That whole ‘State Education’ thing…perhaps we should re-think this!

When teachers are disciplined – perhaps fired – for teaching students that they have rights  and freedoms under the Constitution….

It’s time to re-think this badly run experiment in State indoctrination!

In completely unrelated news:  Waterloo University is looking for a new ‘Director of Equity’.  Should I apply?

‘Red Cabbage Does Science’ – an update on ‘Do Science, Tanzania’

Science is fun.

Scientific method disciplines the mind – and lets people achieve.  All kinds of ‘achieve’!

Which is a good thing.

In February, I blogged about a fund-raiser for ‘Do Science, Tanzania’: a one-woman effort to bring science to kids in Moshi, Tanzania, by bringing over a lending-library of scientific equipment.

Here is an update on how things are going:  Ms. Hall has settled in her temporary home in Tanzania and has started holding workshops for the local high-school science teachers with the excellent and accessible ‘Red Cabbage ph indicator’ lab.

For some of these kids, I truly do forsee a pot of gold at the end of the spectrum!

Do Science, Tanzania

So much in our world is messed up, it sometimes leaves us feeling powerless to do something about it.

Well, don’t give up!

A singlr person CAN make a difference!

Which is why I’d like to tell you about ‘Do Science, Tanzania’.

This is the brainchild of an Ottawa Physics teacher, Diana Hall, and her efforts are supported by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Vernier Software and Technology, Valley Microscope, her current and former students with their families and other caring individual people.

The aim of the program?


The best way to get kids interested in science is to make it possible for them to DO science.

Do Science, Tanzania, aims to do exactly that by building a lending library of science equipment and making it available to science teachers in Moshi, Tanzania.  This will permit the equipment to reach, educate and inspire many more students than if it were sent to one single school…

Looking at their ‘Wishing Well’, one can see their requests are humble – yet have the potential to have a tremendous impact, a truly big bang for the buck.  In addition to asking for donations of any science classroom equipment, they still need:

  • 3- Microscopes – 3 x $250
  • Glassware (beakers, cylinders, test tubes etc.) – $200
  • Microscope Slides – $25
  • Power Supply – $250
  • Electronic Balance – 2 x $10
  • Wave Generator – $250
  • White Boards – $50
  • White Board Markers – $50
  • Calculators – 25 x $5 (used calculators also useful)
  • Slinkies – 5 x $15
  • Baggage Fees for Shipping Science Equipment – 3 x $200 per bag

Ms. Hall is heading to Tanzania soon, hopefully with her lending library of science equipment bursting at the seams.  If you’d like to find out how to help, click here to find out more.

Or, come to their dinner/social on Friday 11th, 2011.


Aspeis need to know what their assignment actually is

Lately, I have neglected posting on the topic of Aspergers.  Still, judging by the relative traffic among my posts, there is a need for more information there:  both Aspies and educators are still looking for help.

Last December, I received the following comment:

I have an Aspie student, and when asked to produce 2 sentences about a topic in class, will just sit and think the entire period producing nothing… (I do believe that he is thinking about the topic). The topic has been given to student prior to class. Is this an unreasonable task? This is an 7th grade gifted autistic student.

I understand the perfectionism issue and that they may be unsure that it is good enough to put on paper, but in an educational setting I would like some suggestions to assist the regular Language Arts teacher. This is a graded assignment to be done in class.

Thanks in advance for any ideas you may have.

Deb Herr
Special Education Teacher

While I gave a quick reply at that time, this is a very important point which deserves a lot of attention.  So, I had attempted to write up a proper response.

It wasn’t right – so I edited t.

Then I fixed it up some.

Then t needed shortening down a bit.  So, I cut a bunch of stuff out.

Too much of the key ‘stuff’ was gone.  I started a re-write.  From scratch…

…and so on, and so on.

It is now October.  I have still not published the post – it is not ‘right’ yet!!!!

NO, I am NOT joking!

So, now, I will publish the draft I have, without re-reading it, with all the flaws, errors, sentence fragments and all – or I will NEVER publish this…

Here it goes:

Both my sons are in the gifted program.  One has gone through grade 7 several years ago, one is going to get there in not too distant a future – so, I am familiar with the level of development of a gifted Aspie of that age group.

Just to be sure, I asked my older son if he remembered being in that situation himself.  He did…and was in perfect agreement with me as to what thought-processes this student would be going through: trying to figure out what the assignment means!

