. That’s just the cartoon part. If you always have yellow flowers and suddenly get a red flower, that’s a mutation. In fact, everything in the world started out as a mutation, or else there would be nothing but itty-bitty plants floating in the ocean.”

She decides that would be boring.

“Why do those people hate the X-Men? The X-Men are good guys.”

“They hate them because they’re bigots. ‘Bigots’ means when people hate other people because of something like what church they go to, or where they’re from, or how they look. The people hate the X-Men because they look different, and can do different things, and they’re scared of them.”

“But that’s not fair,” she complains, “The X-Men are nice.”

“That’s right. Bigotry isn’t fair, and it isn’t nice.”

“I like Storm the best.”

Storm is a black woman with long white hair who can control the weather, and fly. “Me, too.” I answer.

“I want to be Storm for Halloween.”


A few nights later, we are reading The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth. This is one of my favorite stories from when I was growing up, a tall tale about a Triceratops dinosaur that somehow hatches from an egg laid by a chicken, and the consequences for the boy in the story. She has loved dinosaurs since she was a mere tot of two. We read two chapters into the book. She read a few paragraphs, sounding out new words, and then realised, “The chicken laid a mutant egg!”

This is why you should watch television with your children. In one Saturday morning cartoon, we have covered biology and bigotry, and made a tentative Halloween costume decision.


* I know, I know, it’s more complex than that. All you evolutionary biologists out there will have to work with me on that. (-;

Music to Bounce By

My five-month old grandson, AKA Tigger or Mr BoingBoing, has loved to bounce from the get-go.  Even when he was in utero, my daugher remembers how the sonography technician ended up sighing when she visited, because the baby was so mobile that it was hard to get a measurement.  Later on, the mom-to-be said that although the baby book bore the reminder to make sure that the baby moved each day, she never had to bother to check.

“I hope he learns how to sit for half an hour by the time school starts,” I mentioned, with ADHD concerns hanging unspoken in the air.

“He does have a great attention span.  I just hope he starts sleeping better soon,” added the proud but perennially tired mom.

“There are some children that never do sleep much.”

“But I don’t want one of those …”  The idea of spending the next decade or more taking turns sleeping was almost too much to contemplate.

“No one ever does!”

Thankfully, the lad loves his doorway bouncer.  Not only has his bouncy seat just been retired because he can he roll over and out of it, he’s even started getting on his hands and knees.

In my familial role as Bouncy Lady, I put together an iTunes playlist of “Music to Bounce By” for bouncing him on our knees, as babies love music, it’s generally more entertaining for all, and slightly less tiring for the adult if they don’t have to sing.  We want to expose him to a variety of music.  Right now, “Wipe Out” by the Ventures is a favorite.  (I’ve included links to a couple of pieces that are not well known, but are worth checking out.)

  • Good Vibrations    The Beach Boys
  • Ticket To Ride    The Beatles
  • Will It Go Round in Circles    Billy Preston
  • That’l Be The Day    Buddy Holly & The Crickets
  • Superstition  Stevie Wonder
  • Working In The Coal Mine    Devo
  • Satin Doll    Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
  • Crocodile Rock    Elton John
  • Think    Aretha Franklin
  • Sing, Sing, Sing    Benny Goodman
  • Mouse Jigs    Flook
  • Barracuda    Heart
  • Tijuana Taxi   Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
  • Immigrant Song    Led Zeppelin
  • Dancing On The Ceiling   Lionel Richie
  • Another One Bites The Dust    Queen
  • Burning Down the House   Talking Heads
  • Shake Your Tailfeather    Ray Charles
  • Four Sticks    Sones de Mexico Ensemble
  • Pride And Joy   Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • Wipe Out     The Ventures
  • Hawaii Five-O    The Ventures
  • Linus And Lucy    Vince Guaraldi

Every few songs we have something a bit less frenetic, to keep from getting too fatigued.  And of course, we never get through the whole list in one pass; just a few songs at a time.

At least there’s one thing that he’ll sit still for:  watching Star Trek!  But that’s a story for another day …

Compatibly yours

“Ow!” Exclaimed my daugher, who was playing with her 4-month old son.  “He loves standing up, but he’s grabbing my glasses.  Or my hair.  And that hurts mummy, boo-boo.

She’d already given up wearing earrings.  But it was going to be a while before the lad could be taught “touch gently” for petting cats or family members.

“Well,” I offered, “you could always try Incompatible Behaviors.”  In the world of behavior modification, this is usually used in the sense of rewarding the preferred alternative.  But I was thinking in the more concrete sense, meaning, if you’re doing one thing, then you can’t do the other (undesired) thing.  “If you give him something else to hold onto, then he can’t grab your hair.”

This has proven so useful, she has wisely taken the idea to other situations.  At nap time, the lad is still so wound up that he gets agitated from playing with his hands.  So she gives him a stuffed animal or blanket to hold onto, and the babe’s able to calm down.

Now she’s discovered the joy that is watching a child learn new skills, especially as he practices sitting up and playing with the extra plastic measuring cups stored in an old plastic ice-cream tub.  “Today he learned that if he knocks the cups against the tub, they make noise!”

I chuckled, knowing what was coming up next, and we chorused in dismay, “Today he learned that if he knocks the cups against the tub, THEY MAKE NOISE!”

“And that’s why I never give anyone’s kids toys that make noises,” I nodded sagely.

“I’m going to just pass along some of those things that were handed along to us,” she confided.

As all parents know, if you give your children quiet toys, they will have to work imaginatively to figure out how to make noises with them.

ADD-ing new perspectives

My daughter is sailing rather gracefully through her pregnancy — well, as gracefully as one can when they have reached the “beached whale” stage that is the third trimester.

And yet, as with many pregnant women, she is experiencing some “third trimester brain rot”, that intermittent or semi-chronic reduction in frontal-lobe functioning.  Meaning:

  • forgetting important things you meant to do
  • not packing things you meant to take with you somewhere
  • getting sidetracked and forgetting what you were doing a few minutes ago
  • moments of being adrift when you lose track of what you were about to do
  • dysnomic moments of losing words or names you normally have on the tip of your tongue
  • being spectacular at some higher cognitive facitilities (“Look at this great post-colonialist literary critique I just wrote!”) and then realising that you suddenly can’t remember how to do something really simple (“Why are my pants pockets wrong? Oh, my pants are on backwards.”)

I’ve yet to read why this happens, aside from sleep issues or “It’s The Hormones”, that generic disclaimer for all things annoying during pregnancy (or indeed, between menarche and menopause).

The good news is that the brain fog isn’t permanent.  I reassured her that “third trimester brain rot” usually starts to go away after the baby sleeps through the night.  She looked at me suspiciously; surely “third trimester brain rot” should go away after the baby is born?  But then I reminded her about the chronic sleep deprivation that is nursing a baby every two hours.  (Were it not a normal part of human development, such sleep deprivation would surely be outlawed under the Geneva Convention.)

Of course, it doesn’t help that she’s finishing up her college senior capstone project, and it would really be useful to get a solid night’s sleep, or to wake up from a long night’s sleep feeling more rested, or to be able to schlep all those literary refs around campus more easily, or to not spend 33.3% of her life preoccupied with peeing. But, there it is.

On the other hand, we have had some bonding moments that go beyond shared maternity.  One day she was complaining about the general forgetfulness and fogginess, and I pointed out, “Hey, now you know what it’s like for someone with ADD.”

“Omigosh, I couldn’t stand it,” she replied, dismayed at the idea of being permanently stuck in such a state.

“But the thing is,” I explained (somewhat defensively) “when you have ADD or ADHD, that’s what it’s always been like.  That’s what you’re used to.”  The point being that one doesn’t feel the same sense of loss when it’s a life-long condition, compared to a late-onset disability.

And despite the obvious impairments, there are some positive aspects to AD/HD, due to the different functioning patterns of the brain.  There’s the hyperfocus, abilities to make different associative and intuitive leaps, and often a visual thinking style that lends to a variety of design strengths.

