"Like the study of science and art, accounts of historical events can be intrinsically fascinating. But they have a wider significance. I believe that people are better able to chart their life course and make life decisions when they know how others have dealt with pressures and dilemmas---historically, contemporaneously, and in works of art. And only equipped with such understanding can we participate knowledgeably in contemporary discussions (and decisions) about the culpability of various individuals and countries in the Second World War. Only with such understanding can we ponder the responsibilty of human beings everywhere to counter current efforts at genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to bring the perpetrators to justice."
"...we humans are the kinds of animals who learn chiefly by observing others---what they value, what they spurn, how they conduct themselves from day to day, and especially, what they do when they believe that no one is looking."
----Howard Gardner, from The Disciplined Mind, published in 1999

Monday, June 11, 2007

Strange Is Your Language and I Have No Decoder; or, Why Don't I Make My Intention Clear?

The majority of our students in the classroom in which I work have a diagnosis of autism. Autism is a condition that one hears very much about these days, and one that also can cause people who wish to speak about if for any number of reasons to approach dialogue about autism in increasingly polarizing ways. I myself am reluctant to write very much about my work, and only do so here because I wish to reference a certain way that our classroom, and many other classrooms providing service to children with autism and other differing abilities, approach communication.
Those with autism process sensory input differently than those who are "neurotypical." To oversimplify: in most cases, for those with autism, spoken language is not as well received as an input as is visual input. Although it is good practice to use visual input with all students, it is especially important for our students. When using spoken language, we often use what is known as "alpha statements:" statements pared of all but the essential, placed in the most simple words with best fit. These statements are then most often paired with visual cues, such as pointing or other gestures; sign language; or visual icons.
These visual icons can be used to facilitate communication when verbal language is not as much a player in the game of communicating. There are many assisitive technology devices that employ these icons to help along functional language; some more simple than others, some more expensive than others. The most commonly used system for creating icons is a software package called Boardmaker. One may find it here by following the link to the manufacturer's website:
http://www.mayer-johnson.com/
One can also design and make one's own "device" by creating icons and arranging them in the pages of a ring binder. The icons are backed with Velcro dots, and then affixed to Velcro strips arranged on the pages.
With this method, one can create pages dedicated to different conversations: for instance, a page for greeting statements, such as: hello, how are you? (or affix another icon such as "glad to see you, and so forth)--- I am (affix the appropriate icon); a page of request statements, such as I want (affix the appropriate icon, such as "a break," "to work," "to go to the bathroom;" a page of feeling statements, such as I feel (affix the appropriate icon---happy, sad, sick, etc.)

One can customize the icons and the pages for each child. Each main page can be further organized as each type of conversation dictates: if the child communicates the desire for a break by attaching the "break" icon to the "I want" statement during the course of communication, then another "I want" page is indicated, and the student may choose from several icons representing different break activities, such as a motor activity, a quiet choice, or a trip to the water fountain.
The organization is akin to how you might organize your folders and subfolders in your computer, dear reader.
Our students' schedules are posted using icons. The icons are arranged vertically on a Velcro strip affixed to a posterboard with their names on top. The icons show the students their day from start to finish. At each schedule change, the students remove the icon for what is now on their schedule, go to that area of the classroom, and then place the icon in the icon collection basket in that area.
There is something very satisfying about that.

I think that I have a tendency to use language as the icons are used in the classroom.

For instance, when I wrote about the rose petal in the arugula, there was much more to it than what I wrote; yet I chose the words I felt best parsed what actually occurred into a manageable packet that I might be able to transmit to you, dear reader. Though I was able to do so to some satisfaction when I posted about the rose petal, more often than not, I am more often seeing the icons of my own fashioning in my head.
In the Boardmaker software, one may customize the visual icons by typing whatever text you wish. To the side of the blog, I found a free icon of the 'Boardmaker-type" online; to the icon, I typed the text to a common phrase in our classroom: "time for group."
That was a fairly straightforward meeting of verbage and visual; yet it is often difficult for me to find the appropriate words for the visuals, and indeed, the sensory, that I perceive.

It's the old chestnut, that Appollian v Dionysian debate.
Words? Pictures? Perceptions?
Mutually exclusive? Tenuous relationship at best?

Dear reader, the students in our classroom brave the front lines of that age-old battle daily.
They are some of my best teachers.

3 comments:

The Artist formerly Known as Purpleworms (!) said...

While people with autism may react more strongly to the visual element - it is no less mediated than the word, in fact an image can be even more confusing in terms of what one wishes to communicate than words -either way it is practice in encoding and decoding and either way your signs represent ideas and not the referent and either way they are mediated and multiple in their meanings.

neroli said...

Yes, for certain. But in wanting to write about my tendency to use iconic language, it is best exemplified by the way that we use the visual in our communication with our students. In that particular classroom, with those students and those colleagues, that way of using language is acceptable; in fact, it is the norm. Sometimes it is in fact less confusing within that context to use the visual and discard the words. Sometimes it really is not so much playing to a stronger reaction, but a making a necessary accomodation according to needs.
With school out of session for the summer, I am most keenly aware of how I have been accustomed to using language and of how that usage is somewhat variant of typical.
I must become accepting of the disconnect. There's some joy in that.

Elephteria said...

Good post.