Taped to the top of my computer monitor is a note that reads, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Within the spectrum of autism there are many diverse characteristics, and for an individual how those characteristics are displayed can change on a daily basis. Back in the fall I had the opportunity to hear Paula Kluth speak as the keynote speaker at OCALICON. She described providing interventions, to students with autism, as playing the Race Game on The Price is Right. One morning I may come in and pull the handle and have four correct interventions. The next morning I’m going to come in, pulling what I think is the same lever, and I’m only going to have one or two, maybe even zero, correct interventions in place.
The ever changing results, to pulling the lever, are something I have experienced, in many facets this year, but particularly in the area of writing. A particular student was able to write creative stories with no issues last year. However, getting him to write this year has been a challenge, and the more interventions I try the more he seems to be resisting. I know the ideas are in his head, but he is stuck in inertia and I have struggled to help him find a way out, or to break the inertia. I have used a plethora of ideas: picture prompts, sentence starters, scribing his words, word prediction software, having him type on the computer, graphic organizers, hand over hand initiation, etc. However, this leads to immediate tears and refusal to complete the assignment.
Today I finally had a chance to read I Hate to Write by Cheryl Boucher and Kathy Oehler, and I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner!!! They describe the writing process as needing the four areas of the brain; language, organization, motor skills and sensory processing, to work together to accomplish the task of writing. However, the brain of a person with ASD appears to send far fewer of these coordinating neural messages (Boucher and Oehler, 2013). Therefore, writing becomes an inefficient and very frustrating process. This amazing book provides teachers with common concerns around writing, why students with ASD may react in a certain way (with research to back it up), teaching strategies and “Take It and Use It” pages. Within every area of concern, the authors provide suggestions in how to address all four areas of the brain, involved in writing, in order to make writing a happy and successful process.
Quickly, I have realized that I was providing interventions for the student during the process of brainstorming and writing, but I was completely ignoring his environment before writing. This afternoon I met with the student and had him do hand exercises, seat push-ups and deep breaths (ideas provided in the book). I then had him pick a big muscle warm up (list provided in the book), and complete that activity for 5-10 minutes. This student decided to jump on the mini-trampoline (only if I would count how many times he jumped, of course).
After he completed these activities I started to talk to him about writing, and how that process feels for him. Just at the mention of writing I thought for sure he was heading into a meltdown. He refused to talk about writing, just the same as he refused to write. I know he has the ideas in his head, but they are stuck up there. I immediately pictured a strainer that is clogged, so it won’t let anything through the holes. Wouldn’t you know it, I happened to have a strainer in my classroom. I asked the student if he wanted to play with some rice, and a meltdown was prevented. While he was playing with the rice, I filled my strainer full of it, and held it over top of his persuasive writing planning sheet. I asked him if the strainer was full of rice (ideas).
He looked at me like I was a crazy lady and started laughing, because it was obviously full. I told him that when I look at him, I know his brain is full of ideas (rice). However, no matter how hard I shook the strainer with rice; only one or two pieces would escape. Just like, no matter how much he thinks about his ideas, he can’t seem to get them into words.
I then filled the strainer with sand, and all of it quickly fell onto the planning sheet.
I explained to him that I wasn’t able to change rice into sand, but I could plan what I put into the strainer to make it fall out onto the planning sheet. His goal was to be able to start writing with sand, and not rice, as his ideas. Doing his hand exercises, big muscles exercises and chewing gum are his strategies to use to turn rice into sand.
Using this analogy, I’m hoping, is helping this student not feel at fault or “lazy”, in terms of why he is stuck in inertia. It’s not that he is refusing to work, resisting the assignment, doesn’t have great ideas or doesn’t have the ability to write. I believe that when teachers, me included, say to him to let us know if he doesn’t understand, than he feels guilty for not understanding. In reality, he does understand, but he can’t seem to get the rice through the strainer. I have encouraged him to let his teacher and I know if he needs help turning sand into rice. This conversation, and experience, has probably been the most excited I have ever seen this student about writing. He was talking to me about his persuasive writing idea the entire way back to the classroom. I believe the activities prior to our rice/sand conversation helped the sensory part of his brain communicate with the language portion of his brain.