As a special needs mother, Anumita shares some of the major learning challenges that Autistic children face. Teaching is adapted according to their special needs. As a parent she had to unlearn traditional pedagogy to learn invaluable lessons all over again. In this in-depth analysis she explains the left-right brain conflict, use of different coloured beads and the need for graphic organisers for children with Autism.
“It’s not our disabilities; it’s our abilities that count.” ~ Chris Burke
Learning to read and write all over again was the first thing that I was taught as a parent by the invention specialist of my younger son’s elementary school in Ohio, USA. As my elder son with special needs had been through the same school system, I felt that I knew it and had seen it all. Confidence is good, but overconfidence is definitely not. I realised it with every passing day, how different my two children were. They were diagnosed with the same category of disability, yet functioned entirely differently.
In the summer, before school started for my little one, I attended a conference arranged by all special needs teachers of the district. There I was in the panel as a parent of special needs children in the spectrum. My children were considered in the high functionality bracket. It is a rather confusing bracket, if I may say so, as there are such subtle nuances of the children’s disability that cannot be diagnosed but experienced on day to day basis. I sat there not sure what I was supposed to talk to all these degree holding teachers in front of me. Some of the faces were very familiar, as they had worked with my older child.
Then the most amazing thing happened. A father in the panel, who happened to be a psychiatrist also, stood up and pulled few papers out of his bag. He handed the paper to us. One was faced down the other faced towards us. On the top sheet was names of colors in bold and colour corresponding to the name. For example, the word ‘YELLOW’ was written with the colour yellow, the word ‘BLUE’ was written with the colour blue, and so on so forth. He asked us to read them. We all did. Now he told us to turn that paper down, and turn the other sheet face up, and start reading immediately. The first word I stumbled on and the next one too. The word ‘YELLOW’ was written with the color green, the word ‘BLUE’ was written with the color red and so on so forth.
This was just a simple example of what confusion in the brain causes, as the visuals and the textual matter do not match. The two lobes of the brain create clashes among themselves. For an Autistic person, the speed of the brain frequency is not steady, it has its own ways of accelerating or slowing down. It requires help to function at a constant speed. To do that schools and parents are given devices or taught techniques to work with the speed of the brain and thus help the children to be independent readers. Reading takes both visual and mental abilities to read, comprehend and analyse. The aid of audio books works miracles. It enhances the reading capacity and maintains the speed. This helps the process of comprehension.
With the summer holidays getting over and the frenzy of a first time school for my younger one bothering me, I felt restless. I was happy and tense at the same time. This was the same elementary school my older one went to. I knew the staff. They had been a part of my little one since he was an infant, making his rounds in school to pick up his older brother. But, a mother’s heart is always questioning. So, I decided to call up the school and take an appointment with his special aid’s teacher. I armed myself with notes and few workbooks, I use for my kid, and showed up at the appointment. What I learnt there changed my whole perspective about learning.
The great wise Yoda’s words rung in my head, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
I could not grapple what Mrs. W was telling me about writing and all the missing information in writing. She understood the expression on my face and smiled. She said the children in my class often have this confused face. They know what we are speaking but the comprehension of the words do not work in that same process. So for a child, with learning disabilities, to write down his/her thoughts is the most difficult job. The words and thoughts get lost along the journey from his mind to the paper. Pockets of blank or disconnects becomes visible in their writings.
She pulled out a beaded strip of string. She called it one of the best inventions ever made to help children with learning disabilities like Aspergers and PDD (Pervasive Development Disorder). It was a thick white string about a foot long with seven colored wooden beads strung in it. I took it and turned the beads around to see what it was all about. Mrs. W’s smile beamed and she opened a small and white and yellow, stripped and laminated page to explain to me what this was about. This beaded string was a part of the EET (Extension Expression Tool). This was the most inexpensive looking equipment, which helped children with disabilities to organise and write their thoughts, based on their own senses.
1. Green Bead: The first bead was green in color, designating ‘group’ or what the writing is about. For example, if the child is writing about his favorite sports, then the story or write up will fall in the ‘sports group’ or ‘particular ball’ that is used in that sport.
2. Blue Bead: The next one is blue, which indicates what the thing ‘does’. For example, if the writing is about a car, then all the things the car can do are to be written down.
3. White Bead with an Eye: The third bead was a white one with a black open eye drawn on it. This bead helped them engage their sense of vision. They were supposed to describe what they see, or how the object they are writing about looked. In other words, this bead reminded to add descriptions and details of the object they were writing about.
4. Wood Coloured and Textured Bead: The fourth bead retained its wood grainy texture and its original color. This symbolised the ‘make’ of the subject they are to write about. For example, if they are writing about a house, they would describe all the materials used to make the house or the particular subject they chose to write about.
5. Pink Bead: The fifth bead was pink denoting the ‘parts’ of the object they are to write about. The names of the parts and some details of it could be added. For example, if they were writing about their vacation, they could write about all the places they are to visit in it. Or if they are writing about their school, they can write about the different classes and the rooms in their school.
6. White Bead: The sixth bead was another white one, but did not have anything drawn or written on it. This color denoted ‘where’ the object of writing is or where it is happening. The location of the write up is a very crucial part of writing.
7. Red Bead with a Black Question Mark: The final bead was a red colored bead with a black question mark drawn on it. It denoted the final questions the child would ask to finish out the writing. For example, “what else do I know, or remember?”
Then I noticed the center of each table had a little cup holder with few ruler like sticks sticking out it. Mrs. W. took out one, it was a paint stirrer. She had got some of them and put down stickers on them. The same color and pictures as those like the EET tool. She gives each one of the kids on of these stirrers and allows them to touch each circle sticker and do their writing. She had even made one for me to take home. I asked her the obvious question that how would I remember which color means what, and do children remember. She smiled and said that it was just a matter of habit, almost like we remember the traffic lights.
I remembered my older child using graphic organisers to help him write. Mrs. W. said that was still in use, but it would come after. Once a child gets used to creating chain of thought he or she can use such graphic organisers to help them create a structure and then be able to write.
Most of the graphic organisers are boxes or ovals in form of a chart or a web. Two examples of such organisers are given below. One of them is analysis of a book and writing a report of the chapters and the other is writing about an animal.
There are few more graphic organisers, which help in advance writing and different forms of writings. They are visual helps to put the writer’s thoughts on paper and then elaborate on them. So when a child is writing his mind does not race way ahead of his speed of putting the words on paper or become sluggish enough that it does not produce enough materials to be able to write upon.
These are few other graphic organisers and there are many available on the net.
Teaching and caring for special needs children and people take a little more effort. Rather I would say we just have to find the other way, and not the way everyone is taking. I am a special needs mother, and every single day I am searching for better ways for my children to reach their goals, and most of the times it’s a very hard and lonely walk for them. Thanks to all the awareness and thoughtfulness of people and educators around the world, we are making progress and we will. Reading and writing, the two basic elements of education, would become real child’s play for them one day.
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Anumita Chatterjee Roy is an artist at heart. She has an eye for the unusual. Her naturescapes make her the quintessential Romantic. She paints, is passionate about photography, creates word images in her verses and loves to write. She cooks delicacies and is a foodie. Born in India, she was brought up in several countries. These strengthened the global citizen in her. She now lives in the Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two sons.