Having done through a few re-iterations of this conversation, there seems to be less of an “Oh noes!” reaction, and more of an appreciation of the chronic difficulties that I and other people with ADD or ADHD face.  Not only that, but I think the reasons for some of my demands for structure and routines that I developed as she and her brother were young, are becoming more apparent to her.

Maybe there are just some “mom-things” that one doesn’t appreciate in quite the same way until becoming a parent.

On the other hand, there are still a lot of things I do that bug her, and we must ever keep re-negotiating our relationship, especially as we continue to live in the same house, but with changing roles.

Piques and Valleys

So, I’ve been rather absent from bloggery lately due to spending evenings sorting through vast boxes of paper archives, moving books, applying for jobs to keep a roof over our heads, or attempting to sleep off this virus. I now have removed a cubic meter of paperness from our house, and transferred a few hundred books from one room to another. I still have the virus (or maybe a second one, as our students have not the best hygiene), but not the second job.

(Now, if anyone is looking for an experienced secondary or college tutor or after-school care for special-needs children, let me know via andreasbuzzing care of my gmail account.)

But aside from all that, there have been some thought-provoking ups and downs in the news that I don’t want to let pass before they become “olds”:

In an brief article in the New York Times, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine studied some 11,000 third-grade students, and found that Read the rest of this entry »

4 Stages You Don’t Have to Go Through

A recent article landed in my Google news aggregater, “Child’s Autism Diagnosis: 4 Stages You Will Go Through”.  Unfortunately, for all of its cheery helpfulness, it still manages to perpetuate some common stereotypes and misconceptions about disabilities:

When you hear that your child has been diagnosed with autism, the worst thoughts come to your mind. You can feel scared, lonely and overwhelmed. All of these feelings are natural when dealing with a new situation, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying.

Seriously.  The author assumes that the experience of getting a diagnosis is automatically horrifying; the first two sentence are loaded with negative words: worst, scared, lonely, overwhelmed, terrifying. Parents may feel these things at times, and for any number of things, including the sleep-deprivation of newborn care, or even dropping your child off for the first day of preschool or Kindergarten and experiencing the fallout of separation anxiety.  But the process of receiving a diagnosis is described like slogging through of an abyss of despair, with the “4 Stages” listed as 1.Denial, 2.Anger, 3.Grief, 4.Acceptance.

A problem with riffing on these “stages of loss” (familiar to anyone who has taken Psych 101), is that although there is evidence that many people do experience such upon receiving various diagnoses, the very presence of articles such as this may serve to reinforce the despair as much as they seek to lighten it.

How so?  Firstly, many people in various support industries related to disability (including educational and social work realms) are taught that Read the rest of this entry »

The Crystal Ball Crack’d

The Kid recently took the ACT test, which like the SAT, is frequently used by colleges to determine scholastic abilities, and in his case helped place him for which college writing class he needed.  He had to ask his sister what the test was like, and her impressions about its difficulty level.  I could not personally provide any opinions, because I had never taken the ACT or SAT.

I never took them because no one thought I would go to college.

They made massive assumptions about my abilities and my future. So here’s what happened, and something to think about. I welcome you to please post comments, and more links to other positive blogs and sites.

My grades in secondary school grew worse over the years, and I had to re-take a semester in one class (English of all things, which in later years proved to be ironic when I became a freelance writer, with hundreds of items in print).

By this time in my life, my parents had divorced.  My dad lived in another state, and was even more of a non-player in my life.  Alas, my mother had spent years futilely trying to make me more “normal”, from requiring me to learn right-handed penmanship, enrolling me in a “charm school” at the local Sears & Roebucks to improve my feminine graces, and so on.  But as the years wore on, my faults (problems) became more and more apparent.  She no longer described me as “very bright”, but was quick to list all my failures and describe them in damning detail, until I was ready to vomit or pass out from the stress (though I never did, even though either would have been a relief).

By 9th grade it was apparent to all that I was not gifted scholastically, and the general consensus was that I was lazy, stupid at math, not trying hard enough, and acting up just to make her life difficult.  When she was drunk, my failures and interests and personality traits would be compared to her ex-husband’s, “you’re just like your father, the bastard”.  Even as much of a socially-clueless 14 year old that I was, I knew that these kinds of comments were untrue and inappropriate, and the problem was with her attitudes and her drinking.  But they still hurt, terribly.

I would not be diagnosed with ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, and Prosopagnosia until I was in my 40’s.  Such diagnosis hardly existed in those days; certainly my difficulties were not considered to be due to anything but my own personal failings.

No way, my family and school officials decided, could I be college material.  I could not keep track of my assignments, I still struggled to learn and remember my multiplication facts into 8th grade, and I flunked or barely passed classes.

Given my social difficulties and subsequent lack of dating, and even my utter lack of domestic abilities (mom warned me off taking a sewing class because doing so would “ruin my GPA” – grade point average), I was obviously not highly marriageable. This was the 1970s, and most people still thought along those lines — an astonishing number of girls went to college to “get their MRS”.

The goal then was to get me some kind of minimal trade training, so I would, as she fiercely reminded me many times, not be a burden on the family. It was made plain to me that once I graduated high school, and then later turned 18, I was to be out on my own.  I should not expect financial assistance from her.

So I was enrolled in typing, which was a miserable experience beyond the whole ordinary ordeal of learning to type on manual typewriters.  The room was a cacophony of noise.  The instructor was adamant about constant attention to task, proper posture, and graded with the intent on us producing perfection — as soon as a student produced a typographical error, then the score was made. (Additionally, the students’ pages were  held up to the light against her perfect copies to check centering and spacing). There were many days when I would produce an entire page that was otherwise perfect but for a typo in the second line, and my grade would be an F because I had such a low word-count.  Given my problems with developing manual speed, tracking text (near-point copying), attention, and transposing letters and numbers, I struggled to get a C grade.

But the clerical work that was deemed best for me also required taking bookkeeping.  Not surprisingly, this was also a very difficult class for me.  My aptitudes and interests were not really taken into consideration, because after all, even if writing and science and art were what I liked best, I had not done well in those classes, now had I?  Besides, clerical work was what my mother knew, so like many parents she expected me to follow occupational suit.

Unlike many such students, my story has a relatively happy ending.  I did manage to graduate high school, to everyone’s relief.  A year later, I even enrolled in an evening class at the local community college.  College classes were not easy, partly from my intrinsic difficulties, partly from not having the necessary study skills, and partly from not having a solid academic background.

But the glory of the American system is that such colleges provide opportunities for adults of all ages to acquire the these things, and to gain higher education. I worked hard, and slowly figuring out how I learned, which was not always in the ways that others thought I should study.  Sometimes I had to drop a class and re-try it later on, to finish it successfully. Later on in my 40’s I was to also get some of my issues diagnosed.

I now have a Master’s of Science. I teach college students.  No one would have expected this based upon my previous performance. (Employers who place near-complete trust in Behavioral-Based Interviewing, please note!)  And this point, amongst all the others about the perils of attribution errors, and learning disabilities, and dysfunctional families, this point is crucial:

A child’s future abilities cannot always be predicted,

when based upon their current abilities.

Many parents of children who have developmental disorders worry that their children will never be able to attend school, or finish school, or go on to college, or hold a job, or live on their own, or be loved by a partner, or have a family, or talk, or be potty-trained, or any number of milestones.  Just because the child cannot do the same things that their age peers can do, or are expected to do.

This is one of the biggest points of contention or discussion between the “autism community” (parents of autistic children) and the “autistic community” (children, teens and adults who are autistic, and many of whom are parents as well).  Even beyond the farcical assumptions that either community is monolithic with regards to attitudes and knowledge and politics et cetera, there are inherent issues that need to be mutually addressed.

One of the best resources for the autism communities are the autistic communities.  If parents go around just talking to other parents, especially those other parents who are consumed by the “Terrible Tragedy and Selfless Suffering Families” world-views, they may fall prey to this easy assumption:  If my child can’t do it now, he’ll never be able to do it, and our lives will be ruined.

