“Autism is not a disease. It’s more like a trait that may or may not translate into a disability. Whether or not it translates to a disability is within our power to influence.”

-Dr. Ami Klin

In honor of Autism Awareness month, we felt it only right to spotlight one of the most influential and celebrated researchers in the field, Dr. Ami Klin.  According to the National Autism Association, the diagnosis has impacted many lives across all socioeconomic borders and is averaging 1 in 54 as of today. Klin would argue, however, that we all have Autistic traits in us. The way in which said traits present is what might warrant the diagnosis. Boys are 4-5 times more likely to receive the diagnosis and some say this is due to the fact that girls present their symptoms differently and, thus, go undiagnosed. There is hope for our society as a whole to acquire a heightened cognizance about what Autism Spectrum Disorder truly is thanks to the efforts of Dr. Klin and like-spirited researchers. 

Dr. Ami Klin is an internationally recognized clinical psychologist, researcher, and the Director of Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medicine, the largest center of clinical care for children with Autism and their families and one of only three NIH Autism Centers of Excellence. Dr. Klin is also a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, Professor, and Division Chief, Emory University School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics.  Dr. Klin earned his doctorate from the University of London and completed clinical and research post-doctoral fellowships at the Yale Child Study Center. Until 2010, he directed the Autism Program at the Yale Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, where he was the Harris Professor of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.  Dr. Klin is also the author of more than 200 publications in the field of autism and related conditions. 

Dr. Klin’s primary research activities focus on the emergence of social mind and brain, and disruptions thereof in autism, from infancy through adulthood. One area of emphasis in this work is a longstanding collaboration with Dr. Warren Jones in which eye-tracking technology is used to conceptualize and measure social engagement particularly in infancy. Eye-tracking is useful in diagnosing those with Autism because it allows practitioners to gauge the level of attention with specific stimuli as well as their theory of mind (the ability to take other’s perspectives, beliefs and intentions). Tracking eye movements and, thus, providing diagnostic insight in infancy allows young learners to receive highly effective early interventions that could potentially shift their life-long trajectory. This program of research has more recently focused on monitoring infants at increased risk for developmental disabilities, from birth, in order to determine and to detect the earliest markers of Autism. Klin and his team are, therefore, hoping to lower the age of detection and to improve access to early treatment with the goal of strengthening outcomes for learners and their families.

As is always true, if you have met one learner with ASD, you have met one learner with ASD. No two learners on the spectrum present the same and, therefore, cannot be treated the same way. There is more certainty, however, in the ways in which we diagnose learners on the spectrum which Dr. Klin has so profoundly proven. In his efforts, he has also managed to shift the perception of the diagnosis altogether, shaping society’s lens as to what it truly means to have the diagnosis.

To learn more about Dr. Klin’s findings, perspective and the like, please view one of his accessible video lectures ( TED Talk: A New Way to Diagnose ASD, Imagining a Better World for Children with Autism, Keynote, Developmental Social Neuroscience) his book, Asperger Syndrome: Assessing and Treating High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders, or one of his many research articles.

No more screen time! We’ve all heard this; honestly, many of us have even said this. But, like everything, virtual platforms are not all the same. In fact, the use of screen time in therapeutic settings had already been gaining traction long before Covid had us all locked in our homes clutching our toilet paper with our children. We were even moving toward accepting an online platform as a suitable alternative to the sensory nightmare of the overpacked, modern day brick and mortar school. But to be clear, digital learning intervention is not the ill-fated attempts made by teachers untrained to take on thirty- plus students online for six hours a day overnight. There’s quite a bit more to it than that, especially for our neurodiverse learners.

At one time, we assumed students came to the classroom with certain commonalities and anything outside this perceived norm was considered a neurodiverse outlier. Though we commonly regard this neurodiversity as being the autism spectrum, it can indicate a myriad of differences. We were all simply looking for the sometimes elusive norm that isn’t all it is cracked up to be- all you left-handers raise your hand. It wasn’t until a shift in focus, the recognizing (dare we say embracing?) of differences as being human, rather than a set of negative characteristics to avoid or modify that we finally started moving in the right direction.

