Showing posts with label Inclusion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Inclusion. Show all posts

Thursday 12 June 2014

Cognitive Enhancement, Classic Autism and School

The school year is coming to an end and now we get the results of assessment week, the end of year tests.

Personally I never liked exams, or rather revising for them, but for teachers, assessment is a big part of what they do.  I used to be asked at the start of the school year for a list of benchmarks to measure my son Monty’s progress during the year, since the usual benchmarks were seen not as applicable.  Then we would spend lots of time discussing the list.

Typical kids just follow the standard curriculum and get their standardized progress tests.  If you follow an ABA program, you are constantly measuring performance and you only progress when you master a skill, so it is like continuous assessment.

Monty, aged 10 with ASD, goes to a very small international school.  So there is no special needs teacher, no IEP (individual educational plan), just a nice friendly environment.  This works very well because it means you can build your own educational system, not restricted by any rigid rules.

From the age of about four years old till seven or eight, in effect, Monty’s curriculum was the ABBLS (Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills), which is a rather intimidating list of 544 skills from 25 skill areas including language, social interaction, self-help, academic and motor skills that most typically developing children acquire prior to entering kindergarten.  These are very basic skills, that we never had to teach to Ted, Monty’s big brother, but without these skills you really cannot do much. They are the basic skills on which everything else is built.  It includes things like toilet training, stacking coloured blocks in order and, at the intellectual end, involves ultra-basic speech, being about to count and being able to read.

When your child has just a handful of these 544 skills, it appears that you have a mountain to climb; indeed you do.

Fortunately for us, Monty’s then Assistant and best pal, Irena, took on much of this daunting task.  He did become verbal, he did learn to read, he learned how to write and yes, finally, got to grips with numeracy.  (All without any help from drugs)  

This all occurred in parallel with going to "school".  The learning all occurred at home, school was just for practice.

Back then, the end of year report did not really have much importance.

At some point you do hope that school will actually be a place for learning.

It does appear that in many cases of “inclusion”, school is little more than daycare.  Some special schools are brilliant, but even if you live near one, they tend to be hugely expensive and access is highly restricted.

My observation of the limited number of people with autism I am familiar with, is that they tend not to get on with each other; they actually like to be around nice friendly neurotypical kids.  Until you get to secondary school, many kids are nice to special needs kids.  After that, most really are not nice at all, and any idea of going to school for “socialization” becomes nonsense, because the “normal” kids openly seem to ignore, provoke and even hate the kids with HFA/Asperger’s.  Sad, but true.

What is Normal for Kids with Classic Autism?

Most kids with classic autism end up in a special school, or a special needs unit attached to a mainstream school.

One of our former 1:1 assistants was a trainee at the local special school and later became a teacher at another one.  We discussed what went on there and I did visit a few the school a few times.  It was much better than I expected, but was more about keeping the kids calm and under control, than academic advancement.  There were 6 kids per member of staff and the kids had very mixed ability, they were just grouped by age.

I took a look at Treehouse, the leading autism school in London, to see what is in their curriculum.

In the US there are many such schools.  In Europe, Treehouse is quite well known, because it seems to be unique.  One of our former ABA consultants from the US used to work at Treehouse and another former one is on the Board of Governors.  Our current ABA consultant was doing her PhD in Behavioral Science in the US, when the founders of Treehouse visited the leading US autism schools for inspiration many years ago.  A small world indeed.

In fact the Treehouse curriculum bears little resemblance to what goes on in mainstream schools.

I really do not understand what kids with classic autism can achieve in big mainstream schools, even with an assistant.  I just discussed this with Monty’s teacher, how can you “include” a child who has no understanding of what you are teaching the other kids?

Two year ago I agreed with our school to hold Monty back by two years, to be at his academic level, so he is two years older than most of his classmates.  There is no rush to get to secondary/high school.

The question I have had for a long time is whether Monty will be able to learn at school.  To date he has had thousands of hours of 1:1 learning at home, following his home program, which now combines ABA-based learning of things like social skills, conversation etc., with academic work like numeracy and verbal comprehension.

School for Learning?

My plan, when I realized that drug interventions do really cognitively improve autism, was to retain my model of school in the morning and 1:1 learning at home in the afternoon and aim for a time when school could genuinely be for learning.

The good news is that we really do seem to have reached that point.

I had the end of year meeting with Monty’s class teacher and it was almost as if we were discussing a regular kid.  For a start, we were discussing results from standard tests for science, maths and English provided by Cambridge University for international schools following their primary curriculum, so much less scope for the usual “sympathy grading”.

Lots of kids do get extra time in tests, for example if they have dyslexia.  Why not for autism?    The Asperger’s boy in Monty’s brother’s class gets an easier English test and extra time.

In Monty’s case, I did not want extra time; anyway he does not need it.  If he does not understand what to do, extra time is no help.  The question was whether his assistant should give him any “hints” as to what the questions mean, when she knows he really does know the answer. (e.g. when asked verbally by the teacher, so not in writing,  "what is the next factor of 5, after 30")

We had this debate and we agreed; no help of any kind.  That way at least the test tells us something useful.  If the test is based on prompting/help, how big was the prompt?  Better to see the real result and then we can do the “oh, but he really can do that”.

So this year was the first time we have the same tests as the other kids and definitely no help.  This is the result:-

Speaking and Listening        C+
Reading                                 B+
Writing                                   B+
Mathematics                          C+
Science                                  A-
ICT                                         A+
Music                                      A
Art                                           A

Well the results show Monty ended Year 3 ahead of anyone’s expectations, including the teacher.

I think the art teacher was probably being over generous, which is what tends to happen (sympathy grading).  ICT (Information and Communication Technology) is pretty basic at this level, but Monty can do it all.  When it comes to music, Monty is in his element; he can read music, plays his piano and has started to sing.

So the grades seem to be genuine, and he was not at the bottom of the class in any subject. That might not be a common educational benchmark, but I think it is a pretty good one to see if “inclusion” is really working.

As I said to his present teacher, only two years ago he was hitting his then class teacher, assistant and even, on rare occasions, his classmates.  Back then there was very little learning going on at school and not much social interaction either.

Cognitive Enhancement

Along with greatly improved social skills, simple conversation with peers, and even some sporting ability, has come cognitive enhancement.  He still is not “normal”, but it is a remarkable transition nonetheless.

How far he can get following the mainstream curriculum is an open question, but it is far further than anyone could have dreamed of, until he started his drug therapy.

I continue to be amazed, but the gains are almost entirely reversed if he stops taking his drugs.