Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to Teach Anything to Someone on the Autism Spectrum

Yesterday was the very first time in my life that I've ever cooked actual raw chicken.  How did I manage to make it to 29 without doing that?  Well, I've always lived at home and, given that in addition to me I have two other siblings with disabilities, my mom quite frankly had more important things to worry about than making sure I knew how to cook and took a turn doing it.  Which really isn't a huge deal in the grand scheme of things - sure that means that I'm having to learn now, but it isn't rocket science so I'm figuring it out.

Though a part of the problem is that I've always been more than a little reluctant to learn how to cook at all - there are so many different individual tasks an experienced cook takes for granted that they know how to do, which for a newbie like me can seem like a bit of a challenge.  Like tonight's adventure: browning hamburger.  I've actually done that one before, but it's been years - though I do remember that if it's pink it's not done yet and that's the important part so I was fine.  What makes it hard though is that an experienced cook sees such a task as so basic and simple that they figure that they can just gloss over an explanation on how it's done.  Which is probably actually sufficient for teaching a neurotypical teenager or young adult how to do it, but it definitely isn't enough to be sure that someone on the spectrum is competent or confident that they know what they're doing.  There are many reasons for this, which I'll touch on during my explanation.

Two notes before I begin:  First, as the title of this post suggests it really applies to teaching anything at all.  Actually, it applies to people off of the spectrum too, but it's even more important if they're are.  Second, this will assume a certain degree of functioning on the part of the learner - I know it would work very well for my brother with much more severe autism, but it assumes that the person your teaching is able to understand and follow basic directions and is being cooperative.  While I can probably understand how someone on the spectrum who isn't is thinking, I wouldn't know how to solve those problems myself.
  • Step 1 - Prepare a suitable environment.  The key here is to make sure that it's as free from distractions as possible.  Many people on the spectrum are hypersensitive to one or more sense, and learning anything can become nearly impossible if the environment is overwhelming.  And even if they're not oversensitive, distracting surroundings are distracting.
  • Step 2 - Make sure that the learner knows that you're teaching them something.  For me, learning something is a completely different mental gear than interacting with someone.  I can either pay full attention to all the social cues a person is giving me, or full attention to learning something, but never both at the same time.  If it's not obvious to me that someone is trying to teach me something, as opposed to them simply wanting me to watch them do it, I'll probably learn nothing when they show me.
  • Step 3 - Don't assume they know anything.  Take my knowledge of cooking chicken, for example.  I've probably watched my mom handling raw chicken literally thousands of times in my life.  Does that mean I learned anything?  No.  All I can recall is that my mom was doing something with chicken and a cutting board... a knife was involved...  People on the autism spectrum have a lot fewer mirror neurons - that's essentially the part of the brain that learns by observing others.  And I've noticed that I seem to pick up on the finer details of what people around me are doing a lot less than the neurotypicals do unless I'm purposely paying attention to it.  Thus, after 29 years of being in the kitchen while my mom was cooking chicken I learned nothing about cooking chicken.  Therefore, it's best to assume that you're going to be starting completely from scratch.
  • Step 4 - Cover all of your bases with your teaching methods.  I've heard somewhere that there's three kinds of learners: those that learn best by seeing, those that learn best by hearing, and those that learn best by doing.  I've also heard other people divide up learning styles in different ways.  Thing is, it's better just to teach to teach in all ways at once - learning by hearing is probably my best method, but that doesn't mean that it isn't extremely helpful to see it and try it myself.  The best way is to show the learner how you do it, explain what you're doing while you do it, and then help guide them as needed while they try it themselves.  When someone teaches me that way, I can move forward with confidence that I'm doing it correctly, while if someone only tells me I find myself uncertain that I'm doing it right unless it's extremely similar to something else I've already done.
  • Step 5 - Explain the big picture, if you can.   While your focus when you're teaching someone to do something is obviously going to be on making sure they now how to do it, explaining as best you can why it needs to be done is extremely helpful.  When you know how what you're doing fits into the big picture it's a lot easier to remember how it's done and know when you're doing it right.
  • Step 6 - Include the importance of exactness.  For some things it's vitally important that you do it precisely the correct way, while others it isn't.  I've observed in myself and in others on the spectrum that we have a difficult time distinguishing which situation we're in unless we're specifically told.  Result: either a lot of stress about getting something perfect that doesn't need to be, or not being careful when we need to be.
  • Step 7 - Include alternative methods.  Similar to not being able to figure out how important exactness is, I've noticed I have a hard time of recognizing when an alternative method would work just as well for a task.  You wouldn't believe how many times someone has taught me their method of doing something, commented that it could be done another way, and the other way made a lot more sense to me or was a lot easier for me.  So if there's more than one way to do what you're teaching someone, be sure to let the person know their options.
  • Step 8 - Include how to know you've finished.  Usually the problem I've had with this one is that the person teaching me to do something seems to think that knowing when you're finished and if you've done it correctly is so blatantly obvious or can be summed up by some variant of 'do it until it's done'.  This might be because of the problem I and others on the spectrum have of taking things too literally - I don't know what 'done' looks like.  I need to be told very specifically.  For example, the counter is not done being wiped once I've wiped a rag across the whole thing, nor is it done when it 'looks clean'.  It's done when my mom thinks that it 'looks clean'.  (There's a huge difference!)  Therefore, be sure the person understands how they can tell that they're done and did it successfully.
  • Step 9 - Do your best to make sure that they learn the right way the first time.  In a previous entry I explained about my rules for doing things and how difficult they can be to change.  And in teaching someone on the spectrum how to do something, you are also helping them create their rules on how to do it.  Therefore, they will probably do it that way every single time that they do it and will have a hard time changing that routine if you later have to clarify or modify what they're doing.  For example, while I was volunteering at a horse stables, one of my duties was to blow the dust out of the seating area by the arena.  When I was taught to do it, I was instructed to make sure that I got the concrete floor, the bench, and the low wall connecting to the arena.  When my boss later asked me to also get the top of the light switch box and a couple of other little things while I was at it, guess which part of the job I could never remember to do?
So, in summary, teaching someone on the autism spectrum is pretty much exactly like teaching anyone else, except that you can't assume that they'll be able to learn it if you're haphazard about it.  But if you use a solid, systematic teaching method that gives the learner the best possible chance of understanding, that amounts to pretty much everything I've described above whether the learner is on or off the spectrum.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Problem Solving