So, what is neurodiversity or neuro-atypical, other than seemingly scary terms being tossed around in parent meetings across the nation, often without the benefit of what this will mean for the learner and their families? Can I get an Amen?!  In actuality, neurodiverse simply reflects the wide range of brain function typically found in our population with respect to how we learn, how we regulate mood, how we stay focused when the topic holds no interest and how we interact with others. Sometimes we excel, sometimes we do not. Bottom line: we are all different and, more importantly, that’s okay.  

Filtering sensory information can be impaired in more than one way, making traditional environments challenging because this impairment may heighten the awareness of another. For instance, smells coming through the vents from other rooms, backpacks, room deodorizers and cleaners can quickly take hold of the senses like perfume wafting in an elevator. Difficulty moving the body in open spaces coupled with hyper pain receptors can make navigating crowded classrooms difficult, even painful. Poor time management can breed the feeling of constantly being rushed or being penalized for rushing to accomplish a task within poorly perceived limitations. Though not an exhaustive list, it is easy to see why behavior issues creep up in our sensory children without the proper tools to navigate these environments successfully.    

Through expanding our understanding of strengths and not just perceived weaknesses of this population, engineers have developed tools with integrated assistive technologies (i.e. lowered visibility, leveled timers, sound muting, time limits, performance boards) that can structure the learning environment with far more precision than the classroom. And, by measuring the connection between the sensory and the cognitive, we can begin to equip educators with the ability to consider how their students process sensory information on a conscious level enough to be able to learn, think, and reason. Now remove a child once set to unrealistic norms, sensory systems clogged by a classroom filled with bright overhead lights, noisy, chattering children, vibrantly colored artwork shifted by the strong overhead fans and focus learning the way their brain works, building confidence and stamina with instruction designed specifically for them. It isn’t hard to consider how they, or any child, could be consciously aware for six hours a day without becoming overwhelmed or how having their needs now met could mean all the difference.

Covid-19 forced learners to access instruction online, providing researchers the unprecedented opportunities to assess educational best practices in an organic, world-wide sampling. What we’ve learned through this process will result in better sensory-cognitive interactions with specialists and virtual interfaces. And, by addressing sensory differences in support of neurodiverse populations, we can leverage individualized instruction and advancement in education technology to meet children where they are at developmentally.

On a recent consultation, a parent confided in me that an occupational therapist had recently recommended that her child with ASD continue working with her for an additional 6-9 months. The global goals had all been met, but there were some new education-based goals that the therapist thought could use some attention. This confused my parent as Kindergarten was to start in only three months, and all the other therapies were either fading out or had already been discontinued. The idea that her child might need more therapy in order to succeed in Kindergarten made her feel nervous and guilty. This also felt urgent as though if she did not fulfill these extra months for her daughter, she might not succeed in Kindergarten. In fact, she may even get singled out. All the intervention, all the hard work over the past three years could come out empty should her child not be able to keep up with the work. This is what played out in my parent’s head. Sound familiar?

It is so easy to grow accustomed to the child’s intervention. It starts out so intensive in several areas, often occupational therapy, speech therapy, and behavior therapy. There may be preschool or special day class, social/playgroup, physical therapy, and others. Much of the day is spent driving the child to and from one therapy to another. Then rushing home just in time to make it to in-home behavior therapy. 

But most of the time, the goal is for the child to become independent and highly functional to be fully included in a general classroom and make friends, play on the playground, participate in the science fair and the school play, and so much more. That is, the goal is to do less therapy and do more life with other kids and with fewer adults. 

