Friday, December 26, 2014

Presuming Competence

It's the day after Christmas. One of my presents to Daniel was a book about butterflies. It's a science book that explains migration, metamorphosis and other information about butterfly life.

He didn't show a lot of enthusiasm during gift opening (later, the input on Facebook from other autistics, parents and Soma, the creator of Rapid Prompting, explained why this is. That's material for a future post). He seemed sad at lunch and wouldn't eat my sweet potato casserole, the one food that I can usually count on him enjoying. I was beginning to think he wasn't feeling well, but when we broke out the book on butterflies and used it for an RPM lesson, his demeanor immediately changed.

I talked about Rapid Prompting in my last post. It's a method for teaching that leads to communication. Today I read sections of the butterfly book to him, and followed up by writing and offering two answer choices from what we covered. He got nine out of ten right. He paid attention, smiled, and showed me that our quiet lesson time was good for him. And that's the point.

Some autistic kids who've been introduced to Rapid Prompting Method have eventually learned to spell well enough that they've written books. It's possible for a very high intelligence to be masked by motor planning difficulties and the inability to speak. If that were true for Daniel it would be remarkable and exciting. That's not the purpose, though. The goal is to teach him about the world and work with him to be able to communicate what he's learned. To ask questions. To share his viewpoint. I don't really know his developmental level. He's never been taught in such a way for us to know how much he's able to retain and understand. RPM is a way to find out. I don't care what his intelligence level is. I care deeply that he be given the chance to learn about the world as much he possibly can. My gut tells me that he understands everything, and Soma's teachings reinforce that belief. She tells us to presume competence.

Presuming competence doesn't mean that everyone with autism or other developmental disabilities is a hidden genius. It means that we don't give up and assume that because someone learns differently or expresses themselves in an alternate way that they don't understand what's going on around them. Reading what other people on the spectrum have to say about their experiences in school and out in the world helps me to provide the right type of lessons and stimulation for Daniel to learn and be taught respectfully. Presuming competence is about really listening to him and making sure that others in his life do too, especially educators. It gives him the chance to be taught at a higher level than ever before and learn ways to communicate what he's thinking and learning. It's not being fooled into believing he's not "all there" when he lays his head down instead of participating in noisy, overwhelming experiences.

So far he's shown me that he is excited to learn more than the basic concepts he's been hearing for years. When I read, he listens. He grabs the torn paper to make a choice when I've asked him a question about the material. It doesn't matter if he gets it right. When he answers incorrectly, it's a chance for more teaching. By not saying "no" when he chooses the wrong piece of paper, but instead going over the material again and giving another chance for feedback, the learning is positive and builds his confidence. It sends the message that I believe in him and his ability to learn.

Will he ever be able to point well enough to spell on the stencils or letterboard? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm learning that it doesn't matter. I hope that we get there. I am trying to desensitize his fingers with massage and repeated hand over hand practice. Some days he does better than others, but we haven't reached the point where he seems motivated to spell in that way. He prefers the paper choices right now, and the spelling apps on the iPad. That's ok. That's huge, actually. It may be a long time before he can spell, or it may happen in a flash after intense work. Perhaps we will stick with paper choices. I don't know how that will evolve, but I do know that he deserves a rich education. He needs books and lessons on things that interest him.

I get as excited as anyone would when I read about or see a video of a severely disabled person who has learned to type well enough to articulate very deep understanding. It does make me long for him to be able to use a keyboard. But if I settled for all or nothing, I'd soon give up on RPM. Fortunately, the books from HALO made it clear to me that learning is paramount. If all I ever do is read to him, discuss things with him, teach and give him a chance to offer feedback through choices written on paper, it  still opens his world much wider than it's ever been. It's too easy to leave him alone to stim with his objects of choice, like his shiny crinkle paper, and not engage with him. There's a time and place for those things, but they shouldn't be all of his life. Seeing his interest piqued by new subjects makes me too happy to ever stop offering him chances to learn. Last night we start reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, another of his Christmas presents that I wouldn't have considered if not for RPM. April in Austin can't come soon enough.