Monday, May 21, 2012

Article: Teaching Basic Life Skills to Special Needs Children

Today, I'm posting over at Specialism.

Teaching Basic Life Skills to Special Needs Children

My post was prompted by the thought that our dependent special needs children may well grow up into needy and dependent adults - and that we, the parents, won't be around forever.

It makes sense to start getting our kids to do things for themselves.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Drawing the Line on Media Access for your Child with Asperger's Syndrome - Part 3: The Negatives of Media

In my last couple of posts, (1,2) I've discussed the way in which our special needs children use the media to accelerate their learning. I've talked about how critical the media is for visual learners and how these kids learn in a completely different manner to their peers.

Now however, we need to look at the negative aspects of this media obsession. I've already discussed the possibility of learned violent behaviours, irresponsibility (jackass) and bad language.  In this post, I want to look at some of the less obvious types of negatives.

Inattention and Immediacy
In the last decade have become an immediate society.  We expect our movies to start with action sequence immediately and without introduction. If the film is a slower one then often the action is the film's credit sequence itself; Panic Room for example.  I've noticed that many kids and adults today simply don't have the patience to watch an older film and it's one of the main reasons that Hollywood thinks that it can get away with poor quality fast-paced remakes instead of original ideas.

In Panic Room, most of the action happens in the credits.

This immediacy isn't just in our films, it's everywhere. Email is too slow nowadays and instant messaging (chatting) is preferred. Even worse, slow typists or people who can't be bothered thinking of words can simply click "like" or use abbreviations such as LOL as standard responses.

Even our thirst for knowledge is affected by immediacy and anyone who has a question doesn't bother to think it through. Not when the answer can be found on our phones in seconds. In fact, Google's Gmail is taking the interesting step of integrating a research pane into their mail system for greater immediacy.

Unfortunately the majority of life's little problems don't have immediate solutions and the youth of today simply lack the patience and determination to find solutions. I'm not just talking about math problems here, I'm talking about relationship issues - or even just taking some time out to "visit grandma" without having to take a nintendo DS along for distraction.

Then there's the problem of overload. Our brains are constantly working. It used to be the case that people could leave their workplace and have some "downtime" on public transport but now our ever-present phones, pads and computers provide a constant connection to the office, the internet, games, music, ebooks and other forms of mental stimulation.

Even the smaller moments where our brains could grab a quick break, such as when we were in queues, are gone. Go to McDonalds or the post office and watch the queues. Everyone is playing with their mobiles. Sadly the same is true in restaurants, where people are surrounded by families but play with their mobiles instead.

Our brains need rest - as do our fingers. Overload isn't just about the huge masses of information available to us. It's also about the lack of breaks.

It's little wonder that we are seeing more mental illnesses and more people "snapping" than ever before. We're all under a huge amount of stress and we're unable to take breaks.

Online Behaviour
Online danger is not just about predators, bullies and stalkers. Arguably, most of our kids online behaviour can be cause for concern. As a father whose eight-year old booked a complete overseas wedding package for himself using only made-up credit card numbers, I can attest to the danger of the internet in the wrong hands.

An Internet nanny might stop pornographic materials but it won't necessarily stop your child from installing malware or providing tracable details in an online form - particularly if there's the possibility of winning a toy in the process. It also won't stop your older children from finding and using your credit cards online.

Don't forget that although you might use a secure firewall at home or put net nanny on your home PC, your child will increasingly be using other devices to connect to the internet. They may not have a data connection on their phone or ipad (or Nintendo DS) but if they're close to McDonalds or another place with free wi-fi, then the internet is only a few clicks away.

Health Issues
Any activity which puts you into an immobile position for long periods of time or which puts muscles through significant repetitive motion is unhealthy.

Television, computers and handheld devices all fall into this category. One of the major issues with Asperger's syndrome is "low muscle tone" a condition in which the layering of musculature on the body doesn't provide effective support. This causes a person to lean or to slouch. Slouching puts strain on the back and can cause long term posture issues and back pain.

Then there's the repetitive motion of keyboarding, mousing, gaming or touch-screening. All of these can cause overuse injuries and eventually RSI. Even worse, slouching can exacerbate these injuries.

There's plenty more to consider, there's eyestrain, there's vitamin D deficiency which comes from lack of sunlight and there's the nutrition problems which come from long-term computer addiction. In short, there are a lot of health risks to consider.

Media-related Tantrums
I'm not a big believer in the idea that the consumption of violent media necessarily makes a person violent but ask me if computer games create violence and I'll agree whole-heartedly.

