What that PD about Asperger’s and ASD did not tell you.

** I have cross-posted this from my DiamondSharp blog, as I think it worth sharing.

For the past five months, my husband and I have been on a life-changing journey. That journey has been to a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in our five year old son. One of the upshots of that journey has been the cold realisation that the professional development about Autism Spectrum Disorders — especially the high-functioning kind — that I have received as a high school teacher, was completely inadequate. So inadequate was this PD, in fact, that it had the effect of making me THINK that I knew something about ASDs and what Asperger’s Syndrome looked like, when in actuality it had the effect of blinding me to the symptoms of ASD in my own son.

I took my son, (let’s call him Nick), to our GP towards the end of Summer. It would have been January. Our problem was that Nick, who had only rarely slept through the night since he was born five years before, was now waking about three times every night and would call for us. This was rugged and the sleep the family was getting was more intermittent and interrupted than what we got when he was nine months old.

What’s more, he was becoming more and more anxious and inflexible in his thinking. Any transition at all from one activity or location to another seemed to trigger a tantrum. The breaking point was when, during an argument with me, he threatened to kill himself. He even said how he would do it – by running in front of a car at a nearby main road. That floored me. This was not okay in any child, but not at all acceptable in a child who had just turned five.

So off to the GP we went.

With referral in hand, we attended a child psychologist and a paediatrician. They asked me lots of questions. They observed Nick in formal and informal ways. My husband and I filled in lots of questionnaires on Nick’s development and behaviour.

And then, the thunderbolt — the psychologist offered her opinion that Nick may be suffering from anxiety and a sleep disorder because life was getting too much for him and felt chaotic in his experience. Why? Because he may have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

When we saw the paediatrician she also thought there may be something there worth investigating. So we went to a Speech Pathologist who specialises in ASD. I thought at this stage that it would be realised that it was a mistake – my son was quirky, maybe a little intense in his interests, and very uneven in his development, to be sure, but his language development? It was fine, I thought. Surely a child who can explain the difference between a Stegosaurus and a Kentrosaurus by the time he is three cannot be said to have problems communicating.

Wrong. A child can have a vast vocabulary, but not know the ‘rules’ of conversation and communal play.

A visit to an Occupational Therapist also exposed a host of problems in sensory processing, motor organisation and perception. Issues in vestibular and proprioceptive processing are apparently very common in children with ASD – but did we know, even though one of us is an educator? No, we did not. (Find a resource on sensory-motor issues in ASD here.)

To make matters worse, as we were working through the hours and hours of appointments and screening and testing and filling in questionnaires, it came back to me that this was not the first time professionals had raised concerns about my son’s development. When he was about 2 and a half, the room leader in the childcare centre he attended asked for several meetings with me during which she showed me footage of him playing alone in a remote corner of the outdoor play area and flapping his hands as he muttered to himself. ‘So what?’ I said, ‘That’s what he does when he is excited.’ Concerns were raised again and again and eventually we were asked to see a paediatrician. The first paediatrician we saw said there was nothing to worry about and that his not engaging in cooperative play was still not to be expected in every child his age and that it was probably temperament.

When some of the same concerns, and some different ones, were raised by a different room leader when he was 3, we thought we already had an answer for her: we had seen a paediatrician who had said nothing was amiss. We wanted our son to be allowed to be his own person, even if that was quirky and odd, and we were leery of mere human variation being turned into pathology.

But it turns out that life is more complicated than slogans about not ‘labelling’ children; we will have to learn to walk the line between acknowledging and treating our son’s Autism, while communicating to him that we love him for being his own person. It just that he runs on a slightly different wave length or frequency to most of us and it is up to us to learn how to tune in.

The thing is – I felt an enormous disappointment in myself. I was an educator. Surely, I should have picked up the signs of ASD.

The unfortunate conclusion I came to, however, was that the PD I had received several years ago about ASDs had had the effect of ‘inoculating’ me against any real understanding of what ASD means and how it can affect a child’s experience of school and learning on so many levels. I thought I ‘knew what I was looking for’ – yet the information I was given applies only to those who are closer to ‘classic autism’ than the high-functioning individuals we are likely to come across in mainstream schools. Even if some of what was said applies to kids with Asperger’s Syndrome, we were really only told about one version or type of presentation.

So – here are some of the messages I received from Professional Development for teachers that ended up making it less likely that I would pick up on my son’s ASD. I share them here in the hope that other educators will see them and become willing to listen if a parent says their child has ASD, but they don’t seem to match the description we have been given in PD.

  1. WHAT WE WERE TOLD: You can pick the Asperger’s/High Functioning ASD kid in the class: they are the ones who have no friends and no interest in interacting with others.

