Thursday, May 31, 2012

Demystifying Written Language

Language, as I have written before, is the bane of existence for my boys at times. Of course, as with everything about the boys, it depends on the situation. CM2 does seem to have a better handle on idioms and usage then his brother, so he doesn't miss as much when it comes to popular culture. And CM1writes with a talent that I wished I possessed. He is able to dissect, organize and understand complicated ideas as long as he can write them down and mull over them. So the demystification does depend on what is happening, when it is happening and what is required of the boys.

Written language also has many different aspects. We have to learn to read and write and understand. It is a multi-step process, that can overwhelm your child at any point in the process. In fact, I had thought that CM1 had it knocked at an early age. Yes he was hyperlexic, but he did understand what he read so I believed that there was no problem. I was wrong.

Reading comprehension was very hard for CM1 from the very beginning. I actually didn't even know that. No one explained it to me. I had thought in elementary school that everything was just fine and was quite surprised when they told me how they have to work  with him to get him to understand the assignments. They were shocked that I didn't know and were quite confused at my reaction. This was third grade.

I was concerned with CM1's handwriting and was concentrating on that and they literally thought I was nuts. I remember the look on the special ed teacher's face when I went on and on about his penmanship when she was trying to tell me about his reading issues. Yes we worked out our cross communication issues and everything went along fine. Apparently you do not need to have an autism spectrum disorder to not "get" what someone is telling you.

The way they taught CM1 to comprehend was to literally go line by line and have him explain what he read. Slowly they would add lines, work up to paragraphs and then eventually page by page. No he never did score really well on the state reading exams which was fine by me. It showed that each year he definitely needed the extra support and special education services that he received. His scores also proved that he needed that extra time on tests to process language.

Does this learning disability spell trouble in the long run for him? Not when given the proper accommodations: extra time, alternative location and use of a computer. At one point he even had the accommodation where the questions were read out loud and explained if he didn't quite understand them.

Early on in their education the teachers even wrote up modified tests for both CM1 and CM2. If the class was given a long essay they were given short essay or multiple choice questions. But remember as they got older and entered high school they didn't have the modified question tests at all. They had to pass like everyone else to receive an academic diploma. Actually that is not entirely true. When CM2 took some English classes in highschool they made certain that the questions he was asked were not abstract. The teacher made certain that the questions were pointed and specific. This did help him to understand and learn how to write test essays.

Note: abstract concepts may be very hard for your child. It is important to differentiate that issue from their communication and language issues. Abstract reasoning issues also don't necessarily have anything to do with Theory of Mind, which many people will try to tell you it does. They boys' issue with abstract reasoning is just as profound in math as it is in reading novels. It has nothing to do with not understanding emotions, which by the way they do. Understanding emotions is a large part of who they happen to be. They can feel and empathize with anyone and in many cases is more atuned to someone else's needs than any neurotypical person. The inability to "read between the lines" or project ideas or see "outside the box," as it were, is not always associated with ASD. Abstract reasoning is an issue and a learning tool independent of any other issue. Remember some of the greatest autistic minds can see such abstract realities that they change the direction of human history.

However, I do want to warn everyone that most of the accommodations your child has received from K-12 does not happen in college. If the class is given a particular essay question then that is the test your child will get as well. CM2 did not get a "modified" English exam this year at all. And guess what, he did really well. He received a "B" in that class.

It is important that everyone really understand that this is a huge process. It is not something that happens overnight. For the boys it took their entire K-12 education and quite frankly in college they are still learning how to use language properly. But you know what, they have found some amazing teachers that are happy to teach them.

In CM2's English class the professor would hand back his essays with typed pointers on how to fix his paper. The writing teacher didn't type her suggestions she handwrote them. They then allowed him to rewrite and "update" his essay before it was considered final (Yes they did this for ALL the students not just CM2, which is indicative of a terrific educational perspective. This is what you want in a college.) In fact the English teacher said to CM2 the most profound thing....she told him that she understood that the "reflective essay" was hard for him, but that he needed to do it inorder to create his graduation portfolio. So she was trying to help him with this issue. You can't ask for more than that in a professor.

As far as CM1 and writing is concerned. He "got it" in highschool. In fact his freshman essay teacher called during the spring semester and asked me point blank if I was "helping" him with is writing. I told her absolutely not. Not only would he not allow me to help him but how would he learn to write if I did it for him. Apparently his writing improved so much from the beginning of the year that it was completely noticeable and almost as if someone else was writing his papers for him. Then when he got to college he earned a reputation as an excellent writer. As I have said it is his gift.

No, the professors also do not let him rest on his laurels. Because he is so bright and so talented they like to challenge him to do better. Remember this is a good thing. It is part of education that they try to make you better than you are. It's the way you grow as a person and as a learner. He also always rises to the occasion. In fact one professor just met with him to go over how he footnotes his papers. What he had done was not the accepted present method and she didn't want him to lose any points. Also he has to do his senior thesis this fall and if the footnotes are not correct it won't be accepted. As I said, this school is all about education and teaching and making certain that the students actually do learn.

Well here it is language, writing and understanding. It is a huge issue for so many on the spectrum. But it is something that can be taught and your child with the proper supports can learn. But remember it is not something that happens over night. It has taken the boys decades actually to get to where they are and it will take more years until they reach their full potential. Honestly not certain that for a curious human being that the learning truly ever stops.

Don't forget, as I have written before, it is about the sure and steady pace. The turtle as you will, not the hare. Nothing happens overnight. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes perseverance. It takes a desire and a need. But that is OK. As long as all the elements are there, it will come. Will they one day be a Hemingway (hopefully not since he was a terrible misogynist) or F. Scott Fitzgerald (hopefully not because he was a terrible alcoholic) or Tennessee Williams (not sure about his foible but there has to be something right?)? I have no idea what their writing future holds for them. But if they want it something tells me they will accomplish that too.

Until next time,