It's not the violent games either, in fact, it's more often the cute innocent ones that are to blame.  It's the froggers (showing my age) and the Mario's of the world who are to blame.

It's amazing how often I've seen kids - not just my own - throwing controllers, shouting at the TV and lashing out at their friends over a simple game of Lego Star Wars - in fact, I'm sure I've been there a few times myself.

Nobody likes to lose but sometimes I wonder if the makers of modern games take a perverse pleasure in making even the "easy" levels of their game impossible to complete. (and don't even get me started on the issues of trying to return a game to the store because it's "too hard" for the kids).

Poor game performance can ruin the mood for the rest of the day and make it impossible to concentrate. You don't know the outcome of a game level until you play it and even the best games can quickly turn sour. For this reason, gaming before school or before homework is a huge "no no". Just don't allow it.

Gaming also impacts sleep and I know that if I'm "helping" the boys with their lego Star Wars/Batman/Harry Potter/indy..etc games, I dream of bricks. Even worse, it begins to spill over into real life. I remember playing Doom and changing jobs at a similar time. I started work in a fabrication plant and there were barrels everywhere. I clearly remember thinking (seriously), If I could blow those barrels up there could be a door or prize behind it. Computer game realism and rendering has come a long way since then and I suspect that "spilling over into reality" is becoming even more of a problem.

Games are actually very helpful - up to a point - and then they quickly become detrimental.

Social Repression
My last point concerns social repression - and this is increasingly becoming an issue with adults too. How often do you recall talking to someone who just won't stop fiddling with their phone?  How many people use phones, books, pads and media players on public transport instead of talking to their fellow travelers?

It's a big issue because people with Asperger's syndrome tend to be more prone to this kind of behaviour and yet, they're the ones who need to social interaction practice the most.

At the very least, when you have visitors over, your kids should be talking to them, not hiding away in their rooms playing games or reading books.

Next Time
In my next post, I'll cover drawing the line, some rules and methods for limiting media access and ways to make those non-media interactions with kids more enjoyable.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Drawing the Line on Media Access for your Child with Asperger's Syndrome (Part 2: Games and Books)

In my last post, I looked at television and movies and discussed the amazing academic and social learning opportunities they present for visual learners. I also talked about the negative aspects of these and in particular, my belief that it's not violence that's the problem but language and stupidity - jackass; that last point is for you.

In this post I want to look at other types of indoor recreation; computers, games, tablets, phones, music players and books.

Computers represent an amazing "not-to-be-missed" opportunity for children with aspergers syndrome to pick up skills, follow their special interests, learn visually and even socialize. It's hardly surprising that the computing field has much more than its fair share of employees with aspergers.

On the one hand, this stresses just how important it is to give your child access to them - and to the internet.

Even gaming, which you may see as a "wasteful" activity, is really developing critical skills. (See: IBM: Serious Games for Smarter Skills: The Future of Learning). Not only are the right types of games developing strategic decision making, resource handling and problem-solving skills but they also give your child a critical common ground on which to engage other children in conversation both online - and more importantly, on the playground.

Tablet Computing
Tablets are very important tools too. They are responsible for bringing computing to people who are not computer-literate. Their touch screens and voice activation have removed the traditional keyboard and mouse and effectively "levelled the playing field" for people without those particular skills. There are many stories about how tablets are helping non-verbal children and adults to communicate. (See: iPad: A Voice for Children with Autism)

The tablets may seem expensive but although the cheapests ipads in Australia are about $300, you can pick up an reasonably capable android pad for around $100, though the better ones are obviously more expensive - and then of course, there's ebay.  If you can't afford a tablet, you'll find that many of today's mobile phones and media players offer the same functionality. You'll also find that many government schemes exist for bringing iPads to children with Autism.

Reading is arguably the most critical skill in today's modern society. Despite our iconography on signs, there are still massive amounts of reading to be done in our day to day lives.

The librarians of the past frowned upon picture books, comics and even "formula fiction" but I'll let you in on a secret; "every single bit of reading helps regardless of the source material".

It doesn't matter if your child refuses to move off a series - I fixated on Doctor Who books for years and when my teachers banned me from borrowing them, I saved up my money and bought all of them. In fact I still read them occasionally.

Don't forget ebooks: Instead of carrying around a load of heavy books, you might want to consider an ebook for your child.  You'll find them as low as about $60 AUS.  There are many different types including the monochrome E-Ink variety such as the Kindle and Nook but personally I've found that the el-cheapo LCD ones are better because they provide bright colour which is essential for reading graphic novels and comics.  Just make sure that your ebook reader can handle EPUB, PDF, JPG and TXT (at least).

