I am opposed to labels in general and “autism” is no exception. I am also generally opposed to looking at most developmental issues as diseases and again “autism” is no exception. The label and perception of autism as a disease leads to the perception that there is or that there needs to be a cure, that there is a pharmaceutical cure—a magic pill. I have also believed, having dedicated my life to understanding how to help all people achieve their innate potentials, that our strength as a species lies in our uniqueness as individuals—in our diversity. Every child has developmental needs and the better job we do at addressing those needs, the better job we have done at helping them achieve their unique potential. With those on the spectrum, our job is not to cure, nor to merely teach them skills that we feel are commensurate with the limited potential associated with their “disease”, but to assist in the developmental process. As with all children, we need to assist in developing their sensory function, their processing ability and as much as possible provide an individualized education in a positive, supportive, “typical” environment while simultaneously celebrating their uniqueness and ability to contribute to society. I have been very privileged over the course of five decades of work with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to have assisted thousands of individuals ascend through levels of the spectrum to become happy, successful “disease-free” members of society. Our job, our role for those on the spectrum and for that matter all children, is to understand and assist them in their ascension to a full and happy life.
I just conducted a Skype evaluation with a parent who has a developmentally delayed, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) child from our Beijing chapter, one of NACD’s international hubs. This mom made a remark that I have heard probably thousands of times through the years, but realizing that the issue she brought up is international and not just a US issue has compelled me to comment.
This mother of a three-year-old who cannot not dress or undress himself, one of the foundational representations of independence and fine motor skills, commented that she was concerned her child may have a fine motor problem, not because her child couldn’t remove his sock, but because the preschool he attended was waving a red flag since this little three-year-old was not yet cutting with scissors. Really!
I have long wanted to ban scissors from preschools, but if we were to do that what would they do all day? Children can only eat so much paste. What criteria could they use for success, what would they use to validate their existence?
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I am a bit biased on this subject. In 1951 I flunked cutting with scissors. Yes, I confess I flunked. It was my first and actually not my last academic disaster. I was shamed and humiliated. I never should have flunked cutting with scissors even though I was five, I really shouldn’t have been encouraged to use scissors. But beyond that, there was actually a reason why I flunked cutting with scissors. I was left-handed and back then they didn’t make left-handed or uni-hand scissors—which don’t really work with either hand.
Cutting with scissors can actually be used as a metaphor for a number of issues with education, that being just because we/they have been using it forever doesn’t make it right, smart or neuro-developmentally correct.
I am genetically predisposed to be left-handed and left-sided and as with many of us lefties, we do not clearly demonstrate which is our dominant hand as early as right-sided children. From the get-go the world encourages us to use our right hand like the majority of the population. Back when I was starting school everyone wrote with their right hand. Right was right and left was wrong. Even though we lefties know that only left-sided people are in their right minds. In countries like China that is still the case—everyone is taught to write with the right hand.
Children typically do not strongly and conclusively demonstrate a dominant hand until they are globally, neuro-developmentally about a 5*. For children with a developmental issue, that point is often not reached until years later than their chronological peers. So, should we really be encouraging and pushing one-hand, dominant-hand activities like writing and cutting before we even know which hand the child should be using?
If children must go to preschool, how about teaching them how to actually start becoming independent. Dressing and undressing themselves might be a good start, making their bed, or even cleaning up after themselves. Montessori schools often do a good job of teaching children how to manage self-help skills and household tasks. But cutting with scissors? I can often go from Christmas to Christmas without ever touching a pair of scissors. Since when was cutting a four-year-old’s survival skill or foundational fine motor function? Perhaps its a four- or five-year-old rite of passage that they need to cut their hair just that one time to see how they look with that bald spot in front.
Ranking right up there with “cutting with scissors” is writing and we really shouldn’t just blame preschool and kindergarten teachers, we need to throw in some occupational therapists as well. Teachers and therapists—please stop trying to make little children develop one-hand dominant skills like writing and cutting before they are neuro-developmentally ready. Not until most children are neuro-developmentally about a 5* can we accurately and safely determine which is their dominant hand. Prior to that time, they can swing back and forth. Besides, what is the rush? You are often not only teaching a child a one-handed skill and pushing them toward that hand, but you are probably doing it before their working memory, attention and motor planning are up to the task. The result being that you are only succeeding in teaching them that they can’t do it properly. Congratulations, they have learned to hate it! Our NACD cardinal rule of education is that step number one is teaching the child to love whatever it is you are trying to teach. Failure doesn’t teach them to love writing or cutting with scissors.
So much of education is based on perpetuating a list of things to teach children in different grades, regardless of whether or not it is meaningful, relevant, neuro-developmentally appropriate or if anyone really expects the student to understand, assimilate or remember it. We often take little children who prior to beginning their “education” love learning anything and spend the next twelve or more years teaching them to hate learning anything—brilliant!
Part of this tragedy is that there is so much that could be and should be done with all children, not the least of which is building a neuro-developmental foundation that actually gives them access to their innate intelligence and really affects not only their education, but their ability to learn, think and communicate—their futures. It’s the 21st Century and it’s about time that the educational system understood that children have these things they carry around between their ears that we call brains and that we have the ability to develop them all, not just try to push things into them. We can build a foundation of auditory and visual processing, short-term memory, working memory, executive function, visualization, and conceptualization and overall neurological efficiency. I would love to see our classrooms and schools receive report cards based on how well they are creating children’s foundations for learning, turning children onto learning and actually educating them. And please, let’s stop making a big deal about little children cutting with scissors.