Being in the gifted program means the student is smart.  By the time they get to grade 7, smart Aspies understand perfectly well that when a teacher asks for ‘any two sentences on a topic’, the absolutely last thing this means is any two sentences on a topic’!

Experience would have taught them that…by now.  And not in a nice way.

But, it would not have taught them what it is that the teacher/assignment does mean – or how to guess it….

So, I think it most likely that the student spent the time trying to figure out what the assignment actually was!  And, with so little information provided to the student, I really don’t see how anyone could figure it out!

Therefore, my answer is that yes, it is unreasonable an Aspie or an Autie gifted student, in grade 7, to complete an assignment of ‘writing 2 sentences on a given topic‘.


  • The assignment is non-specific.
  • The parameters are not defined.
  • The goals of the assignment are not known.
  • The expectations are unclear (or, in this case, clearly misrepresented).


There IS a solution!

Aspies – and high-functioning Auties – are very good at meeting very specific goals.  I know that teachers are not used to approaching teaching this way, but, they would get WAY better results from this class of students if they were absolutely clear with them what the point of the assignment is, what the goal is, and what the evaluation criteria will be.

This worked for me – and my sons, as well as a few other kids I worked with:

First, we establish that in order to produce marks, teachers have to produce metrics:  marks which measure the student’s skill-set development in several areas.  This may seem like a game, but, because teachers have to work within such a large system, metrics were required.  And, these metrics are used to evaluate the student.

To an Aspie/Autie student, this can be an important revelation.  It is not an intuitive leap, to conclude this, because we usually believe what we are told – and from the earliest age, we are told that the point of school is to learn.  But, of course, it isn’t!  The point of school is to PROVE what we have learned… There is no place in school for ‘learning’ without proving (through earning marks) that/what one has learned.

Explaining that the point of doing assignments is to ‘earn points/marks’ can be liberating for an Aspie student.  After all, ‘getting on the high-score board’ is possible, even if one has not yet ‘defeated the boss’!

Once this groundwork has been laid, it is important to explain both the teacher’s goals for this assignment (what the teacher will be measuring for the needed metrics) and the student’s goals (what bits of what will earn points/marks).   This bit can be hard on teachers, because they have to explain both the explicit goals and the implied ones – most teachers do not go through this step explicitly themselves.

Yes – most assignments at the grade 7 level come with a ‘marking rubric’.  At least, in my area they do.  But these are so filled with vague notions and ‘weasel-words’ that they are worse than useless!  “The student demonstrated some understanding…. The student demonstrated good understanding…”  What the hell does THAT mean?

What is the difference between ‘little’ and ‘some’ and ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ in this context – and HOW is it measured?

Obviously, I can tell that ‘excellent’ will get a higher grade than ‘poor’ – but how do I know what demonstrates ‘excellent’ and what demonstrates ‘poor’ – or any of the other non-specific terms used – in this particular instance, to the satisfaction of this particular teacher?

If the teacher cannot stand there and provide a specific, accurate answer on how the grading will be done – how can the student be expected to guess what expectations to perform to?

This is so much easier for maths and sciences.  When a teacher assigns a problem, the student knows not just WHAT ‘the right answer is’ – she/he knows what form the answer is to take.

This is woefully not true of ‘soft’ subjects.  Not only do different teachers consider completely different ‘things’ to be ‘the right’ answer (try writing up interpretation of renaissance poetry for a ‘born-again’ teacher), the format itself is undefined….  Yet you are judged how your performance measures up to something the teacher cannot quantitatively define:  expectations!

It seems criminal that ‘educators’ are blind to this…

Meep! MEEP!

One of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of the USA are the ‘Salem Witch Trials‘.

The very home of one of the people executed for practicing ‘witchcraft’ , Rebecca Nurse, has been turned into a museum.  It stands in today’s town of Danvers, MA, which was originally settled as ‘Salem Village’.

It seems that, once again, trouble is brewing in this quaint little town.

This time, it is not the Devil who is afflicting young people, but none other than the lovable-appearing Muppet, Beaker!

The affliction of the town’s young people – which causes them to exclaim ‘Meep!’ without provocation – has become so severe that the administrators of the Danvers High School have been forced to resort to banning the word, both written and spoken!

So, when such a posession by evil (?)  Muppet begun to sweep through the youth population (some students even said ‘Meep’ AT a teacher!), how was the school to protect the students not yet infected into channeling this spirit?  Obviously, the school had to take the strongest possible steps!  According to news reports, the school instituted a rule (clearly communicated to all parents) that any student who utters this sound ‘Meep!’, or even wears an article of clothing with the word ‘Meep!’ on it, will face expulsion from school!  Oh, and the police will be notified, too…

After all, what else could they do?  Now, even MORE young people were affected than the LAST time – and they had to resort to ‘witch trial’ and executions then!!!