Transitioning into life with ASD is scary, especially for the parent of the child with ASD. There are more “what if’s” than you can count. But one of the first steps of stepping into life is stepping out of therapy. This means that if many or most of your child’s therapists are discharging her because she has met all of her goals, this is GOOD! It is time for the next step. One of the next steps will be for her to try out all of her new skills with her peers at school. But this also means that the safety of the “driving to the therapies” is over. And it’s time for her to move a step away from your complete protection. This is also good. There is no other place for her to learn how to apply all of those skills but in the safety of that little classroom, and, no offense, but without you there. And without the speech therapist there, and without the behavior therapist there, and so on.

So, back to my parent…she did the best thing she could think of. She trusted herself as the mother of her child. She knew her child better than all of the therapists combined. She gradually decreased OT over three months outside of school hours and set up two playdates per week for her daughter. She knows that this is just another stage. There will be yet another which will require her and her family to weigh and measure things. But she is always willing to listen and collaborate intently with her team of professionals and trust herself to make the best decision for her child and her family. And guess what? Her daughter did beautifully in her Kindergarten class. She loved her teacher. She made friends. She had required just as much assistance as any other peer in her class. She thrived!

About the Author

Andrea has been working with neurodiverse children both as a behavior therapist and an educator for 25 years. Her work has been conducted in small groups and on a one-on-one basis. Early on, Andrea received a Master’s in Counseling Psychology with a specialization in Early Intervention. As her practice developed, Andrea went on to pursue a multi-subject credential. She also received training in BartonⓇ, Orton GillinghamⓇ, and Making Math RealⓇ.  She is very excited to be a part of the Learnfully team.

Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.

Dr. Temple Grandin

Have you ever read a book, then watched the movie after much anticipation, only to face disappointment with the movie itself? Our brain is a picturing machine. The reason why we struggle to love the movie versions of our favorite books is because we are creating colorful images in our minds as we read and the movies cannot compare to our visual interpretation. Oftentimes, our learners rely heavily on memorization and short-term recall to trudge through each school year.  Once this act of visualization is brought to a cognizant level, they are better able to tap into their imagery as a resource for processing and retaining verbal and nonverbal information. The moment that learners realize that they, too, can ignite learning and inspire brain power through imagery is priceless and can place them on a positive slope towards reaching their full potential. Let’s dive a little deeper through the lens of two change makers in this field, Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Allan Paivio.

Thinking in Pictures

Dr. Temple Grandin’s life mission is to increase awareness about how learners on the Autism Spectrum see the world and think by way of imagery. She has written two books on the matter- one for adults and the other for children- in order to fully reinforce the importance of picturing as a tool to reach a level of mental clarity about the communicative world.  Grandin quotes, “I am a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain is like Google Images.” There is strength and beauty behind visualization as a strategy for processing information. Seeing in pictures (symbols and meaning) provides a secure base for learners to stand upon throughout their daily lives. Most individuals think in pictures, but are not aware of their ability to do so and cannot, thus, apply their underlying strengths to learning opportunities. Grandin, along with many others, advocates that we need to use mental representations as a method to store and recall information, then pair verbal expression to these images to solidify one’s communication skills.

Dual Code Theory

Dr. Allan Paivio is another huge proponent for utilizing pictures to guide one’s thinking. In 1986, he proposed the dual coding theory which attempts to give equal weight to verbal and non-verbal processing. Paivio states: “Human cognition is unique in that it has become specialized for dealing simultaneously with language and with nonverbal objects and events. Moreover, the language system is peculiar in that it deals directly with linguistic input and output (in the form of speech or writing) while at the same time serving a symbolic function with respect to nonverbal objects, events, and behaviors. Any representational theory must accommodate this dual functionality.”