Sure, not everyone takes it to that extreme.  Sure, there are a few children who do not achieve many of those life-goals.  But those lack of achievements does NOT automatically mean that their lives are ruined, or their families’ lives are ruined. They do NOT automatically mean that people cannot live relatively happy, healthy, and productive lives.

Please do NOT assume that not being able to use speech as a reliable means of communication is the same as not being able to think, or not being able to communicate, or not having anything to communicate.

Please do not assume that because a child does not learn in a traditional manner that they are learning “the wrong way”, or that they cannot learn at all, or that they must be taught “remedial learning lessons”.

Please do know that even when children have problems, and are slower to acquire skills, they are not doomed.

Please do not give up on them.

“Don’t talk to me like I’m an idiot.”

~First words (at age 35) of an autistic man [quote source]

I welcome you to please post comments, and more links to other positive blogs and sites. Kindly see the newly-updated “NOTES TO COMMENTERS” box in the top of the left sidebar for important information. Read the rest of this entry »

Prescription for Thought

This belated post is especially for Debora, who asked for my impressions about ADD/ADHD medications for children.  (Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on television.)

Medicating kids or adults for ADHD is a sticky topic.  Everyone has opinions!  Like many topics of heated discussion, usually everyone has several good points to make, and there are always a few people who take things to absurd extremes.  So let’s look at these points individually.  (I’ve boldfaced the points, so if you’ve already reached a state of analysis on that point, you can skip to the next one.)

Does ADD/ADHD even exist?  Is it just some scam made up by drug companies to make money?

Some years ago I received an email from someone who had decided the latter. I replied back with the following, which I have updated to reflect new information: Read the rest of this entry »

You Don’t Say

“How can you not tell me when you are flunking English?!”
“Can’t you ever do anything right?”
“Do you really want to fail 8th-grade math and take it over again?!”

There is no answer that is going to be acceptable to anyone. I mean, would you go up to your parents and say, “I really want to fail beginning algebra so I can sit through units on order of operations and inequalities all over again”?

Of course not! What makes these so hard to answer is that they really aren’t questions at all. They’re accusations: You are flunking a class and didn’t care to tell me about it. (Given that my mom was angry and yelling and all but shaking me in an arm-bruising grip, it’s not surprising that I did not care to divulge the news.)

Because these are not questions, they are not really spoken to elicit answers. Woe to the literal-minded aspie child who tries to make up for the transgressions by actually attempting to answer, “I’m trying—”

“You certainly are! You’re a very trying child.”

What is being demanded is a promise that somehow everything will be made better. You wish that were so, too, and feel even more powerless to change the situation. Beyond feeling inadequate to the task at hand, you also know that attempts to communicate problems will also be met with anger, hostility, contradictory messages, and impossible demands. No matter what you do, you won’t be able to succeed.

How do you answer questions like that?

The answer is that you can’t. These are Read the rest of this entry »

Catapulting to Conclusions

Because you can get there so much faster if you use a big machine to throw you right over annoying factual hurdles in your way.

I’ve been meaning to dissect this issue for over a week, but a lot of things have been happening over here. A recent news story has prompted a lot of discussion, some of it rather ugly. The short of it (and the news article in the Chicago Tribune is not terribly long) is that a 29-year old woman identified only as “K.E.J.” has been granted an appellate opinion in her favor. The woman experienced a traumatic brain injury as a child, and according to the wording of the article, “cannot be left alone to operate a stove or perform most household chores”, although by having that bit of information alone, our perceptions of her are biased because it does not mention what she is capable of doing. Her legal guardian, an aunt, had filed a petition with the court to have her (fallopian) tubes tied. All three judges on the panel were unanimous in their decision against this action.

“Tubal ligation is a particularly drastic means of preventing a mentally incompetent ward from becoming pregnant,” Judge Joseph Gordon wrote in the 36-page opinion. There are “less intrusive and less psychologically harmful [birth-control] alternatives.”

The readers’ comments were much longer than the article, and many were downright rude. This situation is so fraught with over-generalisations and false dichotomies and conflations that it fair makes me dizzy. The biggest and most common fallacy of the lot was the combined Read the rest of this entry »

Piss-poor platitudes

There’s something about the intersection of the loss of a child and thoughtlessness that produces a dreadful lot of dreadful platitudes. But your child doesn’t even have to die — finding out that your child has an incurable disease or disabling condition can result in more horrible platitudes.

Some people will protest that, “Well, they mean well, so it’s really okay.” No. When someone says something cruel, or does something rude to another person, their “good intentions” don’t really amount to a hill of beans. Even using treacly god-talk doesn’t sugar-coat the insensitive words enough to make them palatable.

Finding out that you will have to learn how to do many things differently due to chronic illness or major disability involves some initial sense of loss for expectations of how life would be. But the situation is not analogous to having a child die. The parents have not “lost a normal child”. The child is not dead, but very much alive, and still loved. Furthermore, the child would not be “better off dead”.

Sometimes people pull out the platitudes because they want to “make things better”. But a few saccharine words is not going to help. The death of a child cannot be healed by the verbal equivalent of a bandage on a cut finger. When at a loss for words at the magnitude of someone’s grief, it’s okay to be honest and share that, “Oh, I’m SO sorry. I hardly know what to say.” And if you can’t think of anything further, then share a hug if these are hugging people.

After the initial shock, share memories of the child with the grieving parents, rather than trying to make the social “problem” go away by ignoring it. Don’t suddenly drop the parents of disabled children from social groups, as though the family has contracted something horribly contagious.

But please, don’t pull out the insensitive platitudes:

Don’t be so selfish; you still have your other child.

You can always have another one.

Children are not interchangeable, replaceable units, like dolls.

Having another child won’t somehow magically make a family “complete” — the family isn’t defined by the number of members, but by who they are. There will always be a sense of loss for the missing person.

God wanted the child with him.

What kind of deity is so selfish as to deprive parents of their child? What, God couldn’t have enjoyed the child’s presence more by watching it grow up with its family?

God’s punishing you for putting your desire to have children ahead of Him.

Make that selfish and vengeful. Where’s the “loving deity”?

It was God’s Will.

And you know this because … how?

Your child’s in a better place.

How is an early death better than a full life?

God never gives people more than they can handle.

Nonsense; there are plenty of people who have cracked under the strain of grief, falling to depression or sometimes even violence.

Everything happens for a reason.

True, there are causes for everything. True, people can create extra purpose in their lives in reaction to events that happen to them. But I cannot accept that a deity required a child had to die for its parents’ moral improvement.

Think of the money you’ll save; having one kid is cheaper than twins.

Oh for ~~ one doesn’t have children for budgetary reasons!

Guess what — I’m pregnant! It’s like God’s making up for the baby you lost.

Let’s blame the maternity hormones for that incredibly tactless, thoughtless remark, and hope that she has a full recovery.

Haven’t you gotten over that yet? You just need to pray more / work harder / think about others.

Grieving for the death of a baby or child is not something over and done in a few days. Really, one grieves for the loss of a loved one the rest of their life — it’s just that the grief becomes tolerable, and the memories more wistful than painful.

You’re lucky the baby died early — it could have been handicapped.

Being disabled is not worse than death.

It’s for the best — she / he would have suffered from being, ‘you-know’ … Retarded. Crippled. Deaf. Blind. Palsied. (et cetera)

Being disabled is not a life sentence of suffering.

Well at least you have your other, healthy child(ren). You could even try again.

If I have a disabled child, I am not about to discard them, nor decide that I have not succeeded in getting the “perfect” child that I deserve.

God gave you a special child to teach you something.

We all learn things from our children, and many parents find they learn unexpected things from children who have different needs. But such a platitude smacks of begin given a special-needs child as a prescription or punishment for a moral failing.

It’s just as well; so many sick preemies survive nowadays, and there’s too many special-needs kids being a burden on society.

The social burden is not special-needs kids.