Could they learn a lesson from history?

Or, perhaps, educational professionals might have some of them ‘professional educational tools’ they could employ?

…don’t be ridiculous – that would mean actually doing their job!

They did what any authority in power these days seems to think is the ‘best’ way to deal with something they don’t like:  BAN IT!!!

Of course, this hit the blogosphere pretty fast:  I read about it on Dvorak Uncensored.  They carry a quote from a lawyer who says she sent an email stating ‘Meep!’ (the address is publicly available on the school’s website, right margin) to the principal, vice principal and administrator, only to get a reply from the VP that her email has, indeed, been forwarded to the local police department….

This is serious matter:  curbing the freedom of speech of students is nothing to Tinker with!  The only circumstances – according to the US Supreme Court – that a student’s right to free speech may be abridged on public school grounds is if the ‘speech’ is ‘sexually explicit’ or if it ‘promotes the use of illegal substances’….  Of course, I am no lawyer, but, in my never-humble-opinion, the word ‘Meep!’ does not do either!

Despite the clear rules of law, the school leadership has deemed this offensive word, ‘Meep!’, to be such a danger and such a disruption, no amount of force is unjustified in getting rid of it!

Welcome to the Salem Muppet Hunt!

When I told my own kids about this situation, both my sons shouted out (simultaneously) “Reason!” and “Common Sense!”  The point being, if the teens in Danvers High switched to saying ‘Reason!’ or ‘Common Sense’ in the same manner they are now using the term ‘Meep!’, would the school ban ‘Reason!’ and ‘Common Sense!’ ?

Some clever people (sorry, I lost the link) have suggested that, perhaps, the students might stop saying ‘Meep!’, but each and every one of them could, say, accidentally drop a textbook at 10:45 each and every day…. accidents DO happen….

Personally, I think they ought to continue the behaviour, but change ‘Meep!’  sound to ‘Baaaaaaaaah!’  After all, if the school WANTS them to behave like sheep, they might as well SOUND like sheep!

Now, I did not grow up with the Muppets:  right generation, wrong continent.  But, my husband did.  And, he likes Beaker!  He has the audacity to think that Beaker, contrary to the Danvers High administrators, is not actually evil!  He asked me to send them this message (I recommend you turn the volume down – the music is seriously ‘wussy’, to the point of ‘ear-bleed-causing’, but the video does make the point):  DON’T FEAR THE BEAKER!!!

Of course, there are those conspiracy-minded folk who think that the reason that the school had banned ‘Meep!’ is because during the 2008 US Presidential election, the Muppet Show endorsed Beaker for President – against Obama-Kermit!  And that this is just political payback by Obama-Kermit cronies…  Personally, I don’t believe a word of that!  Though, if you would like adirect  confirmation that this ‘conspiracy theory’ is ludicrous, perhaps you could ask the Danvers High School principal, Thomas Murray, directly.  His email is )

All I have to say to the pedagogues of Danvers High:


Oh, and:  Meep! MEEP!

McGuinty’s ‘all-day schooling’ harms low-income women

This rant is a follow up to my State is Mother, State is Father… and Why young kids should not be ‘institutionalized’.

Why the rant?

The Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, had – on the advice of an ‘educator’ – suggested that children should be put in schools from 4 years of age:  from 7:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening (yes, that is a 10.5 hour work-day for the child), 50 weeks per year (only 2 weeks of holidays per year)…

There are many motives for doing this:  McGuinty’s announcement said that he would begin implementing this program in areas where school enrolement was falling, and in economically depressed areas.

In other words:  Canadians are having fewer children, so the school enrollment is falling.  That means fewer jobs for teachers – like the premier’s wife!  So, he is doing something about it: if you have fewer children going to school, then to keep the number of teaching jobs up (or even raise it), you must increase the number of hours the kids are kept there!

This is a make-work-for-teachers program! Nothing more!

The kids are just pawns!

What will be the impact on our society?  It will make it more and more difficult for parents to look after their children themselves… It will be another nail in the coffin of the ‘nuclear family’!

Please, consider the following:

Our tax system penalizes families which choose to have one parent stay at home to raise their kids.  These families are taxed at a much higher rate than those who choose to use daycare (the cost of which is, in many cases, also subsidized from taxpayer dollars).

