Monthly Archives: February 2014

When Thinking Hurts

“Today we will brainstorm topics for speech writing.”

Are the groans audible? Do you sense the less than enthusiastic response to your statement?

And yet, we do it…

We often ask our students and kids to brainstorm: to suspend judgement, release organization and structure to thinking and allow any and all ideas to flow willy nilly out of brains.

Brainstorm all the ways a paper clip could be used. Brainstorm words that describe a scattered thoughtscharacter. Brainstorm words that can be used instead of ‘said.’

I for one, hate brainstorming. As the name implies, I feel as though a powerful fan was aimed at my brain and the result is storm of ideas that ricochet inside of my skull. When I was young, the fan just blew air but nothing moved. No ideas. No insights. Just a blank paper in front of me and an anxious feeling in my gut. I could not suspend judgement. Not even if I tried! For me, the task of creating a mind map where my central thought is in the centre and all of my random thinking sprawls out in all directions only creates a ‘mess’ of ideas but no meaning. Brainstorming in this way leaves my mind helter skelter.

As it turns out, many students with autism feel the same way. In fact, just the mention of the word ‘brainstorm’ can throw some minds into a frenzy. This really should not surprise us: students with autism generally crave structure, rules, and concrete thinking. When we ask a student to brainstorm ideas around a central question or concept, it feels as if there is no structure to the task. Autistic brains may not be able to send a net out into a vast arena of ideas and ‘net’ ideas that are relevant. The task of creating a mind map may be too cluttered and confusing to brains that think sequentially or logically.

At the same time, brainstorming is an important skill to be taught as it can be used to develop more flexible thinking, social interaction skills and abstract thinking. We cannot give up brainstorming just because a child has autism. But, it is imperative that we directly and explicitly teach and practice brainstorming systematically.

So, how do we teach students with autism to brainstorm?

1. Provide structure to the thinking task by identifying categories of ideas or a narrower perspective. By narrowing the thinking you are giving the student a starting point or a ‘better net.’Use graphic organizers (possibly linear) and be sure to explain the categories and give an example.

Uses for a paper clip: in the classroom/ in the garage/ in your playroom

Characteristics of a character: emotions/ physical/ social/ intellectual

Instead of ‘said:’ loud words/ quiet words, angry words/joyful words

Favourite words: music words/ emotions words/ math words/ astronomy words etc…

What makes you happy: at home/at school, toys/books/people/places

2. Provide a visual representation to make the task more concrete: pictures of paper clip, pictures depicting emotions, physical appearance, social interactions, and brains, and so on. Kidspiration and Inspiration software works for some students with autism because it is visual.

Remember that showing what you mean is far more effective than trying to explain what is in your own mind as a teacher or parent.

3. Ask probing questions to guide thinking: What are ways your mother might use a paper clip? What is something you like to do in the winter? What school subjects might the character in the story like best?

Brainstorming is an abstract thinking skill that can and should be taught to students with autism. But, we can never simply assume that once we explain how to brainstorm a topic our students with autism will be able to perform the skill independently. Like many higher level thinking skills, brainstorming requires explicit teaching and a lot of consistent practice. It also demands scaffolding so that our students with autism can achieve success!

The results will be well worth it!

A Cure for the Blahs

It’s like a wave numb inactivity, disengagement and lack of a give a damn sucks my typical enthusiasm for life.  I think many of us experience this dull, dry, ‘desert’ feeling at times. To be honest, I hate it. I despise being sucked into a sloth like abyss. But, at the same time, I find it very challenging to overcome. Perhaps, it is the weather, the lack of sunshine or the abundance of viruses and bugs that wreak havoc on whole families and classrooms.

Whatever the reason, I find myself returning to what I know has brought me out of the doldrums before: more time with God. And so I return to solitude name my blessings, ask for help with my state of mind and wait.  I decide that my waiting must be active. I really don’t feel motivated to do so, but I will  take the dogs for a much needed break from their own sluggishness. My 12 year old accompanies me and together we become reunited with the forest in the winter.

It is in the forest that I get my answer: just take small steps, one at a time. Don’t look too far ahead and keep your eyes resting on what is dearest to you. I see my daughter romping through the fresh snow chasing the dogs and completely absorbed in the moment. Oh how nature reminds us to get off our butts, out of our own heads and into the present moment! With the sunshine peeking through the treetops and the wind kept at bay by the thick forest I am comforted.   do something different

Life is too short to sit inside and worry about how much we have to do. I get so caught up in my to do list that it begins to erode my mental and physical health. Add to that the guilt of what I believe should be doing as a mom. Even the dogs make me feel guilty!

 Today I am reminded of what I already know: never wait until we ‘feel’ like doing some sort of activity that will be good for your mind, body and spirit. Just do it. You owe it to yourself. Get outside. Move. Play. Do something different. Something you don’t particularly feel like doing. 

Make today a good day.  😛


Will I EVER be Done????

When I look at the mountain of laundry that never seems to shrink, my shoulders sag and my energy wanes. I know that when I get one load done, there will be more…and   more. It is a never ending chore.                                                   Where-do-I-start-300x150

Perhaps that is how some students with autism see the tasks ahead of them at school.

The school day becomes a litany of tasks that are imposed on me. This happens in addition to the fact that I am trying really hard to stay calm after the roles of each member of the cooperative group I am in were changed. I am trying to ignore the sounds of the kids scraping their chairs on the floor and I feel like there is no way that I am smart enough to do the work assigned. When will this end???

Perfect time for a checklist. Sounds crazy but writing the tasks that need to be accomplished and clearly marking small breaks between each one or every few jobs may be a miracle cure for those students who refuse to start.  

Write down in a list what needs to get done before recess. Keep the tasks small and manageable. Break up a larger task into small steps if necessary. After one or two steps incorporate a short break such as 2 minutes of ipod tunes, a walk to the water fountain, 2 minutes of lego building etc…). Be sure to show the breaks on the checklist! Teach me to check off each step as I do it so that I can feel that I am making progress.

Students with autism NEED to see what lies ahead and what’s in it for them. Come to think of it, how many of us don’t feel a weight lift as we cross out completed tasks on our ‘to do’ lists?

And a little coffee break in between tasks may just keep us going!    

coffee break