Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Training exotic animals, husbands and difficult children

I was a bit open mouthed when I read this story. It took us years to develop a similar approach to working with special needs children.
What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage - New York Times

...The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband.

Back in Maine, I began thanking Scott if he threw one dirty shirt into the hamper. If he threw in two, I'd kiss him. Meanwhile, I would step over any soiled clothes on the floor without one sharp word, though I did sometimes kick them under the bed. But as he basked in my appreciation, the piles became smaller.

I was using what trainers call "approximations," rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. You can't expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can't expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward a hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop. With Scott the husband, I began to praise every small act every time: if he drove just a mile an hour slower, tossed one pair of shorts into the hamper, or was on time for anything.

I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an exotic animal. Enlightened trainers learn all they can about a species, from anatomy to social structure, to understand how it thinks, what it likes and dislikes, what comes easily to it and what doesn't. For example, an elephant is a herd animal, so it responds to hierarchy. It cannot jump, but can stand on its head. It is a vegetarian...

...On a field trip with the students, I listened to a professional trainer describe how he had taught African crested cranes to stop landing on his head and shoulders. He did this by training the leggy birds to land on mats on the ground. This, he explained, is what is called an "incompatible behavior," a simple but brilliant concept.

Rather than teach the cranes to stop landing on him, the trainer taught the birds something else, a behavior that would make the undesirable behavior impossible. The birds couldn't alight on the mats and his head simultaneously.

At home, I came up with incompatible behaviors for Scott to keep him from crowding me while I cooked. To lure him away from the stove, I piled up parsley for him to chop or cheese for him to grate at the other end of the kitchen island. Or I'd set out a bowl of chips and salsa across the room. Soon I'd done it: no more Scott hovering around me while I cooked.

I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer introduced me to least reinforcing syndrome (L. R. S.). When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.
Neurotypicals learn by reward and "punishment", though the punishment might be as mild as a disapproving stare, a raised eyebrow, or saying "ONE". Things are rather different for some special needs children (the best written guide is 'The Explosive Child').

Negative reinforcers are weak tools in these children, they may produce anxious aggression as often as positive response. Rewarding small steps towards the desired behavior may be the only real option. It's like rowing with one air -- hard, tiring work -- but it can move the boat.

Not that there are miracles! It's hard to practice LRS when a bystander is being body slammed ...

Update 7/10: These ideas have been around for a while ...

Monday, June 19, 2006

21st century employment for persons with autism and other cognitive disabilities: The Mechanical Turk

Emily has been reading 'Send In the Idiots', an exploration of several high functioning adult autistic persons by an insider. As she described the work they can do, and the limitations they face, I thought about one of the more fascinating recent innovations: Amazon Mechanical Turk.

A system for defining tasks, complex or modest, then distributing them to bidders, seems to have obvious applications to "high and low" functioning persons with cognitive and/or social disabilities. I know of a gentleman with fairly severe cognitive disorders but extraordinary visual processing capabilities. Such "savant-like" abilities are not sufficient to retain conventional employment, but they might be well suited to some of the tasks sold on the 'Mechanical Turk' sites. High IQ persons with autistic disabilities could have a quite wide range of tasks to bid on and execute.

eBay may play a similar role for a group of persons who, for one reason or another, cannot find or do not wish conventional employment.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Teaching empathy to autistic children

Temple Grandin, a good source of ideas on autism, writes that she only became capable of comforting others, or of appreciating the needs of others, when she was able to identify her needs and comfort herself.

This is the root of empathy. It is why, for example, strong children don't routinely hit weaker children. So if one needs to manage hitting problems with autism, then empathy seems a possible starting point. It would help, of course, if there was any data.

There's precious little. The best I've found is this 2004 literature review by an occupational therapist. It's the only starting point we have.
Best Practice Guidelines: Evidence Based Practice Information Sheet for Occupational Therapists Shanna Phelps, December 2004

....Summary of the Evidence

The evidence shows that children with Autism lack empathy. Teaching empathy to children with autism has been successfully done using a two-part modeling system. There has been a lot of research done on autism and empathy and only one model for Occupational Therapy has come from it. The supporting evidence has shown learning procedures done on children with autism that may have facilitated an empathetic response.

Implications for Consumers

Children with autism can learn skills towards empathizing from a two-part model system in an Occupational Therapy Pediatric Clinic. Occupational Therapists can teach such skills to children with autism, (i.e., recognizing facial expressions, pretend-play, and role playing) with a two-part model. It is still to be determined whether peer modeling can be a successful tool in teaching children with autism empathetic behavior.

Implications for Practitioners

There has not been enough research done on how OT's can intervene and teach children with autism to show empathy. There needs to be more research done on the two-part modeling system, introduced by Pepperberg and Sherman. This is an area that has potential for growth in Occupational Therapy practices.

Implications for Researchers

* More experimentation needs to be done in this area. The research is out there but the intervention plans have not yet been tried.
* The areas of empathy need to be broken down and put into practice and used to strengthen the social skills in children with autism. (i.e., identifying facial expressions, pretend play, identifying with peers, role play etc.).

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Pivotal response training: ABA in the real world

Google scholar has some articles on "pivotal response training" which has been described as "applied behavioral analysis" in the real world -- something parents can do with children.

Teaching reading to autistic children: a limited literature

A PubMed search returns 13 references. I played with a few variations and sometimes did a bit better sometimes worse.

A Google Scholar search is far more useful. Most of these references appear to be experience based rather than research based, but better than nothing.

Teaching reading to autistic children: whole word approach

The research literature is pretty clear that phonics works best for teaching reading to normal children. There's little or no good data on how to teach reading to autistic children.

Temple Grandin favors a phonics approach. This article, unfortunately pdf only, favors a whole word approach. Your mileage will vary:

Teaching Students With Autistic Spectrum Disorders to Read: A Visual Approach Leslie Todd Broun. Council for Exceptional Children. Vol 36n4 2002.

Teaching autistic children - Temple Grandin

In our case we've reached a hard wall in terms of teaching reading. This essay by Temple Grandin (thanks be to her) doesn't add any arrows to our quiver, but it summarizes a lot of things we've learned. It's a great reference for teachers and parents.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Welcome To Alaska

A friend's son is celebrating his high school graduation. They included in the party invitation a short essay by Emily Perl Kinsley called
Welcome To Holland

I am often asked to describe the unique experience of raising a child with a disablility---to try to help people who have not shared the experience to understand it, and to imagine how it would feel. It's like this...

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation--to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. Michelangelo's David. The Gondolas in Venice. You may even learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant announces, 'Welcome to Holland.' 'Holland?' you say. 'What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy...
It really is a useful and gentle orientation to give friends and family.

Destinations may vary however. In our case, we were expecting the Netherlands, would have welcomed Florence, but landed in Fairbanks. In winter. And the Polar bears were hungry.

There is much to say in favor of Alaska, however. The Polar bears encourage a heightened state of alertness, and the howling blizzards cleanse the soul. The view can be spectacular, particularly in the context of a particularly challenging ascent.

Achieving progress

How does one measure progress with special needs children? Move the goalposts.

In other words, wherever you are, revise your goals so the current state represents progress. It's better to choose a new measure rather than simply shrinking an old one, but heck, you do what you need to do.

In the real world it often is true, though illogical, that real progress follows the fraudulent sort. Corporations do this all the time; a product that's 18 months late to market is always redefined as a great success. This becomes true more often than you'd think.

So it is with children. Be creative. Find a metric that allows you to declare victory. Then celebrate. Then find another one ...