If your child isn't reading too well, don't focus on their reading level, get some reading which is close to their level and make sure that it's exciting.  A ten year old isn't going to find "the cat in the hat" interesting anymore but did you know that DK do a line in "levelled" star wars books?  Graphic Novels and comics make good reading too.

Don't be afraid to try non-fiction and picture books too. There's nothing wrong with giving your child the Star Wars visual dictionary to read. Sure, he'll spend most of the time looking at the pictures but if it interests him enough, he'll read some of the text too. Like most things with children with Aspergers, Syndrome, the special interest is the key to reading.

If your child leans the other way and is reading well beyond their years, the get them some adult books - just make sure that they're exciting. Unlike films, reading books with offensive language seems less likely to bring it out in conversation so it's ok to be less restrictive on topics. Personally, I started reading Stephen King aged 14 but back then, we didn't have a lot of material for teens like we do now.

The Bad
I realise that in this post, I've only concentrated on the good aspects of the media and that there are a lot of dangers to watch out for. I will address these in my next post.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Drawing the Line on Media Access for your Child with Asperger's Syndrome (Part 1)

We all know that too much TV is bad for your kids. The same goes for computers. Quite frankly, the same should apply for iPads, Phones, books and portable music players but somehow our society doesn't seem to have issues with these.

Of course, all of these rules apply for "normal" kids. But how different is it for kids with special needs, and in particular, those with asperger's syndrome? Should they be afforded more time on these devices? Less? -- or is their diagnosis irrelevant in this case?

In this series, I present my thoughts on the matter.

The Needs of Children with Asperger's Syndrome
Children with aspergers syndrome and other ASD's often have vastly different needs to their neurotypical counterparts. Chief among these needs is the need for visual and experiential learning.

While most kids can easily follow classroom conversation and can easily separate the teacher's jokes and the general buzz of conversation from the teaching material of the day - many children with Aspergers Syndrome can not.

For these children, gestures, tone and implied statements lose their meaning and even much of the blackboard conversation is lost. If your child with asperger's has co-conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, learning difficulties or sight, tracking or hearing issues then the problem is further complicated as they struggle to copy text from the board before it is erased and write sentences before the material is forgotten.  If they miss something, there is no going back.

These kids benefit from repeated experiential and visual learning. It's one of the areas in which television, computers and audio devices excel.  I've discussed at length before about how historical movies can teach history to visual learners far more effectively than classroom discussions.  The same is true for computers, particularly math applications and even audiobooks, iPads and phones.

Clearly the media has a big part to play in educating our special needs children and clearly it's very effective when used correctly.

How Kids with Aspergers pick up social skills from the Media
Forgetting the academic side for a moment, the media, particularly television and movies, also has a big part to play in teaching your kids social skills. You may have noticed your child quoting Star Wars in answer to a question. The quote was probably in context and used at least half-jokingly. It's sill a perfect example of how your child is bringing their social learning from the media into everyday life.

It's well worth exposing your older children to realistic drama, sitcoms and romantic comedies so that they gain an understanding of the sorts of things that are expected in relationships; what should be said, how to express empathy and how to say sorry.  Younger viewers won't have the attention span for these types of films but their older siblings certainly will.

There's a lot of literature about how violent movies make their viewers violent. I can see the point of the discussion but I don't entirely agree. I believe that provided that kids understand the difference between reality and fiction, they can usually escape most unaffected - though clearly these sorts of films do have a desensitizing effect.

I do however fully support the notion that exposing kids to obnoxious comedy can make them less socially acceptable. So much of today's "comedy" relies on fart jokes, crude language and getting one's "tackle" out. Yes, Ben Stiller, Rob Schneider, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Seth Rogen and the Wayans brothers - I'm clearly looking at you.. It's a big problem because far from teaching our asperger's children how to behave responsibly in social settings, these films are arming them with the worst kind on humour.

I can clearly remember walking around the playground at school in my youth spouting "monty python" quotes, many of which were borderline (or worse) in terms of language. How much worse would it be if the kids were quoting from the comedies of today?  Yes, it's funny and yes it has a place but it has to be monitored and filtered to make sure that it doesn't become part of your child's language.

Further Adverse Effects
The quoting example is only the tip of the iceberg because when we were young, you generally watched the entire movie in context. These days kids can use youtube to rewatch funny but offensive parts of films over and over again.

There's more to come but I realize that this is already a long post. In my next post, I want to look at the good and bad effects of books, computers and video games.