This one would have to be the most profoundly inaccurate piece of information I have been given in PD about ASD. SOME children on the spectrum fit this description, but a whole lot of others do not. Children with High Functioning Autism can blend in with typical children and not seem to stand out – their language acquisition may be normal or even superior to their neurotypical peers. They may have friends and they may initiate conversations. The smarter ones (and, it seems, the girls) learn to imitate the behaviour of their neurotypical peers, even if they don’t understand the social ‘rules’ that underwrite it.

It’s only when you look closer — and know what you are looking for — that the problems in social communication become apparent. There is ‘communication’ but there is also the ‘social’ aspect of communication. This includes little things like taking turns in conversation, inquiring after and showing interest in the concerns and point of view of others, and sharing ‘air time’ with others. It means following the topic of a group conversation – and not just interrupting with an observation or question that is off-topic and only of interest to you. It means being able to negotiate conversation with others – and being able to do it with more than one person at a time and not only with adults, who shape their attention to accommodate a kid.

Among children, the social use of language includes the joint creation of imaginary play and being able to negotiate imagined scenarios with others – not just insist on one’s own world and one’s own way. It also means being able to sense when the conversation has gone awry or there has been a misunderstanding – and ‘repairing’ the conversation with a variety of strategies that become more sophisticated as a person matures. In other words – joint attention and ‘give and take’ or reciprocity are the hallmarks of social communication. Kids do this most commonly in shared narrative scenarios that comprise their imaginative, communal play.

Asperger’s kids, like my son, can be quite capable of striking up a conversation with an adult or another child. But they may run aground when it comes to answering questions from the other, or negotiating the many interactions that occur in group play amongst a few or several peers. Nick has a tendency to ‘tune out’ during mat time at kindergarten, and will prefer to play his games with one or two others, electing to go off on his own once the other children decide to go onto another game not of his choosing.

This stuff can be subtle, but I know I fell into the mistake common to educators – I thought that because my son has friends and chooses to interact, he could not possibly be ‘on the spectrum

2. WHAT WE WERE TOLD: Children on the Autism Spectrum have no understanding of the emotions of others and hence, no empathy.

Again, this is one that educators are told to look out for. It has the negative effect of making ASD kids sound a bit sociopathic and is a crude over-simplification to boot. Of course, some children will present with these symptoms – and they may in fact be on the Autism Spectrum. It’s quite possible, however, that they have another, different problem. By the same token, some ASD kids can be capable of recognising some emotions in others and can show quite a strong desire to be kind once they do grasp another’s difficulty.

It’s all a matter of degree. While neurotypical people are attuned to recognise hundreds of subtle signs of another’s thoughts and emotions, ASD people may have the ‘inner dictionary’ of only a few of the most obvious signs of others’ cognitive or emotional state. My son, for example, told me recently that he knew I was not cross because I was not ‘wearing’ my ‘cross face’. On the other hand, he can be quite exasperating when he seems not to recognise increasing levels of annoyance at some behaviour of his and only seems to register anger when my voice is raised. He then shows complete surprise. He does not register the earlier, more subtle signs that whatever he is doing is not okay. Now that we have a diagnosis, I am hoping to get some parenting training on how to work around this!

Some ASD children need to be taught how to ‘read’ faces explicitly, while others are already able to ‘read’ say, the six most obvious signs (happiness = laughing; sadness = crying etc.), but are clueless with the more subtle cues of another’s feelings. Also, once an emotion has been explained and understood, many ASD kids are capable of responding appropriately – it just takes them a while to get there and they have to think about it, rather than coming to the insight spontaneously.

3. WHAT WE WERE TOLD: ASD kids have no ‘theory of mind’.

This is another one about degree – it is not as absolute as NO theory of mind. Some Autism sufferers really do have very little insight into the separate subjectivities of others. But some high-functioning individuals have some insight – just not the usual quotient. It may turn up in not realising that not everyone else is as enraptured about dinosaurs/Lego/Star-Wars/trains as they. ASD sufferers can talk and talk and talk about their special topics of interest and have little idea that their interlocutor is bored rigid. However, read kindly, this IS an attempt to connect, it is just based on some faulty reasoning that everyone’s mind is like theirs – – equally enthused about Dinosaurs/Lego/Star-Wars/Trains etc.

This also goes back to # 2 about emotions – it is impaired understanding, but, in many individuals, an understanding that can be reached through another route, through explicit teaching and conversation strategies. In the same way that I can learn about another culture’s food and habits, even if I never visit that culture, a person with ASD can learn about some of the habits of others’ minds, like another culture, even if they themselves do not ‘live there’.