In order to make ends meet, many young mothers (it is mostly mothers) who choose to stay home to raise their young children will start a small, home-based daycare.  They’ll take in two or three other kids, pick them up from the schoolbus and care for them after school in their home.  I have seen these home based daycares – several of them.

They are loving homes and, in most cases, the care-giver and the child develop strong bonds. This is good:  small, home-based daycares mimic the ‘extended family’ scenario in which children have traditionally grown up and which, in my never-humble-opinion, is the best social setting for the healthy social growth of a young child.

What will happen under the newly proposed McGuinty plan?

McGuinty will have destroyed thousands of small, women-run business!

McGuinty will take away their jobs and give them to the teachers!

Because now, parents will not pay a neighbour or a friend to look after their child:  it will be cheaper and more ‘convenient’ to just put them into school for 10.5 hours!  And the taxpayers will pay for it all – so, why not?

And the women whose daycare income (now gone) used to allow them to stay at home will have to pay higher taxes, to pay the salaries of teachers (who get paid much, much more per hour than the caregiver was) who stole her job from her!!!

These women will be forced to work outside of home to make ends meet….and their own children will end up in the educational institution as well…because they will no longer be able to afford to look after them themselves.

In one punch, McGuinty has destroyed the ability of many parents to raise their kids themselves by depriving them of income and raising their taxes all at once!

People do not get rich running small, home-based daycares!  Their income is pretty low – just enough to let them ‘make ends meet’, so they CAN raise their children themselves, with the love their children deserve!

Taking away from low-income women and giving to the fat-cat unions!  That is ‘education – McGuinty style’!

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State is Mother, State is Father…

My dog loves the sofa.  He also loves blankets.

He absolutely relishes sleeping on the sofa – and this is one dog that has elevated ‘sleeping’ into an art form. Really – I have known many dogs, and owned a few, but I have never met a dog who relishes sleep like this crazy canine does!

Also, he does not like strangers to sit on his the sofa.  He’ll watch to see if the person gets up for some reason – even for a moment, sneak in behind them, steal the spot and immediately start pretending that he’s asleep, has been asleep in that spot for a very long time, and why is everyone getting all worked up about this?

He also loves to steal blankets:  and has been known to quietly grab a corner and, slowly but steadily, sneak off with the blanket of an unwary person lying down on the sofa, watching TV late at night.

When my son and I came home Monday, he greeted us with great enthusiasm.  He slithered off the sofa, stretched slowly and thoroughly, and wandered over to the front hallway to greet us.  Honestly – this passes as ‘enthusiastic’ from him:  sometimes, he just lifts his head off the sofa’s arm-rest and wags his tail a tiny bit to show he’s noticed you came in.

So, today’s was an enthusiastic greeting!  Then, after he followed me to the kitchen and stopped in front of the fridge, hoping that his beautiful brown eyes would hypnotize me to give him a pepperette, when – suddenly and visibly – a though struck him.

Quite suddenly, he abandoned begging communicating and, with unusual swiftness, he ran to the living room.  OK, we knew when we adopted him that he was ‘special’ and, though incredibly good natured, he was no border collie in the brain department – so I thought nothing of it.

Later, when I came into the living room, I noticed that he was not lying down on the sofa, but on a chair.  And he was not really lying down in his usual way… instead, he was more ‘splayed’:  all four paws spread as far apart as possible, his centre of gravity as low as he could get it.  His head was not resting, but just slightly elevated in a high-strung sort of way.  And his eyes…

His eyes were priceless!  They were ‘big’ – his ‘vigilant look’ (well, as vigilant as he gets) – with lots of ‘white’ showing.  And they were flashing, side to side – in a particularly self-pleased way!

Had his behaviour not been so ‘obvious’, I would not have looked around too closely to see what he was doing.  But, his very demeanour gave away that he was ‘being tricky’:  that he had ‘done’ something naughty and thought he was getting away with it!

It turns out that my son – in a fit of insomnia – brought his blanket down, watched some TV, then forgot his blanket on the chair.  The dog knows ‘bed blankets’ are off limits to him:  but this blanket was not on a bed, was it?  So he lay down on it, spread his body as wide as possible to hide the fact that he was indeed occuppying a ‘bed blenket’ which was currently ‘not a bed blanket’…  The dog was very, very pleased with himself!

So, what does this story have to do with my post today?

Yes, it was a bit of a long segway, and this story took me a few days to write up, but…

Monday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty made an announcement.  Some person whose makes his living ‘educating children’ released a report today, saying that ‘children need more educating’!