In pondering over my life so much while writing this blog, I've come to realize more and more just how much I've grown over the past couple of years in particular.  While I've been pretty independent as far as my thought processes are concerned for several years now, it's only been relatively recently that I've been more able to translate that into reality by actually behaving more independently.  And I think that the real key change that happened somewhere is that I've been learning to think my way through problems a lot better.

It used to be that if I had a problem, especially a big one, and the most obvious solution wouldn't work for whatever reason, I would get stuck there and be unable to figure out what to do about it without getting help - help that I often couldn't get myself to ask for if someone didn't see the problem and offer to do it for me.  I'm actually not really sure why I had that problem in the first place, though I'm sure that both the Asperger's and the anxiety are factors.  What I do know is that I would, and sometimes still do, end up getting myself into a situation that would be really easy for someone else to figure out but for me is impossible.

But one of the things that my therapist has been helping me with is learning how to problem-solve without ending at that dead end.  She's done this by, whenever I complain about a problem that seems unsolvable, helping me work my way through it step by step.  A lot of it is actually learning to have confidence that I'll be able to figure it out from the moment I begin - the moment I start to get too anxious about the fact that I have a big problem and that my first idea or two won't work my ability to think drops to almost nothing.  Or sometimes I come up with a solution, but the process of finding that solution was so stressful that actually carrying it out seems overwhelming at that point.  But as I've learned to have confidence in my ability to find my way through a problem - which, given my I.Q. score, is plenty high enough that I ought to be laughing at the idea that I could fail - I'm finding it easier and easier to be able to brainstorm alternatives until I hit upon one that will work, even if the solution is to ask someone else for help.

And this has been a big enough deal for me that I still remember very clearly something that happened nearly two years ago, as it was one of the first times I managed to think my way through a pretty big, distressing problem without panicking and with far more finesse than usual:

I'd only had my bike for about two months at that point - it's a really nice street bike that I got to make it easier for me to get around since I can't drive.  I'd decided to go to the library and some stores in the middle of the city, which is quite a trek by bike unless you're in some sort of shape.  However, when I was most of the way there something came loose between the handlebars and front wheel - neither fell off, but the handlebars and front wheel turned independently from each other and that made riding the bike completely impossible.

It was at this point that I realized that not only was my bike unrideable, the little multi-tool kit that I got for the bike had never made its way onto the bike and was thus uselessly sitting back at home.  But then I realized that I'd remembered my cellphone, only to remember that my parents were out of town at the time and would therefore be unable to come rescue me.  It was about at this point that I wanted to give up, sit on the curb, and cry or something.  Yet perhaps because I knew that this was not a problem that I could just give up on, I forced myself to remain calm and ponder the situation further.