The social burden is people who feel they have some special hotline to heaven. The social burden is people who think that death and disability are divine punishment for sins. The social burden is people who can only see the disabled as those who are a useless waste of public resources. The social burden is people who imagine that a disabled person cannot have a happy, loving, productive or even [otherwise] healthy life.

Transitions, ACK!

Read up on descriptions of students with autism, Asperger’s, or Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, and you find the familiar piece about how such people “have rigid routines” or “cannot deal with changes in routine”. Some of those descriptions are um, much more rigidly defined than others. I have real problems with descriptions that use a lot of always or never, as real humans just aren’t that binary. In such cases, the author is being more literal-minded than the group they are describing!

In contrast, statements worded as, “Dislikes changes in routine” or “Has difficulty with unexpected changes in routine” would be much more accurate, especially with regards to the unexpected changes — you can brace for, and plan ahead for expected changes in routines.

Therefore, consistency in routine is suggested as a good instructional, parenting, and employment tool. It’s also recommended for students with AD/HD as a support measure.

But you know what? Everyone is attached to their routines. We like to get through our morning preparation without a lot of glitches. “OMG, we’re out of coffee!” We expect holiday celebrations to go a certain way, and when two people become a couple they find out how many rituals were specific to their own families of origin, and then the couple has to decide how they are going to select and combine both of their rituals.

People in general don’t like having to adjust their day around massive changes in their schedule, and are more than a little vexed at unexpected and unavoidable challenges thrown in. Airline travel went from something exciting to a dreaded ordeal as airport security became tighter and tighter, and the airlines restricted what kinds of and how many comfort objects people could bring with them on the plane. No, “comfort objects” aren’t just teddy bears or worry-beads; a wide variety of mundane objects like your favorite bed pillow, brand of soda and portable music player are also comfort objects.

So why are some people so much more attached to their routines, and then undone when faced with changes?

There are a several reasons, related to situational decoding, compensating, and attention-switching. Read the rest of this entry »


I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s about a recent presentation I gave on Auditory Processing Disorder.

Afterwards one of the attendees had some specific questions,

and I had some ideas to offer. Here’s how it goes:

One of the things that I had mentioned that APD wasn’t really “curable”, but that one could improve some skills to cope with it. She was concerned because the school had released her son from therapy some years ago, and yet her son was demonstrating obvious difficulties again … she was concerned and puzzled.

As I’ve mentioned before, a person can “lose their label” by having achieved the proscribed psycho-educational goals. This means that the particular skills have been met so that the problem is no longer severe enough to warrant the diagnostic label. The therapists, the school district that may have employed them, the family, and the child have all succeeded in the neatly-documented IEP goals. Whoopee!

But in cases like this, although the child’s enunciation may be much improved, and his phonemic awareness sharpened (meaning he is better at discriminating between different spoken sounds), that does not mean the APD has necessarily gone away.

So why was the boy having so many of the familiar, discouraging, “Huh?” moments again? Read the rest of this entry »

M, F, N/A

Wow. Here I was ready to comment on one piece of news, when several more caught my attention. They all revolve around social ideas of gender rôles, and marginalised or disabled people.

This first one struck close to home: Khadijah Farmer was kicked out of women’s toilet of a Manhattan, NY, restaurant because the bouncer thought she looked too masculine.

“I said, ‘I am a woman and I am where I am supposed to be,'” said Farmer, speaking at a a news conference. “I offered to show him some identification. I was told that’s neither here nor there.”

Some people might say that happened “just because” she’s a lesbian (like that’s a valid reason), but I can vouch for the same thing happening to me as well. On the occasion that I wear a skirt or dress, I look “appropriately” female. But since I have a really short hair style, and often wear men’s shoes (because I have wide feet) and men’s shirts (because I have broad shoulders and long arms) and am disinclined toward wearing make-up, I have been frequently mistaken for a guy.

Even my name doesn’t seem to help; just last week Read the rest of this entry »

Learning Nothing

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

This is a made-up letter. It’s a highly shortened version of letters I’ve seen a number of parents post on various discussion boards. It’s alarming on several fronts: the parent is stressed beyond their limits, and is of the belief that their son has not learned anything and cannot learn anything, and not surprisingly, has all but given up on the school he’s been attending, and also that because the child cannot [reliably] speak at this age that they will never speak or never be able to communicate by other means. The parent is certain that the child is DOOMED and will never mature into a capable, happy adult. (The grammatical and attributive errors of “he’s severe” also make my brain hurt, but that’s another issue.)

Judging by the complaints of parents who blog about their frustrations with schools or with their children, there is no lack of bad pedagogical examples.

You try something. It doesn’t work. You tweak it, and persist at employing Instructional Method X for a semester. For an entire year. New IEP, with a few tweaks, new room, different teacher. Still pretty much a variation upon Method X for another semester and another year, because X is the method that the teachers learned when they went to teaching college, and the tweaks were what the SpEd specialist learned from when they went to teaching college, picked up at a seminar, and heard from another SpEd specialist that worked on another kid who was also diagnosed with “A”. By all accounts, it should work.

Let’s work on that some more. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Owns It?

“It’s not about YOU,” I explained, although I had that dreaded sinking sensation that although the words flowed by her ears and pinballed through the processing areas of her brain, that although she was hearing and listening and understanding the verbiage, the other staff member was also not really understanding what the hell I meant. Meanwhile, the children around us were bouncing around in various levels of happiness, impulsiveness, mild disobedience, and general obliviousness to rules. As long as no one was getting hurt, the minor details of behaviour didn’t matter; this was yet another day at the city pool, in a long line of such overly-hot summer days at the city pool.

“It’s not about what you’re doing,” I tried in vain to rephrase, although my efforts were getting to be pretty lame by this time in the afternoon, what with the combination of summer heat, the impact of children’s high-decibel noise aggravated by hyperacussis, and the strain of trying to track a dozen children despite mild faceblindness. “I mean, how you handle it does matter, but …” I stared into the distance, as one of our charges was wandering around with her bathing suit bottom halfway up one buttock. I kept track of our children by remembering what bathing suits they were wearing, so I was predisposed to notice such. “But it’s not about you.” I finished, flapping my hands a bit in agitation as those words were still in my verbal buffer, but I was instead needing to formulate some kind of sentence directed to another staff member closer to our wayward girl.

“Oh, he’s just being defiant, and I’m not going to let him,” she replied in the self-assured manner of the barely-twenty-something, and left me to go refill her cup of iced cola. I heaved a big sigh at the idea of “letting” someone be defiant, and went to intercept one of our autistic boys so he wouldn’t toss bits of paper into an air conditioner fan.

There are some children who are just explosive in temperament, for any number of reasons. Handling such children is always tricky, because it’s all to easy to get sucked into the whole situation and end up aggravating the dynamic instead of damping it.

Some children get angry because they are being defiant, and are pushing you into a power struggle. We’re familiar with how this works with toddlers who return instruction with a, “NO!” The best approach for such is to give them choices that are acceptable to you – the toddler feels they now have some measure of immediate control over their life, and yet you are still in ultimate control by being able to select options that are appropriate. Teenagers are sometimes like toddlers-with-hormones, and frequently benefit from similar tactics. In any regard, you shouldn’t respond to the power struggle, but rather respond to the situation and help the child understand the options they have available to them, and how to anticipate the results of their choices. (Sometimes I hate to use the word “consequences” because it has gotten so laden with meaning punishments.)

This particular staff member was predictably playing into the power struggle, and was determined that she was going to “win” by proving something or another to the child. However, this child wasn’t really being defiant in the volitional sense. The defiance wasn’t premeditated or consciously malicious. This was just one of those children who didn’t have sufficiently well-developed mental “brakes” to be self-aware, anticipate things, and stop himself before he reacted to situations. Such children frequently have low frustration levels, which are also a result of this kind of dysfunction.

