Susan's Blog

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

To Teach Nat is to Love Him

I was not surprised that there were many feelings among my readers about Nat’s conversation program. Educational approaches are always a bit controversial, and autism education approaches are even moreso. Plus it is the first time most of you have ever seen Nat in action. I understand the feelings people have expressed to me, both in private and blog comments. I even agree that there is a bit of a canned aspect to the program, an artificial feel to the conversation, which can be frustrating to watch.

But I stand by Natty’s teachers and this work that they do, because the staff there fulfill my primary requirement for educators: they understand him, and they love and accept him. They take the time to figure him out and within the parameters of their Behavioral training, they come up with programs that will provide the building blocks of a particular desirable skill.

The conversation program that I YouTubed was the very beginning of teaching Nat attending and responding skills. The content is not necessarily important, although in all the programs featured on the Nat DVD (and there several more) the teachers have picked subjects that will catch his attention (movies, family pictures, ocean). Some readers were upset by the bizarre feel of the conversation, repeated several times exactly the same way, the teacher’s tone of voice, the apparently boring aspect of the entire thing.

I believe that Nat might sometimes find schooltime to be all of these, and perhaps a little bizarre as well, but this is so far the technique that has worked best in getting Nat to understand how the world works. Incidental learning, the osmosis-style learning most of us are capable of, does not generally work with Nat. Also, he is long familiar with his school’s approaches and he by now understands that this is how he learns new things at school. All children have to accept that the school is the boss, after all. That’s how it works when you’re a kid. Benji is struggling mightily with this concept right now, as a third-grader. And Nat figures out extremely quickly what it is these NT teachers want from him and he gives it to them. He ends up enjoying some of these new skills — like working at his several (paying) jobs, reading, and playing interactive games with a peer — and other skills he does not like, such as math or using the telephone. For Nat the rewarding thing is figuring out what the expectation is and fulfilling it as soon as possible, moving on to the next thing. He is a total overachiever, classically so; a perfectionist. I don’t mean this pejoratively. I admire his follow-through and I wish I had more of it myself.

The Behavioral/Discrete Trial Training Approach is not perfect. Some may utterly hate the trained-dog aspect of it. But I think it is a good tool for giving one building blocks and steps to a skill, particularly a learner like Nat who spaces out easily and requires repetition and consistency to capture his attention and make him feel comfortable. Some things we learn are just not that easily picked up on naturally or incidentally — a good example is Benji having to use flashcards to learn his math facts — but they must be drilled for acquisition. I think that once Nat gets the hang of listening to a question and answering, he will be able to branch out and come up with his own topics and responses. He will even become more comfortable with saying, “No talking,” which is what he says when he absolutely can’t take any more. But he is too good a student to do that to his teacher.

But even more than the merits of DTT/ABA, I think that Nat is surrounded by teachers who care about him and start from where he is linguistically and help bring him to new levels. This is what education is all about.


can’t hear anything.

— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 11:08 am

As a loyal reader, I am late in posting how nice it is to see Nat in action. He is so sweet and gentle, what a lovely guy. I agree that the key to educating these kids is taking the time to know them and accept them. My son also receives lots of behavioral education, and sometimes I cringe at the restrictiveness of it, but because his educators have taken the time to get to know him, and ‘get him’, they tailor their approach so that it works for him. I think that’s key. Thanks for sharing the videos, nice to see Nat in person!


— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 11:40 am

I’ve just got to say: Nat is a handsome guy. πŸ™‚

I am always so happy to see enthusiastic, patient teachers. I’ve seen too many eye-rolls.

— added by Karianna on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 1:28 pm

I know nearly nothing about autism except for what I’ve read on your blog and a cover story in Time magazine a few years ago. That’s it. Please please please treat me with kid gloves should I say something patently stupid or insensitive. It is not my intention.

From the little of what I know, autism has nothing to do with intelligence. Nat is clearly a very sharp guy, which brings me to my question.

Why does the teacher use a tone of voice that one would use with a two-year-old? I was angered by her sing-songy sentence structure. Why not converse with Nat like she would anybody else?

I don’t question her motivation. I don’t question her care for Nat. I certainly don’t question her expertise. But unless there’s an educational aspect I’m missing wildly, I do question her condescending tone.

I wish she’d talk to Nat like the intelligent young man that he is.

— added by Don on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Having someone work with my son who truly gets him (and that means sing/song tone of voice, this is how we get him to talk) is invaluable. Susan, you are lucky to have the school supports that you do. Thanks for sharing and keep up with the belly dance! πŸ™‚ Enna Id πŸ™‚

— added by Anonymous on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 3:19 pm

I agree with the gallery that Nat is quite a looker, and I agree with you that Nat will adapt what he learns in these types of exercises to reach out more conversationally. I loved watching him stay on task and complying with his teacher. It’s very obvious that Nat and his teacher have a good relationship.

On a sadder note, Jared broke a window in his classroom last week. He had a cut on his forearm, but with a 30″ x30″ piece of glass, he was extremely lucky. This was also the first time Jared allowed anyone to put a bandage on him. My husband removed the bandage after Jared fell asleep (Jared peeled it back a few times and reapplied it, so it wasn’t that sticky).The next day the cut looked great, he went right to his teacher Ms. Davis, and said “Davis, window break” and pointed to his arm.

I have been told that the school is going to bring in someone to work with Jared and another boy who has marked behavior problems. Our IEP is day after tomorrow, so I will know more by then. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

— added by Lisa on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 3:33 pm

What a beautiful young man, what a beautiful deep voice! Nat you rock!

— added by KC's Blog on Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 7:31 pm

I agree with all that Don said. The sing-songy voice from the therapist/teacher is off-putting. Nat seems way cool. I like him very much.

— added by Anonymous on Wednesday, March 14, 2007 at 2:19 am

I have a couple of thoughts. My son does ABA, so none of that stuff surprises me…. And her voice, well, a lot of our kids respond to high animation like that.

BUT the teacher seems to be doing two things that I’ve been told to avoid: 1) She’s peppering him with questions. Normal conversation is a back and forth, not one person questioning another. And 2) Labeling for the sake of labeling isn’t too useful.

— added by Anonymous on Thursday, March 15, 2007 at 6:56 am

I do like that the teacher is not forcing Nat to make eye contact, but allows him to focus wherever it is comfortable for him.

— added by Laura on Thursday, March 15, 2007 at 12:48 pm

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