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Brain Mush

September 2, 2014 posted by Cswanson


“The iPad is turning their brains to mush.”  My wife’s urgent protestations as I walked through the door caught me by surprise.


“Are they hitting each other over the head with the devices?” I asked, genuinely puzzled by this proclamation.  As someone who regularly advocates for the power of technology to transform education, engaging students in learning through play, and providing a platform for kids to be challenged at various ability levels, I was concerned that my six and nine year olds were refuting years of research in the matter of one-week of summer vacation. 
My wife’s steely gazed blame, wordlessly reminding me of who of the two of us had brought this anathema into the home, suggested I needed to see what was going on for myself. I called out for my son, the older of the brood.


“Where are you pal?”
“In the room.”
Hmmm… vaguely abstract.
“Which room, there are several,” I reply.
“The one…with the table…the chairs… and the um, plates.”
Okay – that narrows it down to the kitchen, dining room, or any other place where a summer day’s snack had been set aside.
“Need more to go on bud.” 


Not that it would have been hard to narrow down his location; the house isn’t that big.  But I wanted to see exactly how mushy the brain had gotten.  After all, this was a kid who had just a week ago completed third-grade well above grade-level.


“Okay son, one more time.  What is the name of the room?”
“You know, the um, eating room.”


This is not good - what have I unleashed upon my family?  I find my son in the dining room, firmly ensconced with one of our two iPads, deeply enthralled in a game of Minecraft.  For the uninitiated, this is a video game, found on the web, game consoles, and mobile devices, that allows the player to build their own world – literally, out of blocks representing various substances.  It has the appeal of Lego, without the annoying limitations of missing pieces.  Players find different resources to create their various building objects, and can build anything they can imagine.  It has the added bonus in that players can simultaneously play with each other online.  This could be in the form of cooperative building, showcasing one another’s creations, or most often, based on what I’ve found in observing my son and his friends, building fortresses designed to withstand attacks and then testing that durability, which was exactly what was happening at that moment.


In the game, a horde of Creepers, zombie like creatures, were being unleased upon my son’s world, by one of his friends, who, though several miles away in real-life, was simultaneously playing Minecraft from his location, and at that moment, knocking down walls in my son’s building to let in the Creeper masses.  I could only hope that the friend could at least name the room in which he was currently squirreled away, though I suspected he was equally oblivious to his own surroundings at that very moment. 


For despite numerous research studies that have shown intellectual and developmental benefits from playing Minecraft – spatial reasoning, abstract thinking, motor planning, sequencing, social cooperation, cause and effect relationships – to name a few, what I was witnessing in my son was nothing more intellectual than the age-old ‘knock down the sandcastle.’  Build it up, tear it down, just with ravenous zombies to spice it up.


Well, this is why you have more than one kid, when one proves you wrong, you always have a fallback…
I find my daughter in the living room.  A quick visual scan seems promising; she’s laughing at the iPad screen in her hands, moving the screen around – okay, this could be good, engaged movement, maybe she’s playing one of those physics based motion games like Ball Breaker, where players’ grasp of motion mechanics guides how they move the tablet to keep the ball in motion, and destroying various objects along the way for points.  I approach about to thank her for proving Daddy right, when I notice she is simply moving the screen to remove the glare coming onto her Netflix fueled tv show. 


I catch my wife’s smug look of satisfaction as she knows the realization of my flawed logic has sunk in.
But, my kids’ use of the iPads actually proves a salient point – one that has absolutely nothing to do with a degeneration of their cognitive ability.


The American Academy of Pediatrics has long cautioned against the evils of too much screen-time.  But as screens have come to permeate our lives in so many different ways, many thought leaders have raised the question, are all screens created equal?  The answer has led to a nuanced consideration of what constitutes beneficial versus brain-mushing media.