Why, that is almost as convincing as a ‘Cure-all’ salesman saying this potion in this here bottle will ‘cure all’!!!  Better buy a few!!!

And, Mr. McGuinty, he is so concerned about the welfare of children, he’ll have to do what is best for all of the children! (Will somebody please shut up the parents of those pesky Autistic kids?  They’re not even photogenic:  no photo-ops from that lot!)

As I was saying:  Mr. McGuinty, he is so caring, he only wants what is best for the children!  And since that report by a guy who gets rich by sticking EVERY child into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ ‘institutions of teaching’, that is exactly what this kind and caring man announced he would do!!!

Aside:  make no mistake!  Our public schools are ‘institutions of teaching’, NOT ‘institutions of learning’!!!  They are centered around the needs and desires of teachers, whose powerful union regularly holds the whole population hostage by refusing to ‘teach’ unless it is ‘on their terms’ – ONLY!  Therefore, schedules, methodology, material and just about every aspect of ‘teaching’ you can name is tailored to suit the comfort of teachers.  Students, who have no union to represent them, are just pawns to be cycled through the system – a pesky annoyance to be minimized and with which the teachers have to put up with as a minor part of this ‘education system’…

So, what is it that this caring, loving man (who is reportedly married to a teachers’ union activist) proposing to do???

He wants to institutionalize our children for 10.5 hours a day, 5-days per week, 50 weeks per year, from toddlerhood on!!!

Of course, the words he used to make his announcement were not as direct as my statement of it is – but the meaning is identical.  His version is all about ‘what is best for the children’!  And he has that ‘study’ (by a guy who, among others, will have an increased revenue stream if McGuinty institutes) this to back him up!

Here is the video – I invite you to watch the body language:

Did you notice it?

The way he shifts his eyes, the way he enunciates certain words, the way he uses his whole body to help him spit out some ‘concepts’?

It’s that SAME body language my not-so-bright (but way more lovable than McGuinty) dog used when he was trying to ‘pull one over’!

This sent me ‘looking for’ what it is that is ‘the loophole’ here:  what is this man ‘pulling over’ on us?

I’ll rant more on this tomorrow….

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Aspergers and ‘painting music’

Over the last few decades, there have been very big changes in classroom attitudes – at least, in this part of the world.  Many teachers are of the opinion that academic rigour stifles self-expression, and in an attempt to foster creativity in their students, they have systematically dismantled structured teaching.

This might work for some students.  Yet, many students do not do well in this new environment, do not learn well using this new method.  Yes, I do focus on kids with Aspergers, but they are not the only ones who are having difficulties.  Many ‘normal’ kids find this ‘unstructured’ method of teaching makes learning more difficult.  The Aspie kids get completely lost in it.

Let me give you an example:

During a series of grade 3 art classes, the teacher played different types of music.  The assignment was to ‘paint’ the music while the students were listening to it.  I thought this was the height of idiocy:  no skills were being taught, and precious school time was being wasted.  But it was explained to me that I was being boorish, that this ‘exercise’ is scientifically designed to stimulate different areas of the brain to synthesize information, which is what kids at this age need more than anything else.

Please, do not misunderstand me.  I don’t have anything against art classes in general:  to the contrary.  My mother teaches art, and I have a deep love for it.  However, I think that kids actually get more enjoynment out of art if they are actually taught about it.  They will derive pleasure from drawing if some of the rules of proportion, or different  fun techniques are broken down into steps for them, so they can master the skills.  Once they have understood the rules, it will be more fun to ‘bend’ them to express their own artistic talents (and no, I don’t mean after years of study….rather, teach a specific skill, rules that govern it, and how to bend them and have fun with art).

Well, my son was in this particular art class.  He was in it because that teacher had gone to receive specific training on how to teach kids with Aspergers.  And then she got angry with an Aspie kid for ‘not being able to paint the music’ he was listening to????? 

Of course, what she was expecting was just non-sensicals colourful swirls – but she would never tell the students that.  With a prim smile, she insisted they ‘paint what the music makes them see’.  Questions of ‘How?’ were met with ‘That is up to YOU!’

Just before setting marks onto the report card, she called me to warn me that my son is about to fail art…  Let’s just say that I found it somewhat difficult to keep my temper.  (The problem was the frustration he experienced in being asked to complete a task he did not have the tools to perform, asking for help and being denied it, then penalized for failing by a bad mark.)