The issue here was many-fold. For one thing, the staff member was reacting to the effects of the problem (the blow-ups) instead of the cause of the problem (the child’s processing dysfunction, plus the ongoing presence of situations that fed into the blow-ups). For another thing, the staff member believed that she had a lot more ownership of the solution to the problem than she did. She probably also likely believed that the child had a lot more ownership of the cause of the problem than he did. But although the child rarely meant to get so upset or angry, he still had to have some responsibility for what he did, otherwise he would end up reneging on most of his personal responsibility and go from being a child with a problem to being a brat with a problem.

It’s one of those weird little subconscious glitches in our brains that leads us to make fundamental attribution errors – our own lapses are caused by environmental reasons (“I of course couldn’t help but be incoherent as the heat and noise was making me tired”), but other’s lapses are caused by their moral failing (“but she was being foolish”). Staff members, teachers and other people usually assign successes to themselves, and failures to the children.

But in real life, education “takes two to tango” – both the teacher and the student need to work at the process. So does engaging in arguments – the second person has to continue to give the first person enough responses that reinforce all the hollering and carrying-on.

Diffusing these explosive situations is difficult. We have to figure out just when a child is being truly manipulative, and when it’s some kind of cognitive dysfunction, and when it’s a child with some kind of cognitive dysfunction that on that day is just being manipulative – life is messy! Sometimes we can identify what kinds of situations tend to spark these meltdowns, and then during a good time, discuss with the child what ways we could work with them to change things so they would be less problematic. We can also defuse or at least reduce those meltdowns by not giving into the power struggles. We have to remain compassionate, but detached. Be calm, remove extra people from the situation, give plenty of personal space, have open and friendly body language to reduce the feeling of threat, even be silent sometimes to let the argument fizzle out. After the child has calmed down then we can reflect with them in an objective manner about what happened, what needs to be done to rectify the problem by restitution to the others who were involved, and work proactively to reduce such future events.

But as I redirected the boy from flicking bits of paper to flicking pool water, I realised that I would not be able to “make” the other staff member understand something until she was ready to look beyond the necessity for “not letting” him do something. I could not control her need to “win” the argument any more than she could control his need to not quit an activity when it was time to leave.

The Four-Letter F-Word

They were staging a sit-in. All four of them, sitting there and staring intently at me, What is she going to do?

I looked at the other adult in the room and asked, “Did you say the four-letter F-word?”

He shook his head no. He had in fact said neither Fish nor even Chicken. But there were all four cats gathered by their dishes and staring fixedly at me. They do that every now and then – instead or one or two cats reminding some random person that the kibble dishes are getting empty, all four of them will gather round and complain at me, specifically. The woman who can read enough feline body language to know that the congregation is requesting goodies from the pop-top cans. Manna from Mama. Apparently the usual dry kibble gets boring, and they want “chicken slices in gravy” or some such thing.

Except for tonight. Spot isn’t having any of it. He’s not swarming around my ankles and meowing, but rather sitting on a dining chair and staring at me with his great, golden eyes. The goody from the pop-top can doesn’t appeal. He probably smelled the bag of grilled salmon take-out that hubby had brought home and popped in the refrigerator. Spot prefers “real” fish to the processed glop from the tin; he used to catch his own meals at a lake. In fact, the past few times I’ve cooked fish he has waited for and requested the leftovers, which he’s welcome to because fish doesn’t reheat well.

It only took a few meals for Spot to learn what I meant when I asked him, “Hey, Spot! Fish?” Spot’s a smart cat; it took less than half a dozen repetitions (“trials” as they are known in training parlance) for him to associate hearing the human word “Fish” with the generalised concept of sushi tuna, grilled salmon or poached tilapia for him to eat. Those trials didn’t even happen in the same hour or the same day.

Now, teaching Spot to learn the word “fish” did not involve any rigorous training sessions. I merely caught his attention by saying his name, then set down a dish containing some various leftovers while saying, “Fish!” It’s simple associative learning. Granted, food is a good reinforcement, and he was already aware that some of the things people say are directed to him and are meant to inform him of something.

He also knows that when I say, “Water’s boiling,” this means that he needs to get off my lap so I can get up and make a cup of tea, and that I’ll return in a minute to make a lap for him again. That’s actually much more complex; for all he knows, the syllables “Water’s boiling,” really mean, “Get up”. But he’s also observed that when I say “Water’s boiling,” instead of something like, “Okay, I gotta get up now,” or “Time to make dinner,” that I am going to return to my chair shortly, and that if he hangs around he gets to curl up with me again. Sometimes he stands on the chair cushion, rather than laying down on it, because he knows I’m likely to come back and sit down. That’s a more complex chain of events; he’s not only associated a spoken word with an action for him to do, but he’s also observing my behavioural patterns so he can choose his next course of action.

But for all of his high level of feline intelligence, he’s still limited in what he can learn. Especially compared to a human child.

If you use food as a familiar, desireable food reinforcement, how many trials do you think it will take for a human child to learn to associate a word or two with an action? For example, “sit down” or “stand up”.

Six? Twelve? Maybe fifteen?

How about over 100? We’re talking about children who have grown up in a home where other people have been using language with the child for over two years. Presumably the child knows that some of the things people say are directed to him and are meant to inform him of something. Food is a good reinforcement, and the child’s favorite foods are even used. (We have to assume that the child’s hearing is fine, and that the adult has the child’s attention.)

Here’s a parent’s description of an Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) training session with their child (wwwautismtoday.com/karen.htm):

“Sit down,” I’d repeat, this time placing my hands on his shoulders to gently guide him into the chair. Eyes still averted, he allowed me to ease him down.

“Good boy!” I’d squeeze an M&M between his pursed lips for his efforts, recording a “P” to indicate that I ‘d had to manually prompt him for his second trial.

“Sit down,” I’d repeat 27 more times, alternating between M&M’s, chocolate chips, hugs and tickles, recording each discrete trial.

Then I’d begin with 30 trials of “stand up,” “turn around”, and other “one-step” commands before moving on to teaching Jake to “do this” as I manually prompted him 30 times to drop a block in a bucket.

After each of the 30 trials, we’d take a structured play break.

It took a total of 150 trials over three weeks to teach Jake to sit down, 180 trials over three weeks to teach Jake to stand up, and 2,100 trials over 10 weeks to teach Jake to look at us when we called his name.

The child was two years old. There were people doing this with him for forty hours a week, month after month.

Different children learn in different ways, and on their own different time schedules. Some skills take longer than others. I was eight years old before I learned to tie my shoelaces; I had to acquire the fine-motor dexterity to manipulate the laces and maintain the right tension, and be able to remember and follow the sequence of steps. I compensated for my lack of shoelace tying by wearing buckle shoes during my first three years of school. In the grand scheme of all things scholastic, it wasn’t a big deal. It was a big deal for my parents and I do remember spending a lot of frustrated days sitting around fighting with the laces on my sneakers (trainers). Every now and then some adult would sit down with me and show me how they tied shoelaces. Thankfully, my third-grade teacher’s method of direction was different enough that the process finally made sense.

But when an instructional method requires 150 or 180 repeated trials for the child to learn to associate a word with an activity they already know how to do … that really seems like it’s the wrong teaching approach for the child.

Maybe parents are too fearful of another four-letter F-word, Fail. They are afraid that without endless hours of intensive, repetitious work (and mounds of data sheets to show for it), that their children will fail to learn and grow. Amazingly, children do learn and grow. I’m not saying that additional instructional is not sometimes necessary, but rather than given these kinds of results, such an approach does not seem to be the best method.

Applied Behavioural Analysis is neither a good nor a bad thing unto itself. But any good teaching naturally uses behavioural observation and analysis. And if those observations show that someone has not learned something after a considerable number of tries, then the instructor needs to analyse where in the teaching process the breakdown is occurring, and to consider what other means might be more efficacious.

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!


Building A Character

At 45, I can now claim to being somewhere in that amorphous zone of “middle-aged” where one is no longer the puppy-faced young adult, but hasn’t quite slipped over to the realm of the white-haired elders. By this point I have had enough “character-building experiences” to go from Having Character to at times Being A Character.

