Nerds in Special Ed

There seem to be a lot of nerdy-looking children in special education classes nowadays.

Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between “nerds” and “autistics.” It’s not impossible that the overlap is complete, that when we talk about nerds, we are essentially talking about high-functioning Autism I.

When I was in elementary/middle school, there weren’t any “nerds” in special education classes. There were a lot of poor kids, but not a lot of kids like me. My brother ended up in the special reading classes, but only because our mother pushed for him to be in there because in 2nd grade he still couldn’t read. It turned out he was severely dyslexic. But they at first resisted him being in special reading because “he doesn’t misbehave in class.”

Why are there so many nerdy-looking kids in special ed classes when there weren’t in the past? I suspect it’s because when students–like Daniel–are diagnosed with autism, even high-functioning autism (Daniel has Autism II), they are given all sorts of accommodations that end up directing them into special ed classes. Daniel for example is only required to do 5 of his 11 spelling words, though we are certain he could do them all. Of course, if he doesn’t do them all, he won’t learn them as quickly as his fellow students, and he’s going to fall behind.

I suspect that a lot of these kids in special education classes–the nerdy-looking ones, especially–really have no business being in special education. They could do the work, and they are actually increasingly able to do the work the older they get.

Historically, the nerds have grown up to be computer designers and programmers, scientists and artists. What’s going to happen if those kids are being shuttled into special education?

A Clash of Cultures

Do you have trouble keeping secrets? Do you find you typically tell the truth, even when it’s socially inconvenient? Do you tend to over-share with everyone, including complete strangers? Are you direct and to the point–to the point that people often think you’re rude? Are you unsure what is or is not acceptable joking? Or what is or is not an acceptable comment? Are you unsure why people want to talk about the same daily nonsense and don’t understand why they don’t want to talk to you when you’re the one with something interesting to say?

If this sounds like you, you may be part of a small bioculture people call “autistic.” I say “bioculture” because it recognizes the fact that culture has its roots in human biology, in neural structures. All of the normal things neurotypical humans do are part of the broader underlying human culture, of which there are many variations. Those underlying patterns on which cultures develop–which include keeping secrets, having privacy, being indirect, engaging in small talk, and understanding the social rules of appropriate comments and jokes–are simply not the natural patterns of autistic people.

I want you to imagine for a moment a culture of autistics. Imagine, if you will, a culture where everyone means what they say and say what they mean, sugarcoat nothing, are always direct, rarely if ever lie, consider fixing problems to actually be a demonstration of empathy, engage in almost nothing but in-depth conversations about a wide variety of topics, do not typically fear death, value rationality and evidence above everything else, simultaneously respect other’s privacy while also being an open book themselves, consider science fiction, fantasy and video games to be the height of culture, are science and fact-oriented, and almost everyone has perfect pitch.

How would you feel? If you’re on the spectrum, it sounds like heaven. (Would we be as anxious as we are now?) But if you’re not, how socially awkward would you be? Remember what I said about if we pathologized neurotypical behavior.

Reflections on Being a Student on the Spectrum

Having taught 2nd grade summer school Reading and Math, and now working as a sub, I cannot help but reflect upon my own elementary school education. I was always considered to be a very intelligent child by pretty much everyone, including my teachers. Any bad grades were considered to be laziness on my part.

One area in which I struggled throughout my years as a student was math. I particularly had a very hard time with word problems. I also had some problem with certain areas of multiplication, and fractions made no sense whatsoever to me until I took high school chemistry. I failed 8th grade math, made a C in Algebra 1 (Freshman), Cs and Bs in Geometry (Sophomore), a B in Algebra II (Jr), and an a in Calculus and in Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry (Sr). In college, I made a C in Calculus I, and I failed Calculus II so miserably that I managed to make a fairly low F even doing all of the extra credit.

Math in elementary school has now gone almost completely over to word problems. When I was in elementary school, tests would have almost all numerical problems, and only about 2 word problems. That meant I could miss the word problems (which I almost inevitably did) without failing the test. But today, the quizzes I have had to give involved nothing but word problems. Meaning there’s a very good chance that I would have been failing math well before 8th grade.

While there is no question that we need to teach children how to formulate problems (which is what word problems do), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to teach formulating math to children who cannot add, subtract, multiply, or divide. That is, you absolutely must have the mathematical skill in place before you can move on to mathematical reasoning and formulation of problems. The latter may be most important overall, but you cannot skip establishing the foundation.

Now it may be that this way of doing things is the best way for certain students. I won’t deny that possibility. But it’s coming at the expense of other children. And if this is true, then the way I was taught it came at the expense of the kinds of students who do well in the way math is taught today. There are trade-offs. In this particular trade-off, I would have been the one traded, from doing well enough in math to pass to failing very much earlier on.

