Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Thoughts about thinking

I have a book at my bedside called The Cradle of Thought. Sami asked me the other day what the book was about and I told him it was about how people learn to think. Then he asked why I wanted to know how people think and I told him it was so I could learn to be a better teacher (that's how I explain my work to him). And when I really consider this I decide that teaching my autistic 6 year old son how to think isn't really that different from any kind of teaching. We provide the right amount of challenge, the right amount of support and we create situations that require thought. I do it with him everyday without even realizing it. This just happens to also be what RDI is all about. But with RDI a lot of thought and energy goes into the teaching process because without even realizing it I tend to underestimate and overcompensate for Oliver. I simplify things too much before testing to see how simple things really need to be. I remove obstacles that might get in the way of getting from point A to point B rather than helping Oliver navigate around them. And I don't involve Oliver enough in thinking about how to prepare for events and activities. As I heard a speaker recently explain: I'm robbing him of the opportunity to think.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I try to re-jigger how I approach homeschooling. Throughout the day there are just so many opportunities to teach thinking skills. For example, lately I've been giving Oliver a squirt bottle to use in the bathroom in an effort to avoid him going after all my cleaning supplies. A few days ago the bottle ran out of water and Oliver, frustrated, threw it into the bathtub and began to move on to another activity. Luckily, I was standing right there and so I commented to him that if he put more water in the bottle he could keep right on with the fun of squirting. Oliver hesitated for a minute then grabbed the bottle, turned on the faucet and thrust the bottle under the water. Since he hadn't removed the top it didn't fill up and realizing this, he threw it down again. "Oh," I said, "the water can't get in!" This was a bit too subtle for Oliver and he turned to leave, so I picked up the bottle and said: "I wonder how we could get this open?" Oliver hesitated for a minute, then took the bottle in his hands and played around with the screw top until he figured it out. Once he got the lid off he knew what to do, filled up the bottle, put the lid back on and was back in business.

I didn't tell him what to do but I gradually led him through the process of thinking about how to solve the problem. Sounds easy, right? And yes, it was, on a certain level. But the hard part is being the mother who is supposed to be supporting her son through these simple cognitive tasks but who is also standing there watching her son holding a closed bottle under the running water and thinking oh. my. God.

So yes, there is that. The overwhelmingly crushing realization of how something so simple is, well, not simple for my beautiful, wonderful, smiling boy. But on the other hand (after a bit of reflection) there is also the wonder that this same boy keeps on trying. That he is so incredibly persistent. And that he can learn. And that he keeps on smiling through it all.

So back to the homeschooling front. I mentioned in a previous post that I'm abandoning any kind of academic pretenses. RDI will be our curriculum. Thinking will be our curriculum. And I think I'm good with that.


  1. Anonymous10:55 PM

    You wrote: "standing there watching her son holding a closed bottle under the running water and thinking oh. my. God."

    That's kind of how I felt yesterday when Marie asked whether I needed her to get a potato peeler to cut up an onion. :-)

    One of the cool things about RDI -- and how it addresses thinking skills -- is that it gives us permission not to get frustrated or freaked out when our smart kiddos are baffled by things that seem so easy. We're reminded that it's all part of the process, and it's a learning opportunity. I hope that makes sense.

    My two cents on homeschooling, FWIW ... I believe six is a bit young for "formal academics," no matter what our school system says. :-) You are very wise not to worry about "schooling" with Oliver. You're right -- what you're doing IS learning. And everything you do in the future, whether it's learning the alphabet, or history, or calculus, will be built on the cognitive connections you're making now.

  2. I love reading your blog; I always come away with either a new perspective or a reaffirmation of something I have been thinking or doing. Or, like today, a reminder taht I don't need to remove the barriers but to help Nik find ways to think his own way around them.

    Thanks for the gift. :-)

  3. I THINK that you are an awesome teacher!!!

  4. Anonymous6:40 AM

    Good for you to be so analytical.
    While I'm sure autistic children think (not to be rude, but I'm certain my dog patiently analyzes problems and works out solutions) it appears the frustration level is much higher for children with autism; if something is not immediately apparent to them they tend to give up. When I used to teach autistic kids years ago I noticed that the ones with the most challenges would just wander aimlessly from one spot to another, tapping a wall here, licking a window pane there, never really settling until they were directed and shown what to do.
    There were, of course, the children who had fixations about a particular subject. They wanted to talk ALL about that topic and nothing but that topic, endlessly and repeatedly.
    A boy with an obsession with tornadoes comes to mind. If he met a new person, he would ask if he had ever seen a tornado. Tornadoes came up many times a day. His mother said he had never seen a tornado first-hand so I have no idea where that came from.
    I was reminded of that boy when I first heard about Temple Grandin and her keen interest in the chutes that direct cows through the slaughterhouse.
    Anyway, i suppose the challenge is getting autistic kids to think along the same lines as the rest of the world, or to think about the things that interest them in a way that will make their own lives better. While it's diverting to wiggle one's fingers in front of one's eyes, for example, it gets in the way of making lunch and earning a living if it's done constantly.
    I know there's a contingent out there who assert that the folks who do nothing but finger-wiggle or repeat the same phrase all day are actually experiencing a rich internal life, It really doesn't seem that way to a dedicated observer. It looks like it's being done to AVOID any kind of meaningful life.
    teaching how to focus and getting beyond initial frustration is important in any kind of teaching. It seems to be MORE important for autistic children, who don;t seem to have the innate ability it shift gears as easily as rest of us do.
    I'm sorry this is so long. I enjoyed your post. It made me think.

  5. It takes patience to let someone else think, and restraint to nudge - and not lead - them to an answer.

    And frankly, who wants to mop up the water, when I could just pour it for the kid? Sheesh.

    Letting Oliver think - teaching him to think, helping - all of that should be fascinating. I wonder what his patterns will turn out to be like? One of my boys (not spectrum) likes to think in straight lines, and the other (not on the spectrum) likes to jump.


  6. I admire people who home school. I don't feel I have the emotional reserves/patience to do it at this point, but I do not rule it out.

    I like your curriculum plan. : )

  7. I know exactly and I mean exactly what you mean.

    I had to have this explained to me many years ago when they were first diagnosed when part of the test was to be sitting in front of a 'worksheet' to colour or whatever and the 'tester' waiting for him to ask or sign for a pencil or crayon. I knew he'd never ask I would always just provide / jump a step. It was heart crushing just to wait, wait forever for something I knew would never come.

    Best wishes

  8. Anonymous1:34 PM

    i love this!!!!!!!!!!!

    and i love how you guided oliver through the water in the bottle situation.

    more and more i think it all boils down to these key things: regulation and appropriate guidance to ignite our child's own inner supervisory system. as you say, it's all about teaching thinking.

    happy new year to you and your boys!!

  9. Hi. I'm Kirsten and your blog was in the 'top recommendations' column of my google reader. And now I know why - homeschooling a kiddo with autism. Me, too! I'll be back to hear more of your story - nice to meet you!

  10. Just beautiful. I can so relate, but you said it so well.