Character-building experiences are usually the sorts of events that push you to go beyond your usual boundaries. Sometimes they are single events that require extreme effort or pushing past fears, and sometimes they are ongoing events that require tenacity and adaptability. In any case, the “character-building” part means that you have expanded your positive self-image, and realise that you can do more than you thought you could, and that you can be resolute in your efforts in future difficulties.

Not all character-building experiences are heroic in scale; some of them come from periods of quiet desperation where the efforts are on the inside. Other people cannot see the amount of work required in the soul-searching, and overcoming the wavering to just give up, but that hardly negates the importance of the experience, and the sheer amount of bravery it involved.

Many people misunderstand what is meant by “bravery”. Being brave does not mean that you aren’t scared. Rather, being brave means that you do what you need to do, even when you are scared.

However, not all “adversity” is the same. Teaching and parenting involves providing people with tasks that are a bit challenging, but not beyond their abilities. It’s our job to help teach them the tools they need, and to scaffold them up to the next level. If we give them tasks that are way beyond their abilities or dump them into situations without the right tools or guidance, then we are setting them up for a lot of failures.

There’s also a big difference between challenging someone, and simply making things unnecessarily difficult for them. I’ve had more than my fill of the latter, thank you. (Clue: they don’t build character, they just make me annoyed!)

Making things unnecessarily hard often involves adding problems that are really not needed, and have no direct bearing on the ultimate purpose of the task at hand. Making a child learn how to tie shoelaces in order to participate in sports is an example of this. Although a player may need to wear a uniform or protective equipment, being able to tie shoelaces should not be a stumbling block to the benefits of sporting activities, such as getting exercise, having fun, learning to work with team members, and being a part of a group that shares goals and experiences.

Another example would be grading a poster done for a school assignment on penmanship in addition to how well the content of the poster fulfilled the requirements for factual presentation and layout. It’s much more sensible to let students type out their labels and descriptions, rather than let them get frustrated over their slowness or difficulty in handwriting.

When we go from making things challenging to merely making things difficult, we don’t help people expand their positive self-image. Instead, we create situations that too easily add more to the burden of negative self-image. Here the student or child does not learn what we set out to teach.

What we learn from the “school of hard knocks” depends very much upon what we bring with ourselves in the way of skills and attitudes. But in any regard, my goals do not include teaching people that life’s a bitch and people are bastards, even if those are sometimes true.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who has not had enough of those kinds of experiences in their life. And everyone I have met has needed more of the kinds of experiences that help them learn how to overcome their own self-doubts and how to deal with problems in life.

Getting Over the Cure

You love people for who they are, not for who you want them to be.

Stick that in the back of your mind for a minute. Let’s move sideways to look at some other quotes. These are from Paula Kamen’s lovely book, All in my head: an epic quest to cure an unrelenting, totally unreasonable, and only slightly enlightening HEADACHE. One important thought is:

“There is a difference between getting cured and getting healed.”

Another is:

“Acceptance is not the same thing as resignation.”

These are very potent concepts, the sort that are easily-understood on the surface verbal level, but take longer to fully integrate through all the layers of one’s consciousness.

“Getting cured” means being rid of a medical or psychological problem to become healthy. In contrast, “getting healed” does not mean that one needs to be rid of the medical or psychological problem in order to move from merely surviving to living life fairly happily.

One can accept disability without being resigned to the concept that life is ruined because it will never be the way that was anticipated. Instead, one accepts that life will be different, and that this is okay.

When parents learn that their child has some kind of disability, they go through a sort of grieving process. They mourn the child they didn’t get or will no longer have. (In response, Jim Sinclair’s essay, “Don’t Mourn For Us” is a thought-provoking and reassuring essay for parents of autistic children.) Not everyone grieves in the same way, and not every parent experiences a lot of grief — sometimes there is more relief for having “figured things out” and being able to name, understand, and thus work with the difficulties or differences.

Sometimes parents get “stuck” in the blame and bargaining stages of grieving. They have not accepted the disability, and their child is not okay as a disabled person. In the denial is the core myth that somehow out there is a cure, and once they can fix the problem, then everything in their lives will be okay. The parents dwell upon the past and perceived injustices, and nothing less than total “cure” is acceptable. Sadly, this means that until the parent can announce the child is cured, then the child is not fully acceptable and loved as a full human being. This is devastating to the social, spiritual, and even physical development of the child.

In families that already dysfunctional from other issues, the disabled or different child can serve as a distracter from the real personal and interpersonal issues, and may get stuck in the rôle of the scapegoat: “things would be okay if it weren’t for this tragedy”.

When I say that, “You love people for who they are, not for who you want them to be,” that does not mean that one allows bad behaviour, or does not try to help a person with therapeutic or educational approaches that enable a person to achieve as much as possible. Rather, it means that you love the person for who and what they are, and that love is not conditional upon the person pretending to be something they are not.

Gone to Pot

And now, a topic near-and-dear to everyone’s heart: using the toilet.

Ask six different adults their opinions on toilet-training, and you’ll get six different opinions. You’ll even more than six opinions if any of them are parents, because a person’s expertise changes with each child, as each child seems to go through the whole process differently.

With any child, toilet training is an incremental process that has less to do with the willingness of the adult, and is dependent upon more than just the willingness of the child. Toilet-training children with developmental disabilities can certainly take much longer than with typical children, due to the number of factors affecting the whole learning process.

Toilet training is actually a very complex combination of factors. The child has to be able to do several things in sequence. A lot of children (of all sorts!) will get “hung up” on one or more points, thus delaying or even permanently hampering their ability to be come fully toilet-trained.

Consider the following:

1. The child must be able to be aware of having a full bladder or rectum (these are often acquired separately, with the child mastering one before the other);

2. The child must be able to be aware of the full sensation with enough time to get to the toilet and do everything else necessary before toileting;

3. The child must be able to consciously control both functions (start & stop);

4. The child must be able to undress independently;

5. The child must be able to manœuver themselves correctly onto the toilet seat and back off again;

6. The child must be able to wipe themselves adequately (and remember, it’s hard to dismount the toilet without getting the seat messy — this is tricky!);

7. The child must be able to re-dress independently;

8. The child must be able to wash their hands adequately.

It’s really helpful if the child doesn’t become distracted by some other event or random thought in the middle of the process (especially with boys who pee standing up, and can turn to look at something else…)

It’s also really helpful if the child can remember to flush the toilet, and do so without either freaking out at the noise, or becoming fascinated at watching any number of household objects go swirling into oblivion … ::sigh::

Some kids will take much longer to get all these things down. Every parent in the universe can tell stories of how their child[ren] got hung up at some part of that or another.

Not being toilet-trained isn’t the end of the world. There are, after all, diapers sold for adults for the simple reason that not everyone is fully able to have full control. These are no more “shameful” than are tampons and pads.

And then there’s the whole universe of situations outside of the home that can make toileting a far-from-consistent skill …

Something parents find is that their child is happily toilet-trained at home, but not elsewhere. This is very distressing for some parents, because (subconsciously) they feel that it is their reputations (ego) on the line – they’ve told everyone that their child is toilet-trained, and here is the child failing to do so. It seems to reflect badly on their truthfulness or their parenting skills, or damages their social standing among their peers.

It’s rarely about the parent, though.

When children can’t or don’t want to use other’s toilets, it may be a cognitive maturity thing (being able to generalise what is done at home with doing it elsewhere), it may be a “bashful bladder” issue, and/or it may be a sensory issue.

A lot of people don’t “get” these sensory issues. Allow a bit of autobiographical information here, if you will (don’t worry; nothing gross).

Different kinds of toilet seats may feel “wrong” — the U-shaped seats are uncomfortable for a small child because of their narrow hips. Or for example, I am cued to toilet on the convex ring seat, but when I encountered a totally flat seat, it felt a lot like a school chair seat!