Another thing I have noticed about education today is that it’s designed to be much more social. There’s more group work and “shoulder partners” and sitting together on a rug and so on. None of this is exactly inviting to anyone on the spectrum, and I certainly wouldn’t have liked school nearly as much if it had been run like it is today.

Indeed, though I was perhaps seen as highly intelligent but quirky (to put it nicely) as a child in the 1970s, I think there is little doubt that in the current school environment that I would have been identified as having something “wrong” with me. I would have been seen as refusing to participate and I probably would have had some quite negative reactions to a lot of this forced sociality (something perfectly fine for neurotypicals, who don’t find it forced at all). I would have likely been identified as having ODD, if not Asperger’s/autism. I probably wouldn’t have been identified as having ADD/ADHD, because I was never outwardly hyperactive (inwardly, I’m in a dead run almost all the time), but I would have likely been sullen and I wouldn’t have liked the classroom environment at all.

In other words, I think I would have done worse in school today than I did in the 1970s.

If it’s true that I would have done worse under the way teaching is done today, then we may have some explanation for why none of the education reforms we’ve tried have ever worked to improve scores. It’s because while the reforms help some children learn better, it ends up acting as an impediment to others. It also may explain the “rise” in ADD/ADHD and autism, since the way students are taught today seems to draw out many of their identifying factors.

But we ought to be a little disturbed that someone like me would probably no do well in today’s system. The system I went to school in put me on the path to succeeding in college and graduate school. I fear that this system would have had me identified as a problem student and perhaps even having the autism I do in fact have. That is a problem because even though there is a lot of rhetoric around people with disabilities being able to succeed, the fact is that nowadays we are put on a pathway to “succeed” outside of a college trajectory–mostly because we are left unprepared to go. My brother, who has dyslexia, was discouraged from going to college in high school–and he now has a B.A., an M.A., and an M.F.A. You cannot tell me that autistic children aren’t discouraged, directly or indirectly, from going to college.

What is worse is that, if I am right that the majority of advancements in the world were made by autistics, then we are doing a terrible disservice to the world at large by creating an educational system that educates perfect copiers well, but leaves reformers/inventors/creators on the sidelines.

A Proposal for Education Reform

All teaching should be structured so that autistic children can learn the material. Because if an autistic child can learn it, a neurotypical child will be able to learn is using that method as well.

That means anchoring language to images and repetition.

But it does not work the other way around. What works for neurotypical children won’t necessarily work for autistic children.

Coincidentally, both do best in a Montessori school.

Autism, Artificial Neural Nets, and Language

It would benefit people to learn how artificial neural nets (ANNs) work in order to better understand the autistic brain. One of the things I’ve noticed in my readings on autism is that the way autistic people learn strongly resembles the way one trains up ANNs. It takes many iterations of a perception for the autistic person to develop the concept, whereas with neurotypicals only one or two will do.

Neurotypical people learn language in a more language instinct-driven fashion. A word needs be repeated only a few times, and the person has it. But if you tried to train an ANN, you would find that you would need to train it up many more times, and more than that, the first thing it would do is simply repeat back exactly what you said to it. That is, it would engage in echolalia.

Language is thus structured differently in the autistic brain than in the neurotypical brain. The neurotypical brain has a deep grammar on which the details of a given language are hung. If autistic brains lack in certain kinds of instincts, like the language instinct, but still have enough complex network structure to build language, then we would expect less-than-typical structures in speaking. The unusual intonations of many autistic people likely derive from this fact as well, since every sentence is being constructed in a more mechanical way–giving us something like the voice of an ANN that learned language–rather than in the easier way generated by an instinct.

So language, in those who can learn it, is one of those many social behaviors neurotypical children learn automatically, but which requires direct instruction for autistic children.

Learning and Boundaries

There’s a phenomenon in people where your location or mental state affects what you remember. This creates a problem in the realm of education because, if learning is context-dependent, what you learn in school may be easily recalled in the classroom, but it may be less able to be recalled outside the classroom (some things, like reading, are obviously retained, but learning to read is a different thing than learning science facts). Another example, perhaps most appropriate for college students, is that if you study while drunk, you’ll remember what you studies while drunk, but you may not remember is sober–and it’s probably a good idea to show up to your test sober. This is also why homework does absolutely nothing whatsoever to improve your grades at school, or your test scores. What you learn at home stays at home.

This phenomenon is likely why children don’t learn anything from TV. All of the educational programming–such as PBS Kids–tends to be for naught because the children don’t recall the information in other settings, such as in the classroom. Within our classrooms, they are discovering that what children learn on iStation doesn’t transfer into the classroom itself. Math that children learn on iStation, for example, is recalled when taking a math test on iStation, but is not recalled when the same math is tested on a paper test. As a result, children doing well on iStation hasn’t translated to children doing well on standardized tests.