IN SUMMARY:

This is why it is called an ‘Autism Spectrum’ – there are as many variations along the gradient of being affected as there are kids who are diagnosed. Autism is a pattern of difficulties that psychologists, paediatricians, and speech pathologists, have worked out form a cluster of behaviours or symptoms to form a syndrome. It is caused by a variation in the neurology or ‘wiring’ of the brain. However, each child (or adult) diagnosed will present with their own ‘riff’ on the recognised symptoms – some will have no language, some are chatterboxes; some are academically gifted, some struggle with literacy and numeracy; some are aloof and disconnected, others want to connect but merely struggle with the ‘how’.

Professional Development about ASD for teachers needs to be pitched in such a way that we do not come away with a schematic, ‘cookie-cutter’ idea of ASD in our minds, or a false confidence that we ‘know what we are looking for’. Presenting these simplified views of the symptoms of ASD as the whole story does everyone a disservice. One of the side-effects of this, too, has been the attitude I have encountered from some educators as I prepare Nick for Primary School – that Asperger’s is ‘really, just a quirk’ and that it presents no real challenges to a child’s learning. The lesser-known effects on cognition, coordination and sensory processing are, in fact, significant barriers to effective learning for many an ASD kid.

But more on that another day …

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Unit 3: Networking

I have to admit that in this course thus far I seem to be doing alright on the P and the L but not so good on the N!

 

I signed up for this course because I was becoming aware of the potential power of online communities to enhance my own professional practice and of those around me at school. I work in a technologically well-supported school, but I was also becoming aware that we are relatively insular with regards to new communication tools being used ‘out there’ in the wider education and teaching community.

 

Many years ago, when I was at uni, I remember doing some work on ‘discourse communities’ and how knowledge is shaped and shared through these communities constituted through a common language and practice. It links nicely with the idea of reflective practice, as I find that it is in conversations with colleagues and finding out what others have done in their classrooms that I am prompted to reflect on my own practice and extend my repertoire of teaching strategies.

 

I think ‘discourse communities’ was an idea from Michel Foucault, and he was writing before Web 2.0. Nonetheless, as I navigated through Twitter, and finally worked out that I needed to make a new email account so that I could make a new (professional) Facebook page, I made a connection in my mind between that old learning about ‘discourse communities’ and this new learning about PLNs. It struck me that this is what it is about – developing, extending, participating in and enhancing a community of practice using online tools. I could see right away that this could be a great – and cheap! – way of staying in touch with discussions happening in the English teacher world beyond the faculty where I work.

 

I have ‘followed’ VATE (Victorian Association for the Teaching of English) on Twitter, as well as SLVPLN, Inside a Dog, Centre for Youth Literature, the Wheeler Centre, Bright Ideas, and some publishers, authors and reviewers whose work I would like to know more about. I am always on the look-out for new reads for my students. As a faculty, many of us are also perpetually on the look-out for suitable texts for the classroom and literature circles, and I can see that social networking tools may be a great way to source information about these reads and how they have been taught elsewhere.

 

However, there is a rub. I find that social media can take a lot of very precious time without necessarily delivering quality – my Twitter page has featured ‘pushed’ tweets from some corporate or marketing entity every day for the past two weeks. Also, I am not a TL, so I feel a bit of an outlier in this course — my main game is not dealing with information tools for a school library but with students in the English classroom. Marking, lesson planning, assessment, reporting, and communicating with parents are the major demands on my time. I have no input about the school’s ‘web-presence’, tools put on the intranet, or even in-house pages like the library portal.

 

Facebook and Twitter are not blocked for personal use in my school, but they are not part of the endorsed ‘tech toolbox’. I would like to someday teach my students how to develop their own PLN, but, as mentioned in a previous post, the rules governing the use of online social media tools in our school make this potentially treacherous ground. Students can access Facebook at school, but it is for personal use. Staff are explicitly discouraged from using Facebook as members of the school – we only use it as private individuals. I have had a Facebook account for some years, but I just use it to keep up with news about my family and friends.

 

I do think there may be some redundancy in signing up for many tools. I tried Scoop.It after a SLVPLN member recommended it on Diigo, but I suspect it may be a replication of what I might get out of EverNote or Pocket – both of which I have found myself using quite happily to file away useful information. The tagging function is just beautiful.

 

I can see the value in the online sharing of information, knowledge and ideas around a particular professional interest.  For me, it is about enlarging the scope of where I can source and share information about professional practice, without having to get approval and funding to go to conferences (an increasingly difficult feat!). Twitter and Facebook are ways of tapping into professional conversations beyond staff room partitions. My hope for my PLN is that it can make for more immediate and timely information and more reflective practice.