Passive media, wherein the viewer is a one-way consumer of information – the tv show plays, we watch it – has long been cautioned as being detrimental for young children, and even older children at higher doses or based on subject matter.  Engaged media, think Sesame Street, where the programming specifically speaks to the audience to encourage some sort of response or action, has been found to have shown some developmental benefits in multiple studies, but the quality of the programming is a determining factor in the outcomes.  Finally, today’s technology opened up the world to interactive media, or applications wherein the user is required to be responsive to prompts and events on the screen, similar to how we are responsive to stimuli in the real-world, and allowing for cause and effect actions that can lead to learning. 


And therein lies the lesson learned – today’s devices are multi-taskers – yes, they can play interactive media, but they can just watch media passively too.  And even when our kids engage in interactive media, the benefits of that are based on the design of the app itself, and in the context.  Any literate person can read Shakespeare, but few of us fully understand the Bard in the absence of facilitated instruction.  The same holds true for even the best of educational technology.


And so, my kids’ brains hadn’t turned to mush, but mine may have.  I forgot the cardinal rule of educational technology – the education part.  When left to our own devices, most of us choose the path of least resistance – for my daughter that was old Leave it to Beaver episodes on Netflix (could have been worse, right?).  And for my son, though using an app that has been shown to have educational benefit, bereft of facilitated instruction, it became the medium for a common form of boy play – battle. 


But it wasn’t all bad – the mushy-brained responses were due more to distraction than a permanent rewiring, and it was all curable by some structure and limits that involved time to discuss and play apps together, lots of time away from the screen, and yes, some opportunities to just veg or play how they wanted.


For in the end, all of this technology is just another tool we can use, and like its simpler brethren the hammer, it’s how we wield it that determines whether we build something or smash our thumb.

Uncommon Core

August 28, 2013 posted by Cswanson

Summer’s coming to an end.  The signs are in the air.  My mailbox is filled with back-to-school sales and the stores are filled with the first trappings of Halloween.  And in a show of complicity, as the next school year encroaches earlier and earlier into the last dog days of August, it even feels that mother-nature has conspiratorially begun the cooling of the days.  Yes, summer is at an end, and so our thoughts are transported to the new academic possibilities.  And for some of you, that may include palpable electricity far beyond the seasonal heat lightening.  The Common Core is here. 


Doing what I do for a living, I’ve had the Common Core on my radar for some time. I have interacted at the local, State, and federal levels with these new standards of knowledge and skills in English and math that were a tent pole of the federal funding Race to the Top educational reform initiatives. The standards, covering from kindergarten through twelfth grade, with some states, including Maryland, developing aligned preschool standards, set out to create a set of national expectations of the essential skills and knowledge students’ need in order to be career and college ready. So I was intrigued when yet another sign of summer’s end became evident the other day; my children’s principal called to invite families to a town-hall style meeting introducing all of us to the new Common Core standards.
 

Because I have been entrenched in the Common Core, I forget that to the everyday parent, this may be completely novel information. Most people probably don’t follow the news about the political machinations around the Common Core. Regardless, we should all celebrate the ideals of the Common Core. Anything that aspires to improve American children’s prospects for the future both serves us individually and as a collective society. And what makes us great as a people is our enduring optimism for the future; a belief in the power of anyone to rise above the status of their current situation to a better life; regardless of limits and barriers. We are a nation of achievers, and the Common Core establishes the gates of our great educational slalom race – if you hit these, you are on your way to a better life. 
 

Unfortunately, for many, their educational career is less of a downhill race and more of an uphill climb.  And those standards are not benchmarks to sail through but rough-cut handholds that are just out of reach; little ledges to scramble for and cling to, barely inching up while trying hard to not let go.  And this is where the great paradox of education comes to a head – how do we have a Common Core of standards when we have an uncommon core of learners?
 

So this had led some to protest against the Common Core. That we are once again moving to a standards-based educational outlook that doesn’t align with basic developmental truths; children do not learn in neat, stair-step fashion.  Human development, as the engine for learning, is messy and individualistic, informed by both our environment as well as our own genes.  It is nurture AND nature.  We certainly know this for our children with autism and other developmental and educational learning differences.  And we will quickly look at the new standards, which by many accounts are more stringent and rigorous than those that have come before, and we will conclude what is already known – a lot of children are below these expectations. Not just children receiving special education services, but children of all stripes – socio-economic background, English proficiency, geographic location; no matter how you cut it, there will be those who are on track and those who are not. But a glass half-filled is described all in how you choose to see it.
 

