Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Widening the Pipes

One point about Autism that I'm consistantly explaining is that it's not an issue of the intellect itself. The engineer in me explains it as an input/output issue. Information flows into and out of most people's brain like water flowing through a pump. It freely comes in and is put back out at a rate determined by the strength and capacity of the pump. In this analogy, the pump is the intellectual capacity of the given individual.

Imagine if you will that the input and output pipes into the pump are too narrow to allow the pump to operate at capacity. The pump is fine. It's not properly fed and allowed to operate to its full capability. It's an overly simplified analog, but serves to explain autism surprisingly well.

Wider pipes allow the pump to perform closer to capacity. It is our job as parents to widen the pipes.

Virtually all symptoms of Autism (silence, social issues, sensory integration issues, food limitations, etc.) can be traced to problems with getting information in and getting information out. We took this view with Nathan early on. We use it with every Autistic person we encounter. No matter how narrow, there's always a pipe. Once what gets through and what doesn't is even partially understood, the work begins. These pipes are not flexible. They feel as rigid as steel. Consistant pressure over time shows that they rigid, but do have flexibility. They can be widened.

When diagnosed at age 4, Nathan was verbal, but not conversational. He couldn't answer questions involving anything but the most concrete of topics. Who, what, why, when, where, and how were completely beyond his grasp. He lacked any understanding of chronology. If he tried to relate a narrative to us, the order of events was jumbled. Even with help, he couldn't put them in temporal order. Nathan had issues being touched. His clothes bothered him. Overstimulation lead to explosive meltdowns. He ate pizza, chicken nuggets, fries, yogurt, cereal, and little else. He would drink only milk, apple juice, soft drinks, and water. Water was still a bit of a fight.

Every now and then we would catch glimpses of his intellect, like seeing a ship through a fog. He'd pop out some opinion or some multisyllabic "adult word" in proper context. We joked that at any given moment Nathan was either "3 or 33". We knew it was in there. We just had to widen the pipes to get to it.

I credit Nathan's growth and improvements to two things. First is sensory integration therapy. Nathan was treated by a brilliant Occupational Therapist in Grapevine, Texas. She specialized in kids like him and has an unbelievable success rate. Her methods forced his brain to develop in ways that it had not been doing on its own. She made massive improvements in his speech, language comprehension, and balance. Second, I credit consistant teaching and innovative methods widen his ability to take in and give back information.

The methods we used were developed in cooperation with some brilliant special ed teachers and therapists in the Keller Independant School District in Keller, Texas. Everything in Nathan's world became about choices. He had visual aids that showed appropriate choices on one side and inappropriate on the other. At the top it said "When I am angry or frustrated, I will....". The other side said "I will not....". He was then free to point to his choice of appropriate behaviors to allow him to deal with the situation. If he was choosing one from the other side, the teacher could say to him "Nathan, I can see you're frustrated. Are you currently choosing from the will side or the won't side?" This method allowed him to analyze his behavior and make a choice, without adding the further stress of a confrontation with the teacher. His teachers LOVED it, and he learned. By 3rd grade, he no longer needed the aid.

We have used similar methods to force thought to occur in small, manageable steps. Each time a step is mastered, the pipes widen. He learns to process more information and generate output that is higher in both quantity and quality. We push every boundary we find. Some expand very slowly, but they all expand.

That was 12 years ago. Nathan turns 16 this week. He's a high school freshman and is for the first time functioning without an in class aid with him. His grades are good. Moving away from an aid did lower them a bit, but I firmly believe he'll get back to where he was in short order. We still have plenty to work on, but he now manages the issues that once governed him. He's a brave kid.

Author's Note: I'm going to have to revisit this topic. I want to expose our methods to my readers, but need to do so in a series of entries. Presenting them in a single entry will require that I make the concepts to generic to have meaning. Even at that level, a single entry will prove burdensome and probably confusing even to my most committed readers. I value you all far too much to do that.

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