Sunday, October 26, 2008

Texting--no, it's not teen autism!

This post from the Language Log about "Bad Language" doesn't have direct bearing on autism or even language processing, but it is an intereting little discussion of "sky-is-falling" fears about whether text messaging is limiting the abilities of kids to engage in meaningful face-to-face interactions. It's also a defense of the attitude of linguists that change in language is a normal and (for the most part) healthy development.

From my personal experience, yes, social and language skills can be taught to people who have impairments in social interaction and language (i.e., people with autism), but they aren't skills that unimpaired young people will lose because they like to spend a lot of time texting.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mimicry and facial expression

I just read this interesting article on facial expressions from Discover magazine. I thought the information about mimicry and emotional expression was especially interesting in the context of autism (although the article does not discuss autism). People with autism have difficulty with mimicry and also have difficulty with expressing and interpreting emotion (this is probably why people with autism often avoid eye contact).

According to this article, mimicry and facial expressions have a hard-wired brain connection--if you look at someone who is grinning, your brain will tell you to grin too. Even if you're trying to identify a grin, your brain will tell you to start grinning. So if a person with autism has a problem with the mimicry function in his brain, then attempting to interpret facial expressions would be not only difficult but potentially uncomfortable as his brain tries to route messages through a part of the brain that doesn't do exactly what it's supposed to do. Instead, he may avoid the issue by not looking at people's faces.

I suspect people with autism accommodate for the challenge of interpreting expression by learning what expressions mean much the same way they learn to read--a smile is a sign for happy, a frown is a sign for unhappy, furrowed brows and tight lips are angry, etc. But the fact that even adults with autism often avoid eye contact suggests that the challenge of the hard-wired system remains.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

No, don't, can't

I attended the second session of the series on behavioral interventions for caregivers of people with developmental disabilities on Tuesday, where Marion Hunt gave an excellent presentation. She had a lot of great suggestions, but one of the things that stood out was the idea that in normal parenting/social practices, we reward problem behavior and punish appropriate behavior. Specifically, we give attention to problem behavior, and attention, positive or negative, is a reward for many developmentally or cognitively impared people. At the same time, we ignore appropriate behavior.

I'll tell you, until you try to not acknowledge a problem behavior and only praise appropriate behavior you have no idea how counterintuitive this process is. As a parent, it is so hard to not run around saying "No, no, no!" But, if we want to succeed in modifying problem behavior, that's the shift we have to make.

Ms. Hunt also said that caregivers who work with developmentally delayed people should banish the words "no," "don't," and "can't" from their vocabularies when talking with their people. Again, totally counterintuitive, but much more effective.

Mike and I tried this technique this past weekend at my mother's house, where Henry was tapping his hand forcefully against the lampshades of every lamp he could reach (which was at least six). Instead of saying "No Henry" every time, we started saying "soft touch" and placing his fingers gently against the shade. By the time the evening was over, he was gently touching the lampshades instead of pounding on them, so the negative event we wanted to avoid--a broken lamp--was much less of a threat.

It's very hard to remember just how differently a person with autism perceives the social world, and as parents we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over. As Ms. Hunt said, you cannot expect that your people will know the appropriate behavior in any situation. They don't watch and imitate the way most children do. You have to teach and reinforce the appropriate behavior for every situation and give your child a chance to succeed.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Happy Birthday, Henry!

Today is Henry's fifth birthday -- yay!

I'm very happy he's part of our lives. He is a wonderful, loving, special person who happens to have autism.

I attended a seminar yesterday that was teaching approaches to manage problem behavior for people with developmental disabilities. Even though Henry has pretty poor manners (he doesn't know or follow most social rules) for the most part he is well behaved (he doesn't hurt others or throw things). But when he does get upset, it can get pretty intense, so we want to have some tools available.

I arrived late, and just after I sat down another woman arrived and sat next to me. Within moments, she was starting to whisper to me about her own troubles with her child. Now, to me, that's just rude, but she didn't seem to think it was inappropriate. She also made quite a few observations aloud in response to invitations from the presenter, which was fine.

I bring this up because I was struck by the attitude she seemed to have toward her child -- that he was such a problem, and that she was suffering because of his behavior. Also, this is not the first time I've observed this attitude in another parent of a child with autism.

Don't get me wrong--we all need to vent, and our kids do drive us crazy. It is hard, hard, hard. But I find it alien when I hear a parent who seems to regard herself as the victim in the situation. I mean, the kid is the one who has to struggle the most.

I do feel sorry for myself, but the thing that makes me grieve is knowing how unfair this struggle is to Henry. I hate to see him suffer -- he's a good, loving person who tries his best, and he doesn't deserve to have such a hard path. But then I tell myself the same thing, the quote from The Unforgiven, "It's not a question of deserve." This is just the way it is.

I recently rediscovered a copy of a poem by Langston Hughes called "Mother to Son." It's short, so I'll reproduce it here. (Note: Unlike the mother in the poem I've had a pretty good staircase.)

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor -
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So, boy, don't you turn back,
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you find it's kinder hard,
Don't you fall now -
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

So Henry, happy fifth birthday, and know that I am not going to give up on you. I know you can keep on climbing.