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PLN Unit 2 Reflection – Organising information

This unit was great – although it took a long time to slog through all those new interfaces. Some I had met before, but I had not been able to work out how they worked or what the point was. I enjoyed having the tutorials to show me through the not-very-intuitive (for me) buttons and functions. Diigo in particular looks like it has been made by someone who speaks Vulcan. By contrast, I found EverNote much more intuitive and it has the advantage of clipping content, so that if links disappear, I can still keep the information. The searchable tagging feature of both seems very useful as a way of filing and retrieving information.

The reflection questions actually stimulated a lot of thinking on my part. Here goes …

Like a lot of teachers of the ‘Gen-X’ age bracket, my information organising and information sharing methods are transitional between old and new technologies. I keep a commonplace book (of which I think EverNote is a digital version). I have a school-issued pen-and-paper diary (which my school tells me is in its final year). I have folders in my Outlook email account. I have ring binders on shelves with lesson plans, worksheets, newspaper clippings and so on, labelled by year level or by the text taught. I also use my computer to save things in ‘Documents’ files, and Word is the main program where I do store information. I periodically back up these files to an external hard drive and I use DropBox for my photos. I love big-memory USBs for moving information around, especially large student projects like Photo Stories and short films that our school server does not like.

My digital information is splintered and stored in lots of different places. In some ways I find this gives me a sense of security, as online tools can disappear. On the other hand, I have the digital equivalent of the messy desk. I am hoping to address this with the tools we are learning in the PLN 2013 course.

When I use digital information storage I do miss the spatial-tactile memory function of storing and finding information – I tend to think of where an item is, as well as under which topic it is. I will think, “It’s in the red folder on the top shelf.” Of course, this tactic only works for very limited amounts of information and nowadays it is an inadequate approach to sourcing and managing the vast piles of information we have available. I find this experience also with reading on my Kindle, which I love, but which suppresses my sense of where, in a physical sense, a passage occurs – at the beginning or at the back of a book. Searchable tags try to replace this, but I still find the experience engages fewer aspects of memory and there is a ‘flattening’ effect.  Perhaps one day we will have searchable virtual archives that engage the functions of both the Web 2.0 environment and our sensory memories.

As for sharing information with my workplace colleagues and students, I tend to only use tools made available on the intranet – namely email, wikis and, very occasionally, in-house blogs. In some cases this is dictated by student well-being policies and the imperatives of school marketing. I am very cautious about adopting some of the social bookmarking and networking tools examined in this unit in the classroom; but I am happy to use them ‘freelance’ in my life as part of the wider community of educators.

Many of us have our own private accounts with Twitter, Facebook, content aggregators and blogging sites, but these are not directly connected to our work life in the way that I have seen suggested by practitioners like Joyce Valenza and Buffy Hamilton.

When information sharing occurs between staff at my school, it all happens behind the firewall. We do not use external, Web-based social bookmarking, networking, blogging or the like in any official capacity to make ‘groups’, share curriculum materials, lesson plans, worksheets, resources or collegial discussion. Again, I use these aspects of professional learning and collegiality in my connections to the wider teaching profession, rather than in direct relation to the classes I teach.

What we do have is wikis. Wikis can be created for a class as an audience or as participants. For example, for a unit on documentary film with my Year 8 English class, I made a wiki for every student in the class where they shared their work and commented on each other’s’ ideas. I also had a ‘class wiki’ where I uploaded activities, assessments, resources, and links.

Teaching teams also use wikis to share lesson plans, resources and assessment rubrics. These can work quite well when all team members participate; but what I notice is that in the end everyone ends up emailing each other the work because no-one has the time to keep checking wikis when many of them remain static. There is no way to set up a ‘reader’ for all the wikis one subscribes to within the school.

EverNote, which has recently been endorsed by my school as a tool we can use, has great potential for creating shared resources and for keeping track of new information found on the Web. I am looking forward to learning about how I could use it with colleagues and students for content curation and organisation as part of the research process and for resourcing the curriculum. I wonder whether, like a blog reader, there is some way of setting up alerts if new material is added by another member of an EverNote group?

For information organisation on the Web, I have been struggling with working out how to shepherd information streams into something resembling a useable order. I have ended up opting for the Reader bundled with my account with WordPress, which is a good way to collate blogs that I am interested in, rather than having to visit each one separately. With EverNote I can definitely see the benefits of storing and organising information ‘in the cloud’ as this means that crashes and changes of devices do not result in data loss.