That's when I realized that, while I was still a ways away from where I'd been going, I could still push my bike the rest of the way there and that would be an improvement since I'd be in the middle of the city and would have more options than staying on the random residential street I was on.  And while I walked there, I remembered that not only did I also have my older brother's cellphone number, I also had enough money for bus fare in my purse and there's a bus stop near the library that could also take me home.  Both of those ideas were very stressful; the buses around here have a rack for bikes, but I've never used one before so that sounded really daunting yet I also didn't like the idea of leaving my really nice bike behind.  Asking my brother was also rather daunting since I didn't know if he'd be available and... well, it's complicated to explain, but long story short I have a really hard time asking that brother in particular for help.  But again, pressed by necessity and lack of other good options, I decided that calling my brother would be Plan A since it was somewhat less daunting than the bus, and riding the bus would be Plan B if he wasn't available.

So just because I was able to remain calm and think, I went from having a problem I couldn't handle, to having two solid solutions.  It was all very incredibly difficult to both think of and carry out, but I was extremely proud of myself for being able to do it.  As it turns out, my brother was able to come get me and my bike, so all was well.  And I like to remind myself of that incident as frequently as I can, especially when I've got a stressful problem, because it reminds me that the difference between being helpless and being capable can be as little as remaining calm and having a bit of persistence when I'm problem solving.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Life Lessons

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how far I've come - in the past month, in the past year, in the past decade or two...  If you've read the page with my timeline you can see that I didn't have an easy time of growing up.  It was really, really hard for a very, very long time.  I've been saying lately that I feel like I'm 18 - that's the 'normal' age when people start to do things like move out of their parent's house and learn how to live independently, which puts me at about a decade behind.  But I wasn't ready to do all of this a decade ago; if pressed, perhaps I'd have managed a year ago...  I think...  But not long before that I don't know how I'd have coped.

And though a decade is a very long time - about a third of my life at this point - I can't say that I'm very bothered by that.  I don't really look at it as lost time even though I could easily do so.  I see it as more that I've taken the scenic route through my life: it's not very fast or efficient, but I've experienced so many things and in a different way because of the course my life took.  And though that means that in many respects I'm very behind (though in many ways I'm starting to catch up), and I've picked up some unpleasant baggage along the way, there have also been a lot of good things that have come out of it:
  • I am extremely, extremely empathetic and compassionate.  I've experienced a lot of things that not everyone has, and whenever I meet someone else who has had the same or similar challenges I can't help but feel for them.  Do you have a problem a lot of people don't understand?  Do people assume that your problem is actually laziness, a lack of discipline, and/or that you should just 'get over it'?  Do you feel alone?  Are you asking 'Why me?'  Do you wonder if you can possibly get past what happened when you were a child?  If you answer 'yes' to even one of those or any number of similar questions - I can relate!  And I feel for you!  Even if your experience is so completely different from mine that I can't fully empathize, I know how to be compassionate and non-judgmental.
  • As pretty much this entire blog demonstrates, I'm very, very aware of my own mind.  I may not be in control of it, especially when it comes to many of my emotions, but at the very least I know exactly what I'm thinking and feeling at any given moment and usually why.  It's something that I had to learn by necessity, really, in order to learn how to overcome many of my challenges both past and present.  But it comes in handy in many situations beyond that.  Being able to identify what you're thinking or feeling is step one to figuring out what to do about it, and while the steps beyond that are often more challenging for me than normal, I've also seen a lot of people stuck on being unable to figure out what's going on in their own heads.
  • Amid all the struggles of my life, I've found that I've grown spiritually in a way I wouldn't have otherwise.  I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormon), and if I had not had such a hard time in my early life I doubt that I would feel anywhere near as close to God as I do today.  It's not something I necessarily want to talk about in any great depth in this blog; the way my religion helps me is pretty much the same as it is for anyone facing any sort of a major challenge in their life so there's many other blogs one could read on that subject, and given how personal many of my experiences are I don't know how much I'd want to share in so public a format anyway - it's better as a one on one conversation instead of a long rant like these posts, at least to me.  But it's an important part of my life that I'm not sure I'd have if I'd had an easier life.
  • The often intense and deep emotions that I have had or continue to have are reflected in my narrative writing when I start to describe feelings.  I don't often show that writing to people outside of my forum - I get really self-conscious about how good it is - but when I've gotten feedback on it I've frequently been told that my descriptions of emotions are very vivid.  (Perhaps that's why people like the way I play Poison Ivy - she's a rather moody woman!)  I do have a significantly easier time writing things that I can relate to my own experiences, and given just how much experience I've had feeling many basic emotions - both the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones - I don't seem to have much trouble writing about someone else feeling the same.
Of course, even all of that can't be all of it.  That list is simply what has come to mind over the past few days.  But my experiences made me the unique person I am today, and even if I did have the opportunity to go back and change what happened I don't know that I would.  I'd be a different person without them and I like who I am.