Monday, June 27, 2011

Accentuate the positive?

Next week, we get the results of a new set of assessments on Billy.

I hate these things. Hate them. It's nothing to do with Billy, or the professionals doing the assessments. I hate the assessments. I know he's delayed/disordered whatever you want to call it. I know we've got a long road ahead. I have known this for a long time, and I will know it for a long time to come.

Cheers, Universe.

The receipt of pieces of paper, carefully read through and interpreted by compassionate professionals, photocopied in advance for distribution to a selection of other professionals is seriously about as much fun as the flu. Without the resting and watching TV bit.

We're doing these assessments so that, should we make the decision to put Billy back into the mainstream school system, we have an 'accurate' picture of his capabilities.

Can you hear me throwing up in my mouth a little? Seriously... in what strange corner of the universe is standardised, normative testing that accentuates what's not possible, an accurate picture of a child's capabilities?

I see it's necessary. I really do. I get the square peg part. It's important to now 'how' square. What I don't like much is the round hole. I don't like working off a deficit framework from the starting line.

Here's how it seems from where we're standing (or sitting... or bouncing, if you are Billy).

Let's make a list of all the things that a special needs kid cannot do, and focus on how to get them to do those things. Let's use expected milestones as 'normal' (nice, comfortable, expected) and the list as the departure from that nice safe place. We'll drag the special needs kid from the scary deficit place to the expected, normal place. Get it, SN kid? You are not right. We need to fix you. Feel good now? OK, let's get started on your education.

I'm being defensive, for sure. I'm annoyed about being backed into corners as a parent. It just doesn't work for me that I am constantly encouraged to 'fix' my kid. That he's a set of goals and aims and things to change. His life has a sub-text that doesn't feel healthy. And I'm not talking about his health... It's easy to get yourself in a bit of a whiny funk, here in autism world. I don't like to hang around in this place for too long, but while I'm here, I'd like to have a good look around.

Here's a thought.

Instead of giving children with special needs, standardised testing to see where they fit along the spectrum of normal, why not flip the testing on its head? Why not come up with a test that assesses the child's strengths and uses those as guidelines for educators?

Why not say to the system, here's a kid who knows everything about gazelles. He's seven and he knows about 30 species of gazelles... How can we use the skills, processes and abilities that built that list of gazelles and apply it to number facts or literacy? He's also really good at remembering things - spookily good. So how can we use that phenomenal memory to his best advantage? He's also brilliant at spelling. What is it about spelling that comes easily? There must be some way we can unpack that and use it to help him with science, or PE? Let's not try to transfer skills from one topic to another, let's really look at the thinking and learning processes that make this kid succeed cognitively.

While we're at it, let's think about using these processes to get some context on his inability to focus in a busy classroom. There must be a way we can compare hyper-focus and hypo-focus and come up with some tips. And, that whole sound sensitivity thing... that must mean something positive too? Maybe it helps him hear more detail as well.

Why don't we do this?

Is it too hard? Is it too whacky? Do the relatively small (though steadily increasing) numbers of children with learning difficulties make it not worth the research/time investment?

The cynic in me says, we can't do this because no-one knows enough about autism to do it effectively. The dreamer in me says, surely we should give it a go.

Wouldn't it be awesome if your kid could walk into school with a set of positive statements about who they are and what they can do? Wouldn't it be great if autistic kids were considered (and actually treated as) an asset to a mainstream class? Wouldn't it be brilliant if they felt empowered to use their uniqueness, rather than morph it into a version of 'normal' for six hours a day (and then pay the price for the other 18 hours)?

Let's face it. One in fifty-eight boys, one in a hundred kids with autism... lots of classes are going to have lots of ASD kids in them. It would make a lot of sense to see those kids as something other than a drain on resources and a challenge to staff equity.

For every one good story of mainstreaming, there are a hundred horror stories. That (as unreliable a statistic as it is - shoot me, I'm blogging not writing government policy) is an ugly scenario. Go strike up a random conversation about education with any autism parent with a mainstreamed kid. Actually, strike up a conversation about education with any parent. Then find your legal drug of choice and take it. You'll need it.