I explained to her that in that case, by her own standard, my son should have received an A+ for his artwork:  the music did not make him ‘see’ anything, so that is what he painted.  Or did not paint.  Either way, the result was accurate, and that he made a bold artistic statement by leaving the page blank.  Quite literally, he ‘drew a blank’!  In other words, I tried to ‘out-pretentious’ her.  It did not work – I’ve never been very good at it. 

However, the teacher said that if my son does 3 of these paintings and hands them in by Monday, he will not fail art.  So, we were left with the task to ‘paint music’.  My son and I talked about it, and it became clear that his frustration level was higher than usual.  But I came up with a solution I am still proud of!

Selecting a Physics textbook which had a good, simple explanation of ‘sound waves’, we read it over together and I explained all the diagrams to him.  Now, here was ‘sound’, represented visually!!!!  We were making progress.  Yet, many Aspies are sticklers for rules – my son could not paint the different types of music the same way!!!  And I was ready…

Rummaging around in the basement, I dusted off our old logic analyzer and brought it up.  Then I set up the display to emulate an oscilloscope, and we played the different types of music.  It worked!  The different sound waves made the oscilloscope display different curves.  Lifting his brush, and dipping it into the green paint (the display was green), my son went and happily painted the different types of music!

His teacher was thrilled!  She told him she knew that if he tried, he could paint music!  He told her they were ‘music waves’ and that he saw them.  I did not tell her that he saw them on an oscilloscope screen – somehow, I did not think that would please her.  Why spoil her pleasure? 

Aspergers and writing – holding on to that thought!

Different people are affected by Asperger Syndrome differently, and to varying degrees – it is more of a ‘continuum’ than an ‘on/off switch’.  I am by no means an expert – but I have some experience in living with it, and raising kids who are also Aspies.  The following will not work for everybody, but it did work for one of my kids.  Perhaps it may help another family, too – if not to improve skills, then at least to build an understanding.

Many Aspies are quite capable of speaking their mind, but have difficulty writing.  Previously, I have noted several factors that could be at play.  Here, I would like to look at only one of these:  how to hold on to that thought long enough to write it down.

Whether it is some problem with short-term memory, a non-differentiation in the prioritization of our 7-or-so ‘attention slots’, or if it is due to different causality, the practical result is that many Aspie kids say: ‘there are so many ideas swirling in my head, I cannot hold on to one thought long enough to write it down’. 

This problem could be related to ADD – a condition which often occurs along with Aspergers.  And it is something that can be incredibly frustrating.  The child knows the answer, but there is some kind of a breakdown in the communication between the brain and the hand…  To an outside observer, it looks like nothing less than obstinance!

The earlier it is discovered that a child has this aspect of Aspergers, the easier it is to correct.  As is so often the case, the smarter the child is, the longer they can ‘mask’ the problem by ‘leveraging their core competencies’.  (Ooooh, I do love it when I talk bureaucreteese – while I don’t have to!  I amuse easily.)  This can be a good thing:  if the problem is mild, this can be a way the child ‘owns’ the problem and develops perfectly tailored coping mechanisms.

My son’s problem, however, was not mild.  Even though he did well, hiding his problem for quite a long time, half way through grade 2 he simply ‘got stuck’.  And even when we discovered it, it was completely new to us.  Nobody seemed to understand why he would sit at a desk for an hour and manage to write less than 3 words.

In grade 1, he tackled his inabiltiy to learn to read – and leapfrogged his peers, reading ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ on his own during the summer.  He had mastered the mechanics of forming letters – this also had been a struggle in grade 1.  (He had gone to a Montessori pre-school, where he learned to iron washcloths instead.)  So, we had been optimistic that we were ready for grade 2!

And now, this – to us – unprecedented and inexplicable inability to write even the siplest sentences.  The teacher was great, and even took a seminar to see if she could learn about this – but by this point, we had never even heard the word ‘Aspergers’, or what it means.  It took us a long time, but we finally worked out a way to get written work done.

  1. My son and I would sit at the table, he would read the question, and say the answer out loud.   
  2. I would write the answer in large, clear letters on a notepad. 
  3. I would place the notepad on the table, and he’d get ready to write his answer.
  4. Now I asked:  “What is the question?”  – He’d read it out loud again.
  5. “What is the answer?”  –  He’d say the whole answer again.
  6. “What is the first word?”  –  He’d repeat it.
  7. “What is the first letter?”  –  He’d repeat it and write it.
  8. “What is the second letter?”  –  He’d repeat it and write it.
  9. “What is the third letter?”  –  He’d repeat it….

