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What Tiggers Do Best

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By Ellen Notbohm
Autism Asperger’s Digest | March/April 2013

 

Adapted from The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled by Ellen Notbohm (2007). For more information, visit www.ellennotbohm.com. 

“You can’t bounce the bounce if you can’t even pronounce the bounce.”

~Tigger in The Tigger Movie

“And that’s why it frequently all falls apart in middle school,” concluded the special education administrator, speaking to me as both a professional and a parent. While I have two sons, one with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and one with autism, he has one son with both, proving once again that you can always find someone with greater challenges than yours. During his time in the administrative position, he had noted that the nurturing culture embraced by most elementary schools tends to disappear in middle school. “Middle school teachers seem to want to treat their students as little adults,” he said, “And of course they are not. This level of expectation only makes things that much harder for the kids on the autism spectrum.”

The expectation of “little adulthood” hits children with autism so much harder because at its core is one of the more enigmatic impairments of autism, Theory of Mind (ToM) skills. ToM skills encompass critical thinking (classification, comparison, application), executive management (attention, planning and memory functions) and social pragmatics (perspective-taking), and they’re missing from the thought processes of most children with autism. The lack of these invisible, intangible, unquantifiable skills can be hugely detrimental to learning. Many, if not most, teachers are not well-versed in how to teach a student who lacks ToM skills, and may not even see it in a child who outwardly appears competent.

Seventh grade was indeed a difficult year for my son Bryce. He not only was riding the white water of normal adolescence, but also squarely confronting his autism for the first time and facing down the limitations it was trying to put on him. At the same time, the curriculum and assignments required an ever-increasing amount of abstract thought. More onerous than the factual aspects of world history or earth science were the confounding ToM requirements of the assignments: comparative perspective, inferential ability, generalization and reclassification skills, and the cognitive and social agility to do it all in prescribed timeframes, sometimes independently, sometimes in small groups, sometimes along with the whole class.

That’s not a strengths-based curriculum for the student with autism, and it certainly wasn’t for Bryce. Lucky it was for us the school’s speech language pathologist, Christine Bemrose, had a deep understanding of the core issues of autism and how they impacted Bryce. Their year together was challenging, but by June we could look back and see the astonishing progress he’d made in developing those skills under her guidance.

“For as many as 80% of children identified with learning disabilities,” Christine told us, “those difficulties are language-based. Students don’t always end up with a speech pathologist even though they may be struggling with reading, writing or even math. All those things that are language-based activities. Struggling with learning language, using it flexibly, understanding the abstract nature of it, being able to hold information in your head, synthesize that information, carry it over to a new setting, pull it forward in an efficient manner, make connections between things—everything kids do in academics is a language-based activity.”

Consider this an absolute for children with autism: Theory of Mind skills can be taught, and they must be taught.

When Bryce latched on to the Winnie the Pooh books and movies at age 7, what tickled him especially was “Hoo-hoo-hoo HOO! That’s what Tiggers do best!” Followed, of course, by Tigger messing up whatever the activity was and deciding that Pooh sticks, climbing trees, eating honey, etc. was not what Tiggers do best. I thought of Tigger’s fumblings as I read through an excellent chart Christine put together for Bryce’s teachers, illustrating “What Bryce does best” and “What challenges Bryce,” including suggestions for addressing those challenges in the classroom and at home. Recognizing our child’s black-and-white core strengths and using them to push into the realm of the gray is what it’s all about. Equally critical is recognizing that those strengths—things our Tiggers do best—can lull us and their teachers into assuming that they are automatically able to extend these skills to a larger context. In fact, they cannot do that at all, until they are taught. To the uneducated, Eeyore tells us, “an A is just three sticks.”

A significant factor in Christine’s effectiveness can be attributed to her devoted efforts to educate the educators, to interact with Bryce’s teachers and with me in a manner that helped us understand those deep-seated ToM issues. I’ve adapted her work here in the hopes that you see your own child or student, and be able to take steps toward helping him conquer these critical skills.

JUST BECAUSE HE CAN follow a schedule

DOESN’T MEAN HE CAN

  • create a schedule
  • easily assimilate random changes to that schedule (such as changing an assignment’s due date due to illness or inclement weather)
  • remember information that changes daily or weekly.

YOU CAN provide visual guidelines that help specify

  • the task needing to be done
  • the timeframe in which it must be done
  • the steps needed to accomplish it.

JUST BECAUSE HE CAN remember concrete facts and details (rote memory)

DOESN’T MEAN HE CAN understand

  • why those facts are relevant
  • how those facts may be interrelated
  • how he can apply facts to a larger or completely different context
  • how they may suggest further facts (inference).

YOU CAN

  • explain or demonstrate how facts and details contribute to “the big picture”
  • provide supporting visuals
  • provide opportunities to use new facts, concepts or vocabulary in new ways
  • specifically identify passages containing inferential knowledge
  • review and check for comprehension of figurative language, nonliteral language.

JUST BECAUSE HE CAN follow clear, concrete directions given directly to him

DOESN’T MEAN HE CAN understand expectations presented to the whole class or group, or that he can follow multistep directions without visual support.

YOU CAN

  • provide written and verbal prompts for necessary steps and outcomes
  • check for comprehension at each step in the process.

JUST BECAUSE HE CAN complete work independently

DOESN’T MEAN HE CAN

  • recognize when work needs revision
  • work collaboratively with others to complete assignments or tasks.

YOU CAN

  • provide cue cards or verbal prompts to check, reconsider and revise his work when necessary
  • provide structure for the activity and clarify each person’s role within a group activity. Team the ASD child only with flexible and supportive group partners.
  • always check for comprehension.

I’ve heard Tigger described as a poster child for ADHD. It’s true that Theory of Mind skills are not what dear Tigger does best, at least not yet. “I didn’t really bounce Eeyore,” he protests in a grand display of faulty social pragmatics. “I had a cough, and I happened to be behind Eeyore, and I said ‘Grrrr-oppp-ptschschschz.’”

What I think Tigger does best is maintain his zesty worldview, even when the chosen activity turns out to be more difficult or unpleasant than what he bargained for; he is always up for new experiences. This may be the most useful Theory of Mind skill of all, and perhaps it cannot be taught. Perhaps it comes naturally after we diligently teach “all of the above,” and the net result is a child who experiences success and confidence.

 

BIO

Ellen Notbohm is the author of one of the autism community’s most beloved books, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, and three other award-winning books on autism. Visit her at www.ellennotbohm.com and find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ellennotbohm. Please contact the author for permission to use in any way, including posting on the Internet.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.


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