– Bob Doman
*We will generally acknowledge a child as being neuro-developmentally 5 when they have short-term and working memory that is commensurate with where we like to see five-year-olds. Specifically having short-term memory (auditory and visual digit spans of 5) and working memory (reverse auditory and visual digit spans of 4). Working memory is the foundation of executive function and determines complexity of thought and relates to global maturity.
Related Blog Articles:
To learn more about how you can work on you or your child’s short-term and working memory, check out the following links:
The Simply Smarter System (Windows/Mac)
I wanted to share with you a jaw-dropping experience I had today:
I was having a meeting with an educational diagnostician regarding my daughter’s evaluation for next school year. I kept voicing my concern about how I didn’t think that the school district was up to date with newest research in neuroplasticity and wouldn’t provide her with the best possibilities that are available. Anyway, I must have used “neuroplasticity” 3 times in our conversation. At the end of the meeting, she said, “I’m sure that most teachers would look up any label that a child would have and make themselves familiar with that label. Now I’ve never had a student who had Neuroplasticity, but I’d be sure to look it up!” Then she asked me if I had any other questions and I said, “Nah, I think we are done.”
I’m afraid that this story typifies the current state of affairs. Training for those who work with educational and developmental problems is much more about labeling and categorizing than about addressing and fixing problems. The educational system and other disciplines that “help” us with our children and to take care of ourselves perceive that they are serving us if they can successfully give us a label. It sounds a bit better if it is called a diagnosis, but it is still a label; and once given, we are often categorized and a corresponding prognosis assigned. As this mother’s story has so well illustrated, it’s not about understanding and addressing a problem; it’s all about what you call it.
What cannot be understood or solved gets labeled, and then solving the individual’s problem often becomes less imperative, and the focus becomes how to make “appropriate” accommodations.
Psychologist: “Mrs. Smith, we have done comprehensive testing and we now understand why your son isn’t paying attention and is distractible. He has ADHD.”
Mrs. Smith: “What is ADHD?”
Psychologist: “That means he can’t pay attention and is distractible.”
Greater and greater percentages of our children are being labeled every year, and according to the professionals, they have diseases. Because they have diseases, they are all kind of the same; and because they are all kind of the same, then they need to find the cure that fits all of them; and until they find the cure, your child is essentially incurable. Having an incurable disease means that they can perhaps treat/mask the symptoms, but until the cure is found you’re kind of out of luck. Not.
What about your child being a unique human being, a person who has never existed before on the planet?
What about that thing that makes our brain development possible, and which wires each of us uniquely, and which is affected by everything we see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and think? Neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is not a disease; it’s not a label. It is that thing that makes each of us who we are at this moment and which makes us a little different every millisecond. That thing that also affords us unlimited potential.
Take advantage of it.
Yesterday I saw one of my favorite moms. She’s a great, dedicated mom who works very hard with her two boys. Her oldest boy has some significant problems, but he keeps progressing and is on most days her “easy” one. His little brother is very bright, doing great, and tends to drive her nuts. Because he is bright and still a little guy, he still does little kid things that get her; and more often than not, they are designed to do exactly that–get her attention. If asked the following questions, her answers would all be “yes”: Is he smart? Yes. Is he a nice kid? Yes. Is he a good kid? Yes. Is he a sweet kid? Yes. Then why should such a child drive her nuts? If he were her best friend’s boy, and not hers, she would love being around him and he wouldn’t drive her to distraction.
Parents, sometimes you need to take a step back and look at your kids through some new eyes and gain a little perspective. Most of us as parents take our jobs seriously, and often that means we try to give our children feedback on everything they do, all of the time, and particularly, anything and everything they do wrong. It is sadly all too easy to ignore all those things they do right.
Imagine how you would treat your best friend’s child. Your best friend is important to you, and if you were to have their child with you for a day, they would be important to you as well; and so you would want to protect them, take care of them, and give them good feedback. If during your watch they were to do something dangerous or harmful, you would give them feedback; but if they were doing little irritating things, you most likely wouldn’t even particularly notice and very likely wouldn’t comment if you did. You wouldn’t want your remarks and “helpful” input to be perceived as picking on them. You wouldn’t want them to go home and report to their mother that you don’t like them and that you were mean, and that being at your house wasn’t fun. But is it really okay or helpful to be on your own kids all of the time? No, it isn’t.
Most of the time we would all be better off treating our own kids as if they were “your best friend’s boy.” Nagging isn’t providing quality feedback, and getting on them all of the time is not quality feedback. Nagging just creates a negative environment, destroys your credibility, and makes your child wish he or she were someplace else.
He’s my best friend’s boy.
What do you think?
Could the key to your child’s success be as simple as talking to them? Could our educational and probably cognitive decline be at least in part attributable to less and less quality time that permits parents to simply talk to their children? I believe that the foundation of cognition–the ability to think, hold pieces of information together, and manipulate information–is based on auditory processing. Decades of measuring the processing abilities in children and adults as well as developing tools to help develop processing skills has demonstrated tens of thousands of times that your complexity of thought is built upon and limited to how much auditory information you can process and manipulate. We all have the potential to do better; we all have the ability to do better; we just need the opportunity to do better.