And so on.

Except that, at the beginnig, by the second letter, he would forget what it was.  And what the word was.  And what the question was.  So, we’d go back to reading the question, answering it, reading what he had written, and forcing him to realize what the next letter was.  

It was hard, and it took a long time.  Especially in the beginning – it could easily take us an hour to write 4 sentences.  But, he was doing it!  And over time – long time – he built up the capacity to hold on to more and more information, before needing to go back and re-checking it.

At first, on the advice of the teacher, we had instituted a ‘reward system’.  She was one of those teachers who really care – and I don’t know if I could have done it without her.  And, because I did not give my kids too many sweets – she suggested that some very small candies or raisins could be used as ‘earned rewards’ – say once a sentence or a particularly long word is completed.

The reward system was working.  Not that it would make the work easier, or that it would motivate him to write faster.  It did not work in that way.  But, as hard as all this was on me, it was even harder on my son:  he had just spent a full day at school – good and bad – and now we were sitting at the table for hours, working.  That is a lot for a 7-year-old!  The ‘reward’ was exactly that – it allowed him to graphically see his progress!  As my pre-measured ‘pile’ of ‘rewards’ on the table was shrinking, so was the amount of work still ahead of him.

That is something neat:  Aspies like rules.  They are much more likely to reach their potential in a highly structured environment, where the expectations are very, very clear.  In a way, the ‘rewards’ were a little bit of ‘structure’, a measure of how much work is still expected from him.  Anyhow, he seemed calmer, and more ‘focused’.

Soon, I started finding the ‘rewards’ in his pockets when I would do laundry.  This puzzled me – so I asked him about it.  His answer?  “Well, I don’t really like to eat when I’m doing my work, but you looked so happy giving me the treats that I did not want to spoil it for you!”

After this, we switched from edible rewards to other non-edible ‘markers’:  marbles, poker chips, pebbles, or even coins from his piggy bank.  He got to pick what we would use that day, and helped count out the ‘markers’.  Once he had earned them all, we would put them back into their baggie, and into the ‘marker box’.  He liked that.

It was slow going.  After about a week of this, we both noticed that we would almost fall into a rhythm of question-answer-write.  And that really was the point when we both noticed beginnings (very, very beginnings) of progress!  Just to vary it – for fun – we started calling it out in the rhythm of that song soldiers sing to keep beat, with the question-answer called out loudly. 

My son loved it, and called it ‘writing with shouting’.  He explained to me that when we were ‘writing with shouting’, the sound scared away the other thoughts, so he could sometimes hold on to three or even four letters before needing to go back to see what word it was he was writing!  He would be excited by this, and ask for us to ‘do the writing with shouting’.

Excited by this progress, I reported back to the teacher how well we were doing.  Perhaps I was a bit hahazard in how it all tumbled out of me, but I was very excited and happy to tell her.  I did not get the reaction I expected.  She looked aghast, and started crying.  When I asked why, she said: 

“The poor child!  He’s trying so hard!  And you took away his treats and are shouting at him instead!”

I explained better.  So, why exactly does ‘relief’ make people want to punch my arm?

In conclusion, it did work – but it was a long, hard road.  The performance level at school rose faster than my son’s skills, so it could be downright discouraging at times.  But, we stuck with it – there was about a 3 week period when we worked 3-4 hours a day at it, and there was not a single day when we did not spend at least 2 hours ‘writing’ – without or ‘with shouting’!  And we beat it! 

Eventually, we would not need to go letter by letter.  Instead, we went word by word.  We got there during grade 3….  But the habit of having me write the answers down, and then writing them down himself with the notepad in front of him ‘for when he needed it’ – we continued that until the end of grade 5.  And, if the schoolwork really piled up, I would sometimes (with the teachers’ permissions) script for him.  One needs to be flexible when the workload is greater… and other learning must not be neglected.  Eventually, his writing skills have caught up with the amount of work required of him at school.   

It took a ‘few’ years, but we beat it!  It was not the last problem with ‘writing’ that we encountered, but it was by far the most effort-intensive to overcome.  But it was worth it!

Aspergers and accurate words

School!  It can be a testing place at the best of times!

For people who need to use ‘precise’ and ‘accurate’ words to describe things as those of us with Aspergers do, it can be baffling.  After all, one becomes used to the vocabulary and expectations at home – but at school, the rules are different.  And people just do not communicate clearly.  In the words of the immortal Inigo Montoya, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Let me give you an example.