What if you could have your cake and eat it too, or to keep with the end of summer mood – your boardwalk fries and the soft ice cream… and salt-water taffy, and popcorn, and pizza and…?  Common standards are not inherently bad.  They are certainly flawed in some areas, but if we look at them as scenic markers rather than the slalom gates, then it is not a mountain to climb but rather a path to explore. And having a marked path is helpful; not the least of which to point out the scenic outlooks and keep us from straying and getting lost.  Of course, all the best paths feature diversions and branching possibilities that may or may not help you end up in the same place as everyone else.  But that’s okay.  So yes, you can have a Common Core of guides that help us along our uncommon paths.  The question goes back to how you view the proverbial glass – is the person lost or simply taking steps on their journey? 
 

The freedom to explore and discover, to learn and to laugh; those best moments of childhood so synonymous with summertime need not stop with the dawn of the new school year.  More importantly, use the Common Core standards to serve as mile-markers, and let the children be the guide as to where you stop and when you take unexpected detours. Help them to see the interesting sights and gain new experiences. Like the best summer road trip, you are not lost if you are having fun and seeing something new, even if it’s not what you planned. 
 

Summer’s at an end.  Let’s hope the celebration of uncommonality isn’t too. 
 

What's in a name?

February 9, 2012 posted by rswanso3

Shakespeare once wrote, “that which we call a rose by any other word would still smell as sweet.” And yet, for many people on the autism spectrum, the proposed new changes to the definition of what is autism in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) feels more like a briar patch than a bed of roses.

 

Among a number of changes the most controversial one focuses on the collapsing of previously distinctive disorders: autistic disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD), and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), into one singular category – autism spectrum disorder. This includes the removal of Rett’s Syndrome because it has a clearly defined genetic etiology; whereas, the rest of the autism spectrum has likely and speculated genetic links but no universally pinpointed cause.

 

So what’s the big deal? Well, let’s take our beloved immortal playwright and poet. What if I had opened this entry with a reference to a quote by Christopher Marlowe? Would it have resonated with you? Some believe that Mr. Marlowe was indeed the true author behind Shakespeare’s words, yet the rose of any Shakespearian work would not carry the same importance when attributed to another author. Shakespeare is the identity of those works, whether right or wrong.

 

The fact is – the proposed change is not revolutionary. All of the above categories have been listed as part of the autism spectrum in the past, and there are definite merits to minimizing the validity of IQ scores with regard to autism. But what was done for the sake of clarity, accuracy and conciseness – moving to a single autism category that distinguishes diagnoses by symptomology – runs the risk of significantly impacting the identities of millions of people and makes everything as clear as mud.The fact is – the proposed change is not revolutionary. All of the above categories have been listed as part of the autism spectrum in the past, and there are definite merits to minimizing the validity of IQ scores with regard to autism. But what was done for the sake of clarity, accuracy and conciseness – moving to a single autism category that distinguishes diagnoses by symptomology – runs the risk of significantly impacting the identities of millions of people and makes everything as clear as mud.

 

Let’s take a microcosm view for an example. The online virtual world, SecondLife, is used by thousands of people who have self-identified as “autistic.” These individuals, participating in online groups like “Naughty Auties,” “Aspeger Island,” “Autfinity,” and “Brigadoon,” proudly announce their affinity with the spectrum. “I have Asperger’s” one announces. Another, “I have HFA (high functioning-autism.” And yet a third introduces herself as having “non-verbal PDD-NOS.” In more recognizable terms, Dr. Temple Grandin, world-famous speaker, advocate, and individual with autism, was once called “retarded” and “low-functioning” before receiving an Asperger’s diagnosis in her teen years. Dr. Grandin writes on her website, “Over the years, the doctors keep revising and changing the labels and their meaning. Nobody is doing this with a diagnosis of malaria or strep infection. You either have these diseases or you do not.”

