Saturday, June 22, 2013

My son learns algebra on his iPhone via DragonBox

Friggin awesome.

That's what I got from the look on #1's face when he solved an equation with x on one side, and a numeric expression on the other. He was doing algebra, he knew it, he was proud.

Damn, that was the best $6 I've ever spent.

#1 is entering 10th grade next year in the special needs modification program. He reads at about a 4th grade level (perhaps less) and struggles with basic arithmetic and time calculations. Despite years of practice he can't do long division by hand. Despite this reality, he declined the standard transition programs for a regular junior high academic schedule -- though we worked him down from three languages to one.

Algebra is one of the items on his junior high dream list. That seemed reasonable to me. We weren't getting anywhere with our old arithmetic drills - he was bored and frustrated. Further progress will require years of slow practice on real world problems, and use of his iPhone calculator. Seemed a good time to try something different. So, for his summer homework, we decided to try DragonBox, a French-Norwegian iOS/Android/Windows/OS  X math "game" we'd used with my daughter on an appnetizen's advice (Thanks Jonathon!).

He's been doing it for summer homework several days a week. Sometimes he'll randomly flail at it until the problem is solved, but watching him I could see something else developing. Something that perhaps played to his near-savant visual processing strengths. With DragonBox he was learning negation, reduction, balanced operations, add zero, divide one - basic algebra. A little bit of progress every day - on his iPhone, as a game.

Today he got to the level where the graphical icons were replaced by numbers and variables. When he solved the numeric expression he blushed with pride and joy.

That's worth $6 I'd say.

Now we'll work with transferring these skills to paper. I will do paper operations in parallel with his app operations, then see if he'll replicate on paper what he does in DragonBox (step-by-step), and so on. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but in our family we believe in declaring victory early and often (and so life is an unending series of wins, until we die).

I've bought the high school version of the app for #2 and #3 - and I'm following the We Want to Know team's blog.

See also:

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Your child has autism. Now what?

I write this blog to help other parents and families, but I also write it to record my own notes and ideas. It's a reference for me. Today, while looking for another post, I found an unpublished draft from around 2004-2006. It was an ambitious post - intended to be a guide to parents with a newly diagnosed "autistic" child.

I never got past the introduction and an outline of topics. Rereading it today, I think it's still worth sharing. Some of my thoughts have changed, but I mostly agree with my old comments.

I suppose if I got enough requests I could fill out the topics, but really this could turn into a book I don't have time to write.
Our personal experiences mean that we are sometimes asked to do an autism orientation. I'm writing this post as a kind of mini-orientation that I can point people to, as well as using it to index some site references. I'll update it periodically, though most of the changes will be over the next few days. 
Before I begin, I need to state my biases. I write from a skeptical, technical, scientific, evidence-oriented perspective because that's my natural disposition. This means I spend little or no time discussing thimerosal, immunization, very poorly defined syndromes, etc. I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for families who pursue "alternative" therapies, but it's not what we do or write about. That doesn't mean we don't try things that have very limited evidence (such as "sensory integration" treatment), but we have modest expectations, we demand a very low risk of harm, and we look for empirical evidence of benefit. This doesn't always thrill the therapists, but that's tough. 
I think one starting point is this post and the article it links to: Welcome To Alaska. The Wikipedia article on autism, at least for today, isn't too bad. It's likely to be periodically afflicted by strong beliefs that lack evidence, but it should be relatively easy to spot those and read around them. 
The term "autism" is like "dropsy" in the 19th century -- a generic term used because we don't really understand what's going on. "Autism" is applied to children who are probably afflicted by a variety of brain dysfunctions and a wide range of healing adaptations. There now thought to be at least 6 major gene associations [that was 2006 or so] and there are probably many more. [2013 - many, many, many more]
For example #2 has the diagnosis of 'classic autism' but he has an above average IQ and does many things very well. He's quite verbal and reads well. 
#1 has a diagnosis of 'autism spectrum disorder' and is like #2 in some ways, but not in many ways. #1 has a much lower IQ, struggles to read and has far more behavioral problems, but has quite decent athletic skills. 
Almost all autistic children will tend to be rigid and prone to tantrums, but some are extreme cases (these tend to get more attention and may be difficult to care for at home) while some are not really all that hard to manage. #1 stresses our limits, but #2 (the autistic one) would probably not be too much parenting work if he were an only child. [2013: He got to be more work as he got older :-)]
It's very hard to generalize or predict about course or therapy. There are lots of strongly held opinions about therapy, but not all that much science. We've followed a 'moderate' path informed by professionals we trust, the research literature, and our own observations of both of our boys. 
We try things and see what happens. Often I'm surprised by what they can do. The very scanty scientific literature suggests that even with almost no professional intervention many children with autistic like features are much better as adults. It can be very hard to connect with the excellent therapists and it may be worth joining one or more waiting lists now. E may have ideas on therapists, but given our backgrounds and situation we've tended to rely more on domain specialists and ourselves than a general therapist. To put it a bit crudely, we're the 'general contractor' for the boys, and we hire out the specialty stuff.
The original ends with a list of topics I wanted to cover. The comments below are from the perspective of 2013:
  • Autism society of America: A good organization, but less useful for us than I'd expected.
  • Personal care attendent and IEP and state/county aide: Wow, we spent years trying to make aides/PCAs work. In the end we realized the PCA system was a poor match for our needs.
  • Temple Grandin books: It's useful to read 1-2 to get a feeling for a different mind, but she's no more like our boys than they are like us.
  • Financial planning: Complex!
  • Our book case, of which I took this picture way back then:

Monday, June 03, 2013

Status June 2013

#1, #2 and #3 (neurotypical) made it through another school year. 

By our standards it went well for all. For #3 some encouragement and routine parental attention was needed; I sometimes wonder what parents of neurotypicals do with all their spare time. Joking! I don't know if there really are any neurotypicals, and even an average adolescent can be a heavy challenge.

Managing school for #1 and #2 required rather more effort. That fell largely upon E; a small part of those challenges have been noted here. This is why E and I cannot both work full time; this burden is why so many families of special needs children suffer economic hardship (we are more fortunate). She sometimes pushed, sometimes negotiated, monitored, compromised, met, opposed, allied -- and that was with the school. Then there are the kids.

There is more work ahead, but I've learned not to gather sorrows before their time. We may be wiped out by a meteor before then and the worrying would all be wasted.  Instead, for my own benefit, and for those on earlier phases of the journey, I'm looking backwards -- abetted by the serendipitous discovery of an old unpublished post.

Looking back, despite the tenor of posts often written amidst struggle, much has been achieved. Nothing miraculous, more like the seas wearing away rock over years and centuries, still, progress.

#2 was a great fit at age 2-3y to the DSM III diagnosis of autism. Not Asperger's, straight up autism. This year he completed the advanced academic track of his middle school, won a class-leading award, was on the (non-adjusted) Honor role, plays hockey, mountain bikes, road bikes (a little scary that), inline skates (I no longer tow him), nordic skies, swims well (loves the deeps), is learning Python programming this summer, does his chores, and a bunch more I forget. Witty, charming, seems to be liked by his classmates, insightful, a skilled artist, a happy reader...

It adds up over time. There was no ABA in that history, but lots of work and patience and time and chance. He's not neurotypical; there are a lot of things that will derail him, but he's covered a lot of ground.

#1 has more severe disabilities. He won't go to college. He still has trouble making change and calculating analog times; I doubt his reading tests above 4th grade. But he reads! He writes (email and texts)! Heck, at one point we feared he wouldn't speak.

He does baseball, tennis, golf, swimming, hockey, horse back riding, nordic skiing, soccer, mountain biking -- he plays with adapted teams and he plays with mainstream teams (sometimes at the same time).  He's becoming a skilled road cyclist -- able to give me a good 2 hour ride even it he tends to stay in 9th gear on the hills. He does his chores and his homework, and he does well editing his iPhone calendar and integrating it with the family Google Calendar. He's getting more lawn mowing jobs, he manages the horses at summer camp. He wants to do high school algebra next year [1] so this summer he'll practice on DragonBox+. We're going to teach him more task, time and schedule management skills so that he can be less dependent on his high school class aides [2]. He no longer gets a timeout/respite every 15 minutes [3].

That's a lot of progress.

Now for the summer ... 

[1] Fine with us, I don't think more time on long division will make much difference. He'll work with his special ed teacher.
[2] School aide skills varies widely, as do the skills and interest of the responsible vice principal. We've had some excellent aides, but in the case of #1's year to come we'd prefer to need them less.
[3] It's getting hard to remember how hard those times were.