Schools are filled with many kind and caring people who truly have the best intentions towards our kids.  They are dedicated.  At times, they will even enter ‘uncomfortable’ situations, if they think the ultimate result will help one of ‘their’ kids.  I admire that.

One year, at the beginning of winter – just as it was time to start wearing hats and mits etc. – I got a phone call from one of my kids’ teachers.  Even though I am pretty thick at picking up on such clues, I could tell she was very uncomfortable.  She spoke in a little soft voice and picked her words very carefully.

The school, as it turns out, gets some free ‘stuff’ from the milk people, through the milk program.  Yes.  And it there are some families, which – at some times, and through no fault of their own – needed a little help, they could give these things as ‘prizes’ to their kids.  Since it is a ‘prize’, there is no stigma…

I was really beginning to wonder what this was about.  We were not in any financial difficulties – at least, I thought I would notice if we were.  So I made a non-commital sound, to show I was listening…

The teacher, kindly and gently, continued.  The promotional items they had included hats.  Since the weather was getting kind of cool, it was important that kids should wear hats.  And, today, during recess, my son had told her that he does not own a hat, and that he does not think we’re planning to buy him one.  So, if it would not cause offense, they could give him a hat from the milk programme…

Whatever reaction she was expecting, laughter was not it.  But, I just could not help myself!  I burst our laughing.  You see, my son was absolutely correct!!!  Yet, I owed the teacher an explanation…

The previous weekend, we had indeed gone shopping for a new winter hat.  My son became intrigued by these ‘hat and neckwarmer in one’ contraptions.  It looked just like a winter hat that was attached to the ‘neck’ part of a turtleneck.  It had a nice round opening for the whole face, but covered more skin than a ‘hat’ would.  That is what he chose to get instead of a regular hat.

And what did he wear the previous winter (to be used as a spare)?  A tuque!  If many people think that ‘tuque’ and ‘hat’ are the same, they should be corrected:  if they were the same, they would not have different names!!!

So, with puppy-dog eyes, solemnly and truthfully, my son told his teacher that he does not onw a hat!  And when she asked if we were just slow at getting ready for the winter, he truthfully said that we were not planning to get him one…instead of simply saying he forgot his new headwarmer.

The teacher was amused and greatly relieved! I suspect the story was used as a source of amusement at the teacher’s lounge. 

But this is a very real example of how people with Aspergers do not understand what they are being asked, unless the accurate word is used.  The terms used must be specific, precise and accurate, because Aspies do not ‘make leaps of faith’ or read things into stuff.  If we don’t know, we don’t know – we are not likely to jump to unsupportable conclusions.  The teacher would likely have received a different answer had she asked him if he owned something to wear on his head to keep it warm.

Another example of ‘crossed communications’ occurred when my other son was very, very young – certainly under 2 years old.  He absolutely loved watching ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’, and absorbed much of his early vocabulary from that show.

One time, my mom was over, and was in the livingroom with my son.  When I came into the room, she was frustrated:  “I told him to stop picking his nose, but he just stares back at me as if I just fell off the moon!  What is wrong with him?!?!?”

I told her he just did not understand what she meant.  He already had a nose, so how could he pick another one?

Turnning to him, I said:  “Stop touching your mucuous membranes.”

He took his finger out of his nose, looked at me and said:  “Ah, spread germs!”  And went to wash his hands…

These may be funny incidents, but they do illustrate the difficulties Aspies have trying to understand people who use language sloppily.  Just imagine how impenetrable the meaning of many test questions is to them!!!  No wonder they often score very poorly on school tests – many questions do not really ask what they think they ask…

(This is ALWAYS the hardest part of writing a post:  how to end it!  I could go on talking about this endlessly…)

Aspies can, and do, learn to search the speech patterns of others for ‘similar concepts’ – this way, many Aspies learn to ‘decipher’ common speech.  And when we do, we are often so delighted, we drive others mad by playing with it!  Yet, this is not an easy skill to acquire, and it would not be realistic to expect young kids to ‘pick it up’.  This will lead to frustration – not just of the child, but also of educators, parents and others who interact with Aspie kids.

And, Aspie kids usually experience very high levels of frustration, even if they do not communicate this (or display the ‘typical’ signs of frustration, until it builds up into uncontrollable anger).  Making all these people aware of the need for accurate, precise and non-ambiguous use of language (and what that actually is – in the mind of an Aspie) would go a long way towards making life easier for everyone involved. 

If we could only teach the rest of the world to communicate accurately!