 

And that is the most important point. Getting hung up on labels is not the best use of our energy as professionals and caregivers. The debate over what is and what is not autism is so much more political than practical – though the stakes are very high. From future research funding to direct insurance reimbursements – there are real consequences for making changes to something that, at the end of the day, does not matter. Whether you say someone has an autism spectrum disorder, they have Asperger’s, or they have some social quirks, they still have a set of behaviors and traits that may or may not impact their lives or the lives of those who care for them.

Instead, we should focus on this -- regardless of whether we have raised the prevalence of autism by having criteria that increases the incidence or not, there are a lot of people with a lot of overlapping needs in the areas of social-communication and language that need help. They need help in our educational, social service and employment systems . They need the general public to be aware and patient. Focusing our attention on whether there are or are not different types of autism is merely creating a false dilemma.

 

For at the end of the day, to be or not to be autistic was never really the question at all.

Raise your hand if you are normal

September 21, 2011 posted by rswanso3

 

Raise your hand if you are normal.

Go ahead, stick it up high. Keep it up there.


What’s that you say? Define normal? Exactly! Most of us have a hard time talking in such and black and white terms about ourselves or those who we know intimately, yet many of us are also very quick to point out what is abnormal, in our opinion, about others. We make these types of determinations every day, whether overtly or not, about how others dress, what they eat, what they believe and how they act.


This last one is really tricky, especially when considering individuals with autism. Autism is a neurologically based condition that most dramatically affects language and social skills. A host of other behaviors and abilities can be impacted, including motor skills, cognition, and independent living to name a few. Autism is a spectrum disorder. On one end, there is what is considered a “classic” profile that features significant impairments in language abilities and what is sometimes described as a lack of regard for any social interaction. On the other end, there is Asperger’s Syndrome, characterized by typically high verbal ability, inept social skills, and quirky and sometimes inexplicable behaviors. There’s a host of variations at both of these poles and throughout the middle, making it hard to have a definition of what is “normal” in the world or not.


So again, that raises the question – how do we define normal? Sure, we have a wealth of checklists and assessments, considered valid and reliable by experts. There are even more not quite so valid and reliable options just a few Internet searches away, or on the shelves at your local bookstore. If you are a parent of a young child and want to give yourself nightmares, just check out one of those “do-it-yourself” home diagnosis instruments. By design, these all determine abnormality. And though some certainly have their place and value, and can be critical in identifying needed help, there’s still a need for the subjective evaluation of how much abnormal is normal?
And that brings us to you. Are you a pencil chewer? How about a finger tapper? Do you fidget in your chair? Do you have a hankering for some unique food combinations – chocolate pickles anyone? Aversions to the mundane – can’t stand the feel of a certain fabric or find revolting a particular odor? Point being, a certain uniqueness and quirkiness, is what makes you, well, you. Of course, when those quirks interfere with your quality of life, that’s when there is a problem.


And with nearly 1.5 million adults living with autism in the United Sates, and several studies showing that 80% will not be able to live independently, then we as a collective society have a collective problem. Thankfully, greater awareness is leading to funding and research advances for those with autism and their caregivers. With an estimated 730,000 individuals between birth and age 21 on the autism spectrum, this focus is desperately needed.
Still, in our desire to try and normalize life for individuals on the spectrum, we must be careful that we do not make an assumption that different equals detrimental. And that is a hard line to walk. Ask a parent of a child who makes no outward communicative interactions, who seems lost in their own world, if that is the life they dreamed of for their child, and I think you know what the answer would be. Yet, as a growing number of adults with autism have found havens to gather, often virtually through the advent of online social networking and gaming, they have banded together to raise the question – when you are searching for a cure, and looking to change a person’s behavior, where do you draw the line between where the autism ends and the person begins? The bottom line is that talking in shades of normal is unhelpful and often hurtful, and with 1 in 100 children being born with autism or autistic like needs, there’s a whole new normal on the horizon.