At first glance, the idea of ‘workflow’ itself was a little alien for me. My day at work feels more like a work blizzard, rather than the stately progress implied by the word ‘flow’! Ideally, the ‘flow’ of my work as an English teacher is determined by the recurrent cycle of preparation, resourcing, teaching, reflection, assessment and evaluation of units of work. That said, I can definitely see junctures in this process where having some model for how to go about sourcing and organising information would be useful.

At the planning and resourcing stages I could use Pocket, EverNote and Diigo to keep track of interesting resources.  These tools will help me create a focussed collection of resources for my students. Despite their apparent facility in using Web 2.0 tools, especially Tumblr and Facebook, I find that students do need to be explicitly taught how to search for, organise, share and make sense of web-based information in purposeful ways. To use their nomenclature, teenagers tend to be a bit ‘random’ in how they use information.

Unfortunately, scant time is allocated to research skills, information literacy and using new tools. Our library staff teach the students many skills in specially designed subjects, but I suspect most regular classroom teachers are unaware of this and the skills are not reinforced elsewhere. The students tend not to generalise information literacy to other areas of their learning – they think it’s just a ‘library thing’.

Digital technologies and internet access are changing the way we work, socialise and use our leisure time. We use information on the run, between many devices, and blend our domestic, professional and social lives through our tablets or smartphones. We seek news, opinion and analysis from traditional sources, but also from social networking and blogs. An author can now have a readership having never published a book. A social media phenomenon can influence public opinion outside the channels of talk-back radio and mainstream media. At the same time, the big media interests can have influence in digital, far-reaching ways.

This certainly sets me a challenge to keep learning about tools in which I do not feel fluent. Schools, also, are grappling with the dual demands of remaining current and maintaining control of their profile in the public domain.

To finish:

Here is my first note from EverNote.

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PLN 2013 – Unit 1 — Getting Started

PLN 2013 – Unit 1

Greetings! My name is Fleur Diamond and I am an English teacher at Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew, Victoria. I started out in teaching at university 1996 – 2001 while I was finishing a PhD in English Literature. After completing a Grad. Dip. Ed. in 2002 I moved into secondary teaching and have been there ever since.

In the decade I have been in the secondary classroom I have seen the use of laptops and ‘convergent’ devices really take off and now it seems that I really need to get on board if I am to be of any use to my students in another decade from now.

I would rate myself as a ‘selective user’ of Web 2.0 tools. I have some social networking accounts, but use them minimally, and mainly as an audience to others’ postings. I am fortunate to work in a school where there is a 1:1 ratio of students and teachers to laptops and many staff and students also have iPads. So I am conscious of working in a technology-rich environment, but I am a novice when it comes to using these tools. I maintain wikis for each class I teach and occasionally use blogging software for student collaboration. I am gradually becoming aware of using Web 2.0 for making learning more real for students by putting them in contact with experts and other learners around the world.

I find that my main issue with the Web 2.0 phenomenon is a sense of being spread too thin when I start using a lot of web tools – the information is everywhere and coming at me from all directions! At times it seems to be just another source of people wanting a response from you. I also find that at the end of a day in an open-plan staff room and busy classrooms, the last thing I want to do is to jack into more social interaction online. However, I do intermittently keep a blog of my reading and enjoy others’ blogs. I am curious about the creative and constructive potential of the more dynamic form the web now takes.

My current Personal Learning Network would include the subject association (Victorian Association for the Teaching of English) and professional development onsite at school. I subscribe to teachers’ newsletters for Museum Victoria, the State Library of Victoria and a couple of educational book publishers. I have a blog reader through my WordPress account and Google Reader. Most of the blogs in my Readers are in the area of Teacher Librarianship, as that seems to be where a lot of discussion is occurring about technology in the classroom and information literacy. I also follow independent publishers, authors, and interesting individuals on Twitter, thereby getting another information source about upcoming events, articles, conferences and so on. Of course, face-to-face interactions with colleagues and my students remain the greatest source of professional learning.

I joined the PLN course mainly out of a sense that I am at the stage of having had a taste of what Web 2.0 is all about and knowing that I would like to take things further. On the note of feeling overwhelmed and spread too thin, I really want to learn how to harness the power of these technologies by knowing how to organise my interactions with them. I find that many platforms such as EverNote, EdModo and NetVibes present some ways to organise information sharing and student work that, in the promotional materials on the websites, looks great. But when it comes time to subscribe to these services I run aground really quickly. What seems intuitive for more proficient users, I have no idea how to operate, and I am left with accounts from which I have only extracted a fraction of the function and value I might have. I am also looking forward to learning how to participate in online learning communities and applying this knowledge to my classroom and my interactions with colleagues.

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