This phenomenon is actually much broader than learning and recall. People also tend to behave differently at work, at home, at church, among friends, etc. If someone saw you at work, they might not recognize you if they are familiar with how you behave among friends, for example. People compartmentalize their lives–and, as it turns out, their memory also gets compartmentalized depending on those varying contexts.

One of the issues autistics run into is our tendency to behave the same way no matter what the social context. That is, we have a hard time compartmentalizing. We tend to treat people the same for that same reason, ignoring social hierarchies others find important. If you want to find out how egalitarian someone really is, see how they react to the way an autistic person treats everyone the same. You’ll find few people who believe in egalitarianism to quite that degree.

I believe this also translates into learning for autistics. One of the things we noticed about Daniel is that, despite having read that children didn’t learn anything from education television, Daniel has learned a lot from watching his favorite shows on PBS Kids. I also suspect that what Daniel is learning on the computers and iStation travels with him outside of those contexts. I suspect this because he spent the evening telling us all about what he learned on his school computer learning games. So it’s at least transferring to our house. It seems his learning is decontextualized, which is actually a very good thing overall. That means what he learns will more easily be retained outside the context of school.

I believe this to be the case because I know that I retain everything I learn and can recall practically everything in practically every context. Of course, this means I can talk to you about my very well-researched obsessions whether I’m at home, at work, in a school, on a plane, at a party, or anywhere else you may be unlucky enough to be with me when I decide to tell you absolutely everything I know about the topic. My mind never ceases dwelling on my interests no matter where I’m at. But anything I learn I can recall–and apply–in any context.

A sample size of two is of course not enough to establish a general principle. But it would make sense since we don’t distinguish contexts in any other area of life (this inability to distinguish contexts is also why we on the spectrum have very high rates of interracial/intercultural marriages, since what would be too-wide cultural differences for neurotypicals are all the same to us). Anyone else notice this phenomenon of cross-contextual retention of knowledge? What may that imply for education for both neurotypical and autistic students? What may that imply regarding the tendency for autistics to be highly creative (I find it strange that autism researchers claim we’re not creative, but all the autistic people I know are highly creative–but that’s perhaps another topic for another time)?

Progress in Language Skills

Recently Daniel has been showing the degree to which he has been making progress in his language skills. Two areas in which he has shown improvement have been the initiation of conversations and the use of figurative language–two areas typically difficult for those on the spectrum.

Anna’s mother recently had a surgery, and we had talked about it a little bit around the house. When Anna’s mother came up for Thanksgiving, as soon as she sat down upon arrival, Daniel went up to her and asked her about her surgery, and then told her he was happy she was doing better. This was the first time Daniel had ever initiated a conversation. It wasn’t the first time he started talking to someone–but simply starting to talk to someone isn’t the same as properly initiating a conversation. Daniel will ask you questions about sharks or Star Wars or planets, but he’s not going to ask you about how your day went or, well, pretty much anything at all about you. So him asking his grandmother how her surgery went–and doing it on his own–was major.

The other one happened yesterday. I was having the kids clean up their rooms and the toys scattered throughout the house, and finally Daniel decided he was finished. He announced that if he continued cleaning, in 5 minutes he would blow up. I told him I wanted to see that, so keep cleaning for 6 minutes. He said, “I’m not going to actually blow up. It’s like saying I’m hungry enough to eat an elephant. If I did that, I’d die. Like the old lady who swallowed the horse.” I told him, “Oh, then, since you were just being hyperbolic, keep cleaning.” He gave a huge groan–which he does any time you “got” him–and he finished cleaning.

The significance here, of course, is that he not only used metaphorical language–hyperbole is of course metaphorical–and use it correctly, but was able to explain it. That doesn’t mean he’s now going to get that people are being metaphorical and will no longer stop taking people literally (I’m a poet, playwright, and fiction writer, dealing with metaphors all the time in my reading and writing, and I still take people literally when I shouldn’t), but he’s on the way to doing it less often. It’s important to understand that people don’t always “mean what they say” in this sense.

Daniel receives a variety of special education services at his elementary school, Arapaho Classical Magnet, including speech. A good speech teacher and a good special education program in general will get results, and I think we’re seeing some of those results in Daniel’s development of these skills. After all, among the foci of his ARD is being able to initiate conversations. That’s not something I have tried to work on with him, though I have tried to help him with non-literal language (something I’m better with because of my being a language artist, while I still struggle with initiating conversations outside of bombarding you with my interests). So I’m glad at the progress his teachers have made with him, and I think it’s important to give credit when it’s due. After all, our first instinct often seems to be to just complain when something goes wrong–and perhaps we need to focus more on giving credit when something goes right.