Even worse is the cheap, industrial toilet paper used in schools and public restrooms. Or the strange toilet paper dispensers that issue small folded sheets or that won’t fully rotate. Or the soap dispensers that issue gritty powder or strange-smelling goo. (It’s interesting that if you talk to world travelers you’ll hear lots of stories about difficult toileting situations, and yet somehow many of those same adults would be annoyed if a child had similar difficulties when encountering a strange toilet.)

With acute olfactory senses, others’ bathrooms will also smell wrong (it is almost at the level of an animal instinct — you do not use someone else’s territory).

Public bathrooms are noisy and full of commotion, and again from the biological perspective, toileting is done in privacy because the animal is defenseless during the process.

Some of the hot-air hand dryers work at an amazing noise frequency that hurts the ears, especially when you are standing or seated nearby with your head at the same height. And who hangs all these sinks so high that small people and wheelchair users find them difficult to reach?

Other people’s home bathrooms may simply be full of distractions — they are full of interesting objects not contained at home that look different, smell different and work differently.

There are sometimes other factors at work that are not apparent; one year in primary school I kept getting re-occuring bladder infections. The pædiatrician said for me to quit taking bubble baths. Well, that helped a little, but the problem remained. My mother told me that I simply needed to go more often. “Simply” was difficult, because on weekends I would get so wrapped up in (hyperfocused upon) whatever fascinating thing I was working on that I couldn’t “hear” my physiological signals that I needed to go until I really, really needed to go.

“Simply” was even more difficult on weekdays, because my fourth-grade teacher was a new graduate who felt a strong need to be in control of her classroom, and letting the students get up at all times to go to the bathroom upset her routine and that control.

The bathrooms also smelled. I know, everyone says that school bathrooms smell. But my personal definition of “smelly” turns out to be quantitatively different than others’ “smelly”: stale sour body odors compounded with the intrusive artificiality of perfumes, aftershave, scented deodorant, cloying fabric softener, and hairspray; chewing gum and mints and candies; nauseating sting of cigarettes; abrasively floral room “deodorizer”; caustic bathroom sanitizers; various toileting odors including the muddy smell of used tampons and pads, the sharp sour odor of someone with intestinal upset, or ketosis odor of someone on a high-protein diet; institutional handwashing soap and brown paper towels; and general trenchant skunkiness of locker rooms. If it is a unisex primary school bathroom in the classroom or nurse’s office, then there is the sweet odor of small-boy urine as well. I found these odors to be so over-powering that I avoided the bathroom unless direly necessary.

It took months for my mother to understand the problem, because she had to ask me about school, actually take my answers seriously, and then take the enquiry further. This was because at the time, I totally lacked the understanding that she didn’t know what my class was like, and how the teacher was running the class. She simply assumed that if I was having a problem that I would be able to identify it, and know how to resolve it, including knowing what I needed to tell whom! (Sorry, that was too much social awareness for this nine-year old aspie kid.) Finally we got things sorted out, and my pædiatrician wrote my mother a note to pass on to my teacher explaining that I was prone to bladder infections and needed to go to the bathroom frequently, and was not merely trying to avoid schoolwork or whatever.

Other problems I later had with bathrooms in secondary high was the fact that the bathrooms were where the bullies hung out, who gave me no end of grief. I have some face-blindness issues (which I was unaware of then) so could not identify who those people were.

In truth, the whole toilet-training process is more about ability than willingness. The child has to be ready — and once they are physiologically ready, they are usually willing as well, provided they understand a benefit to moving from diapers to the toilet. Avoiding parental upset at still being in diapers is not necessarily a major driving force for some children, especially if parental annoyance has been an everyday part of the home landscape for a long time.

The end message here is that what a person is observing (as so many people do with autistics) is the end behaviour. What cannot readily be discerned, but is more important, is what causes the behaviours. If you are dealing with toilet issues, then remember that trying to modify the effect (that is the resulting behaviour) is less effective than to modify the cause of what is creating the behaviour! Figure out why the child is having difficulty and address that.

And yes, I’ve dealt with toileting issues from the parental end. Encopresis is not fun, but children do mature! I don’t know what my mother did to resolve the fecal-smearing problem (she’s no longer around to ask), but I grew out of that.

I even learned to tie my shoes, although that’s another story.

Problems With Solutions

Students will fail to succeed, or outright fail a subject, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have learning disabilities, sometimes they have health issues, sometimes their underachievement results from motivational issues. Oft times there are sticky combinations of these causes. In any regard, there’s a long and sadly-familiar road trod by the triad of parents, student and school staff in the effort to rectify the situation.

Unless the underlying causes are obvious (such as health issues), the common cause assigned to the student’s underachievement is usually motivational problems. This is especially true if the student did okay in the earlier grades, but their marks gradually slip lower with succeeding years, or their marks are irregular within the same subject. Which is not to say that there might not also be various learning difficulties that are exacerbating the student’s motivational issues – it’s hard to keep applying yourself when you can’t understand why your results are so erratic. When students can’t understand the cause and effect, they tend to assign difficulties to external forces, and feel they they have little power over the results of their efforts.

Unfortunately, the first impulses of the dyad of adults in these situations, those solutions for tracking the student’s progress and ensuring their successful completion of school work, can often end up making the situation worse. Alas, in the end, everyone ends up more stressed than before. The solutions create more problems instead of rectifying them …

Although assignment books or pages are meant to enhance communication between school and home about what the student needs to do, they often end up creating an even tenser situation. (Here we are talking about those that are ongoing missives between the adults, not simply a resource for the student.) These are theoretically carried to and fro by the student, keeping everyone apprised of what has been assigned and has been completed. Unfortunately, the focus of this exercise frequently turns to what the adults need to “make” the student do, and upon what the student has not done. (Note: it’s nearly impossible to “make” someone do something; you cannot “make” a child fall asleep or eat or learn.) The frustrated adults become angry at the student, repeatedly reminding the child of how they have failed yet again. Blame-assigning sets in, and each half of the adult dyad accuses the other of “not doing their part” because obviously, were the other set of adults doing their job, the student would be getting the work done and turn in promptly!

Amazingly, all this tension and attention does not improve the student’s performance. Indeed, the student now feels pitted between two large forces, wanting to please everyone but instead having their incompetence repeatedly confirmed. Instead of empowering everyone to help the student, everyone has instead become disempowered, frustrated, and adversarial.

Sometimes the adult dyad will resort to behavioral report or the daily or weekly progress reports for the student. These can suffer many of the same issues as the assignment book, by focusing entirely upon negatives. When poorly structured, the reports end up being little more than tallies of daily sins. It is very disconcerting for anyone to be under the microscope all the time; slight transgressions and ordinary human weaknesses become quantified and magnified. The child become identified with a bad score, even the hollow nothingness of “being a zero”. The student may also end up in the trap of false dichotomies, seeking to be perfect, and failing that, falling to utter failure. Here the student is expected to take responsibility for their behavior, but then simultaneous loses more of the control and personal power of the situation.

Focusing only on a student’s weaknesses creates a heavily biased view of the student. Everyone has weaknesses, but successful students learn how to lead with their strengths and how to accommodate or compensate for their weaknesses. A good plan needs to focus upon how the student is improving. The student needs help to learn how to plan ahead and effectively deal with inconsistencies in achievement that are simply part of the human condition. They also need to learn how their successes are derived from what they have done, rather than from random outside forces, and how they are not only responsible for their behavior (in the sense of receiving its consequences) but also capable of effective positive changes in it as well.

When many people are faced with noncompliant underlings (students, children or anyone lesser in the hierarchy), their first impulse is to punish them: “When people are bad, they deserve to be punished. When people are good, they deserve to be rewarded.” Rewards in such cases are simply the flip side of punishments. The problems with punishments are complex and not immediately apparent, because the system of punishment and reward (including the heavily-marketed “logical consequences”) is so heavily entrenched in our culture.