I know we are lucky to have a kid that has the potential to be mainstreamed. I also know, as we approach a half a school year of homeschooling, that he is a challenge and a half. He is funny and charming and clever, and he needs constant redirection and reinterpretation - even at home. He's not going to magically learn the skills he needs to learn in a classroom setting. He has a neurological disability that makes these skills nigh on impossible. He needs support to learn. he needs learning support. I have very little confidence that the mainstream system can support his learning needs.

The system is not giving me anything resembling confidence by making me stack up my kid's deficits against a list of 'normal' outcomes just so he can be placed in the appropriate box. Or hole, as the case may be.

While we were on holidays, I watched Waiting for Superman, cos that's the kind of education nerd I am. I'm not American, and I don't feel like I should weigh in on how the American education system is or isn't working. What I will say is, that film scared the be-jiggers out of me. It's one thing to contemplate a system that is not addressing the needs of the many, but another entirely to think of how the few are handled. If we base continuous improvement in our education system on scores, on test outcomes, on measurable data, how do we cater for those whose cognition, expression and learning being is not fairly measurable?

For now, I will slather myself in sunscreen and pretend I'm still at the beach (even though it's grey and 10 degrees Celsius outside). I will force my senses into denial, and perhaps my brain will follow. If it works for the systems we are forced to abide by, then perhaps it should work for me.

But before I sink into a place where only chocolate will do, Billy would like to make a(nother) film about gazelles. He has storyboards to create, voiceover to write, sound effects to create, supers to consider. Yes, he's seven... but he's clever like that.


Lisa said...

Comment? Oh so many comments, but I'm tired, so you get some random craziness.
Assessments are fine. Learn to love them, and learn to re-write/discard the 'interpretations' you usually get. Drill down into the numbers and you'll find interesting things. The interpretations are where the good bits and the bad bits are added together, averaged to mush, and compared to 'normal'.

Education is not called a system for nothing. Put one adult in a classroom with 20+ kids and nobody gets what they need. Some kids get lucky, and the system is just right for what they need. Wonder how many?

Just wait until high school. Everything has to be 'the same' so it is fair for 'everybody'. It's actually fair for nobody. Oh, sorry, there are kids out there who specialise at being good at tests.

Hey, I was good at tests, so I chose high school subjects that were assessed with exams instead of assignments. Things like chemistry.
Recently, I had a conversation with a chemistry teacher, who now has to set half exams, half assignments, to not disadvantage the students who might not do well at exams.
What actually happens is that those people who are OK at tests and OK at assignments top the class.
You guessed it, averaging again! Kid One will get an A on the assignment, a D on the exam, and a final mark of C. Kid Two gets the reverse with the same final result.
Who is the best chemistry student? More importantly, who knows the most? What is important?
Can I have those legal drugs of choice now?

Jenni said...

SO with you, Girl! Ayanna's teacher has a hard time believing she is autistic because she doesn't appear to have enough "deficits". No one can see the functional signs of autism because we have already worked through most of the dysfunctional ones. It's maddening.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, I'm so with you.

Stop recording what he can't do.

We continue to train adults until they are competent. Work out what he is competent at, and keep working on it until he's brilliant.

And Lisa, I'm right with you. Who wants to work hard every day of term, when you can wait till the last week and fill your brain up with stuff you forget 10 minutes after the exam is finished?

Let him specialise, because guess what... the people who top their fields are extremely good at an extremely narrow range of life's activities. And by the time that Billy has his 100th you-tube documentary, (only 1/week for two years!) people will be banging on about how fantastic a videographer he is...

Anonymous said...

It's just crappy isn't it. I totally agree. I'm tired of my boy being measured against "normal". It's actually quite insulting to be honest.
but even more bizzarely - he's also measured against the other ASD kid in his class....who is a girl with completely different strengths. *rolls eyes*

Deenie said...

I agree! My lil guy just finished his 1st year of pre-k and will be in the same class this Sept. I'm already wondering about how we can use his strengths to help him navigate the future. He has amazing balance (really) and is very interested in animals and loves to observe and/or take care of them. I felt completely let down by what he got this past school year in the classroom. I don't feel like I get much meaningful support in general from the school administrators. I try but it's tough being 1 little mom against the big bad system. Good luck getting your son what he needs and what works for him! (I didn't mean that good luck in a sarcastic way. I meant it in an honest, sincere way)