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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Teaching Those With Autism - Part 1

From 1983 to 1987 I drove a bus transporting severely mentally handicapped adults to work centers in Southeastern Pennsylvania. For nearly ten hours every day I listened with fascination to the speech of passengers diagnosed with autism, Down's syndrome, and other mental disabilities. When any passenger died we often mourned the loss of the individual as well as the vast knowledge base they had frequently demonstrated.
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One passenger was able to name every television show, the date the show aired, and the names of every actor, including guest stars, beginning from the day television broadcasts first began. Another man knew the names of every rock and roll musician, every album, and who played on every album, beginning from the early 1960's. Several passengers could perform complex mathematical calculations instantly. One woman could barely hold her head up to function but knew every lyric to every Christmas carol ever written despite being raised in a Jewish home.

I often spent evenings at a local library researching details about this esoteric knowledge that I would use to test these individuals during the long hours on the road. I never once stumped the television expert, the musical expert, or the woman who knew Christmas music. The others never, not once, gave an incorrect answer to a mathematical problem. In fact, they often carried out calculations to many decimal places, always correctly. For months, I was unable to quite figure out how they acquired this level of knowledge in any field.

I actually used my research about these talents to their benefit by developing a special method to train these individuals to perform important daily tasks. My understanding of how they learned led me to a method to teach each of them how operate the wheelchair lift built into the bus. I also taught them to understand all the medication taken by every passenger, to make certain each passenger was taking the correct dosage according to their doctor's prescription. I felt these skills were important enough that they needed to learn them, despite my work being in violation of various bus company policies.

Eventually others learned what I was teaching my passengers. The parents and guardians of these adults told me, often in tears, that they had not been able to teach these people these skills or any new skills for decades. To me it was a matter of understanding learning patterns unknown to modern educators, doctors, or most parents. I compared autistic learning styles to the way I assimilated foreign languages while living overseas. If you surrender your preconceived notions about learning you can learn to recognize inherent patterns in every communication context. I have learned Latino Spanish, Bengali, Haitian Creole, and many computer languages this way.

You might find it curious to know that I still use this technique today to develop complex technical training programs and documentation for business professionals. They also develop industry-specific learning styles, jargon, and acquire almost incomprehensible levels of technical details that eventually need to be understood by others. I rarely reveal that I learned how to do this from adults diagnosed as "severely autistic." It is my little secret or level of understanding that I wanted to share with you.

Note: This is the first installment in this series. The second article can be found at this location.

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