The problem with punishments is that they change the focus from the activity itself to those punishments and rewards. They also change the focus from a person’s internal, intrinsic pleasure at doing something, to something extrinsic: the avoidance of pain or the attainment of pleasure. Any activity (even one that is naturally interesting to a person) can lose its natural appeal under such conditions, and people do not work as effectively or as imaginatively. Instead of improving work ability, such external systems actually end up reducing it.

Furthermore, placing punishments and rewards into the situation takes the responsibility from the person doing the work, and places it in the hands of the people handing out the punishments and rewards. It’s no surprise that students end up focused on what they will get for doing something, rather than simply doing it because it needs to be done. Success thus requires an outside system to ensure that the jobs are done. Sometimes the rewards are so far in the future (a month or a semester away) that the cause and effect linkage cannot be made at the simple behavioral level – there’s no relevance to what is happening today, and how the student feels at the moment. Reward inflation also occurs, where ongoing jobs or more complex jobs need bigger and bigger rewards to ensure their completion. Punishment inflation can also occur, because the student may decide that the punishment is not nearly as bad as the fear of failure or other dismotivating state. Ultimatums like being grounded for a month (the parental version of house-arrest) or sending children away also do not work. Either the child knows that the parent won’t follow through, or if they do send the child off to someplace dreadful, the child learns that their scholastic achievements are more important to the parent than their love for the child as a person.

Assignment books, progress reports, or punishments and rewards rarely have good long-term benefits because they are poor teaching tools. They work on the assumption that fear or bribery are good teachers. Not only do they teach the wrong things (fearing and hating authority, or needing to be bribed to do things), they also do not teach the right things.

They don’t teach the person how to persevere when frustrated, or how to solve their own inner difficulties, or how to monitor their own efforts, and how to adapt to new situations. As a result, they don’t help a student become a more independent learner and worker, or how to think critically and problem-solve. In short, they leave students very poorly equipped to be independent adults. (Guess what happens when the student then goes to university …)

We don’t want to assign blame to various people, or to punish our children and students for having problems. Instead, we want to help them learn to problem-solve, and acquire the skills they need so they can figure out how to solve future problems.

This means stepping outside of these established defensive and offensive modes of interaction. It means listening to the student’s frustrations without denying the validity of the feelings (even though the premises upon which they are based may be faulty). It means demonstrating how to break down overwhelming jobs into smaller tasks, and how to create organisational structures that are self-enabling. It means initiating work by starting from a place of competency and asking the student what they do know, rather than telling them what they ought to know. It’s not something that is accomplished quickly, especially when the poor mental habits have taken a long time to become established. It takes a while for the student to re-frame their self-perception, and to install more effective work habits.

Parents and school staff also assign blame on each other, and get defensive when one side asserts that the reason for the student’s difficulties lies in the other’s incompetence. This ends up putting the adult dyad into offensive-defensive modes as well, thus blocking positive change.

We don’t need parents who are better warriors at IEP meetings, when in fact they really want to be helping the teachers understand how neat their children are, and sharing their insights about the child’s strengths and interests.

We don’t need school staff who are better at defending the Local Education Authority’s policies, when in fact what they really want to be doing is sharing their enthusiasm for various subjects with the students, but in fact end up cornered by employers that create systems that interfere with imaginative teaching.

We do need team members who can collaborate with each other and with the student, and who can teach the knowledge and tools they will need to be better masters of their own destinies. That is what education should ultimately be about, rather than about creating more compliant student masses.

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.

Doing Things the Wrong Way

I was in my teens when my mother announced in a fit of supreme annoyance, “You know Andrea, all children rebel, but you’re doing it all wrong!”

This comment required some thinking on my part. Indeed, it rolled around in my head for hours as I tried in vain to make sense of it. Granted, I was continuing to have academic difficulties, but those did not stem from rebelliousness. What was I doing wrong? I didn’t date (so no sex), didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t even have my driver’s license to be engaging in reckless behavior, didn’t ditch school (wasn’t truant), and wasn’t grossly disrespectful. If someone had created a list of the Six Dreadful D’s that a teen could engage in, I would have been clear of the whole list.

The “doing something all wrong” part of itself wasn’t the difficulty; that was a sadly familiar refrain. It was attaching “all children rebel” to it. The words implied that there was a “right” way to rebel that I was failing to accomplish. But parents never wanted their children to rebel … what a double-bind! Oh, it made my head hurt. Finally by the next day I decided that her comment simply did not make sense. That would later prove to be the turning point of my tediously slow process of untangling an alarming number of double-binds that had for years tied my head up in knots.

Part of the reason that I had trouble understanding the nonsensical nature of that remark was that my mother was not the only person from whom I’d heard this refrain about “doing things the wrong way”.

I had inexplicably run into problems in art class (of all places surprisingly – this subject was normally a source of outstanding marks) because I wasn’t following the directions for figure drawing. We were supposed to be drawing the person perched on a high stool by creating a series of connected ovoids for the torso, limbs, and appendages, and then connecting those ovals and smoothing them to create the figure. That didn’t make much sense to me; it seemed like a lot of unnecessary work. I simply started at the top of the head and proceeded to draw the silhouette. Sometimes I would erase a small section to refine the line, but otherwise I would work my way around to the beginning point, and then filled in the interior details.

My art teacher however, was a stickler for “Process, process, process!” She had managed to get everyone successfully through single and double vanishing-point perspective by careful adherence to procedure, and she was determined to have all her students complete satisfactory still-life drawings of bottles, cow skulls, and humans by careful adherence to procedure. Initially we’d started our still-life work with the typical assemblages of fruits-as-Platonic-solids, but this class was right before lunch and the props kept disappearing. The bottles proved to be adequate subjects for learning techniques, but the cow skulls proved daunting. The system of Platonic solids and ovoids proved to be no match for the murderous complexity created by the mandible and orbital cavities. I was able to draw a respectable cow skull only by virtue of the fact that I could visualize it as a two-dimensional image and then transfer that mental image to my paper, fait accompli. I have no idea if her distrust of my personal process was related to the fact that I wasn’t complying with the given directions (and thus had succeeded in completing the assignment but left her with little to calculate in her grading rubric), or whether it was related to the fact that she had no idea how I could draw by finished silhouette. Even the token artistic genius of the class had to sketch and re-sketch lines repeatedly, for all her finished product was the most refined.

Trouble was constantly simmering over in my maths class, and boiled over every nine weeks as progress reports were sent home. Whereas beginning algebra had been a minefield of flunked exams, geometry was taking a much different turn, and not always for the best. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand geometry with all its angles and parallel lines and intersections of compass-drawn circles. Indeed, it was the first time I had excelled in understanding anything mathematic. I could consistently answer the homework and exam questions correctly. I just couldn’t consistently show the steps or name the proofs that described how I’d reached those answers. As far as I was concerned, the exam requirements of List the proofs and Show your work were the bane of my life. Generally there weren’t any steps to be had! The answers were obvious. So much so that I spent most of the class lecture time just doodling on the margins of my notepaper, creating recursive labyrinths, spiraling pursuit curves, or re-inventing Voronoi tessellations by marking the areas of influence around random blemishes in the paper.

When my maths instructor had taken me aside one day after class to find out just how I was getting my answers (there were suspicions of cheating), I then stupefied him by announcing answers by glancing sideways at the problems. He was totally flummoxed when he found that I figured sums of several numbers by initially clumping complementary pairs of digits in each column into sets of ten before adding them up, rather than starting at the top of the column and consecutively adding each digit. I couldn’t understand why my approach wasn’t natural to everyone, because after all, we were using a base ten system. At least he was satisfied that I was producing the correct answers on my own, no matter what obscure method I used to produce them.

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? Apparently so, for I was increasingly finding that style was as important as substance when I found myself in social situations. You weren’t supposed to lie, you weren’t supposed to sit there and not participate, and yet you weren’t supposed to say what was really going on. Amazing how often one could be deemed rude for merely sharing facts or for being specific. I repeatedly found myself doing things the wrong way and thus going against what people were telling me to do. Maybe I was rebelling after all.

It’s just … that wasn’t my intent at all.

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