Dual Code Theory claims that we process information in two simultaneous ways- statically and dynamically. Whether we take information in visually or auditorily, our brains then translate said input by creating two different types of representational units- “imagens” for mental images and “logogens” for verbal entities. The blackboard in our brain, thus, generates images to correspond with either the symbols (static, logogens) or the vivid imagery (dynamic, imagens) that support activation of prior knowledge, information retrieval, language processing and critical thinking skills thereof. The static images connect directly to words, patterns and numbers while the dynamic images connect to vocabulary, comprehension, processing abilities and higher order thinking skills. Our experiences shape the way that we imagine specific concepts and word patterns, but we all have the capability to picture information and, therefore, utilize the imagery to learn, regardless of the differences that lie between us.

The great Albert Einstein once claimed, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.” Conjuring images and pairing pictures to language is not new. We have seen quite a high level of success when learners generalize this underlying, sometimes inherent, skill to strengthen pathways in their brain. The imagery-language connection is a proven, systematic approach to processing information that can be developed from the ground level with the right methodologies. Sprinkling in sensory-based language in everyday conversations and establishing the association between words and pictures can have a long lasting impact on one’s cognition well beyond the classroom. So, picture it!

Think back (way back for some of us) when you, yourself, were a learner sitting in front of a blank paper in class because your mind went blank. Most of us can relate to the feeling of high level of frustration that writer’s block presents. Well, some learners face that in the classroom environment on a daily basis. Writing is one of the most challenging aspects of learning today. To relieve the pressure, we will explore the elements of prewriting and all that it has to offer.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is the informal method at which a learner can write any and all ideas they have in the mind on the page. Creating lists or stop & jots can serve as a structured method by which learners can capture their ideas without the pressure of writing down their thoughts in an organized manner. Delineating lists in and of themselves is a great practice to start young as the practice strengthens one’s Executive Functioning skills and releases a bit of tension all at once! Additionally, some educators and parents find success with having a verbal discussion with their learners as a precursor to writing as it allows them to filter their thought process before feeling the finality of putting pencil (or keyboard!) to paper. The learner or the educator can take notes throughout the discussion as a brainstorm too. Lastly, as most would agree, Stop & Jots are a brilliant way for learners to write down a quick thought, connection, question, or otherwise on a post-it that can evolve and move based on where it is most useful. Many teachers find immense value in the use of stop & jots when working on literature study as well as when brainstorming, so give it a try!

 

Prompts

Another method to reduce unnecessary stress in the beginning stages of writing is to provide learners with sentence starters or prompts to get their creative juices flowing. Sentence starters are transitional phrases (“In this article,…”) or segments of sentences (“then, in turn,…”) that serve as a springboard for learners to dive into initiating their thoughts in written form by providing a frame of reference for them to stand upon. Prompts can be rather engaging, especially when you incorporate exciting ideas for learners to ponder such as their ideal vacation spot, favorite pastime or perfect birthday treat. As an educator myself, I absolutely love to ask my learners (and children) Would you Rather questions at the dinner table because not only do they provide options for the learners to choose from, but they also improve critical thinking skills and allow them to utilize their imagination to respond. Check out conversationstarters.com’s list for ideas, your learners will not be disappointed!

Graphic Organizers

This is probably the most frequently used tool during the prewriting stage of written expression. There are so many outlines to choose from that it is a wonder as to why some learners avoid them at all costs! Even well into adulthood, writers continue to resource graphic organizers as a method to organize their thinking is a low-pressure way. Common outline strategies include concept maps, Venn diagrams, bubble/spider webs, timemap diagrams, hamburger charts…the list seems nearly endless. Acknowledging that various outlines can be used for differing purposes and, therefore, finding what works best for you is key. That way, learners can feel ownership of their prewriting process and lean on what they find effective based on their personal learning style. 

Venn Diagram
Concept Map
Bubble Chart

In sum, jumping directly into writing a paragraph or an essay can certainly feel daunting for most people. We completely understand the value prewriting can bring to a learner’s final written product and support the use of these tools (and more!) not simply because they organize our thoughts, but mainly because they can drastically reduce unnecessary anxiety and relieve the stress fog that can block beautiful ideas from being expressed in the first place.  Brainspill away, learners!