Think back to when you were a child. Most of us can’t remember when we were toddlers, but most can remember maybe back to Kindergarten or preschool. What were your days and weekends like? I know for me it was a LOT of playing. I could play alone by myself or with a friend or even my little brother. That’s what little kids do… they play. They learn and explore through play as well as just “have fun”.
Think now about learning and exploring later in life, maybe high school or post secondary. Most of it will be a big long list of courses that you had to read, listen and be tested on. Not so much fun. However, maybe you had one of those special teachers. The ones that taught with amazing stories of trips to far away lands. Maybe they had photo albums of them standing next to the pyramids in Egypt, some artifacts from a trip to Papua New Guinea.
Maybe they would let you jump around the classroom in a mock sword battle or stand on a desk lecturing to the class as you read aloud the words of Shakespeare.
And how many of us preferred the days in Science class when you actually got to do experiments in the Lab rather than sitting on a stool listening to the teacher just talk about what would happen if you mixed this or that together.
I feel all those “fun” experiences are what make learning even the driest of school topics more enjoyable and better yet… memorable, than the standard wrote way of learning. The monotone lecture and scribbling notes is not the way most people can or want to learn.
Worse, is if the topic is particularly challenging. For many there needs to be other methods of learning in order for the material to “stick”. Watching a film or hands-on or even maybe “hand over hand” approach is often needed to gather the technique or comprehend the information that is required.
So I ask… WHY would not all learning for a child… stem from PLAY? Why would the goal be more about removing behaviours rather than observing them? Why would hours and hours of rigorous repetition with only “motivational breaks” be the standard for a group of children that already have more challenges than the neuro-typical child?
These were the questions that I dealt with when researching therapies for Ted. And after interviewing several organizations that implemented ABA versus others that used a Play based approach my decision was obvious. Why change the natural way a child learns… through play… in order to overcome learning difficulties for Ted.
As for behaviours I would do what I did for Livie. Ask myself WHY was she colouring on the walls? Why was she acting out in the grocery store. The answers often resulted in the “disappearance” of that behavior. She wanted to express herself on a larger scale than an 8×10 piece of paper.
She was hungry and tired and really going up and down isle without my list was fun for no one. The common temper tantrum at home was ignored and the helpful behaviours were complimented. I always tried to explain why I needed her to do something rather than just telling her to do it. I showed her what was expected and why other behaviours might be dangerous to her. Did she always listen? did she even look at me when I was talking to her? not always, but in time she listened, learned and grew into the amazing young woman she is today.
So why would I treat Ted any different? I might have to shorten my phrases or have rules written down for Ted since Verbal Processing was an issue for him, but he learned and he too has thrived, and grown into an amazing young man. Is the learning finished with any of my kids? No, of course not. I’m sure my dad would say I am not done with MY learning and neither is he at 77 years!
Learning takes time, and not everyone learns in the same way. Expecting that a child with challenges can learn in a “drill sergeant” and compliance only scenario is not the way to have someone grow and thrive. To focus only on behaviours as something to be removed or redirected rather than observed and questioned is just wrong. Behaviours for kids and even adults are often a coping mechanism for something bigger. We all have them and they are a true key to what is really going on internally.
So when it comes to helping Oskar we truly felt that ABA or IBI would not help him to thrive and to grow. It would focus on his behaviours only and how to change them, rather learn WHY he’s doing them. He struggles everyday to deal with the overload of sensory information so to also put the demands of a program that resembles the average work week of an adult is something we were not prepared to do. I can’t imagine spending weeks and weeks of learning only Calculus, Shakespeare, Chemistry etc. all classes that did not come naturally to me. I always needed to supplement my learning with things outside of the classroom. Going over notes with a friend. Watching an educational video or going to one of Shakespeare’s plays in order to make those neural pathways stick! I also needed to sprinkle in the subjects I did do well at… like sewing, art and English. In order to feel successful at my schooling.
Incidentally, much of the ABA/IBI therapy is based on testing. Since the overall goal is not the longterm gains of the child meaning how will they be in 5 or 10 years, but the short term “data driven” goals. Many kids that have “too many skills” or too little (as in Oskar’s case) the “gains” in data would be too small to show “success”. Programs that are funded by government programs or paid by Insurance obviously would prefer some “data” to know that they are getting their monies worth. I get it! But Social gains, or trying to gage the emotions of a child in the area of their feelings of comfort, security and acceptance probably cannot be tested by anything short term. These are the areas that will be built upon over time.
But they are the important cornerstones to a self-respecting, fulfilled and emotionally thriving human being. Perhaps even more important than task driven skills. We would want this (and strive for it) for our neuro-typical kids so why would we choose a compliant, “trained”, and emotionally unaware child. That was my experience with Ted during our time doing IBI. He had many “skills”, sat behaved at a desk or table, answered “typical” questions appropriately etc. However, he was now even more anxious, stressed and had no idea where he fit into the world. His gifts were suppressed, he felt worrisome about just being himself in the moment, and didn’t do things naturally… it was all Rote learning even when it came to making friends, sharing feelings and playing.
I know this will rub some people the wrong way, but for me a therapy’s goals should not be focused on what I WANT as a parent, or what SOCIETY expects of Ted or Oskar. It should allow them to grow, learn and thrive over time and if that happens in a non-linear way that can’t be tracked or entered into an Excel spreadsheet… then it’s probably the therapy for us!