Paper or Plastic?: Of ABA, DWEM, and the Autism Culture Wars (#284)

Charlie’s teacher sent home the materials for several of his school programs for us and our home therapists to work on during his two-week spring break. He was running around wrapped in his blanket listening to a jazz CD that Jim had turned on when I came home from work; Charlie kept peering out the front window for his ABA therapist. When the therapist came, Charlie said “bye bye” and pulled his blanket over his shoulders so he appeared to be a junior wizard. Then he made an excited squeal and ran up the stairs.
Charlie has been making regular progress on the Edmark Reading Program. He only began it in January and it up to Lesson 8 of the pre-reading program. I don’t know whether that is “slow” or “fast” relative to other children. I do know that, while Charlie is struggling through some programs, he is making steady gains on most. (His teacher sends home a four-page computer print-out listing of each program, what he is working on, and what he has mastered every Friday.)

We have the software version of Edmark on Charlie’s laptop at home; his teacher had sent home the print booklet with the different lessons. Charlie got one wrong on Lesson 8 with his ABA therapist who noted how quickly he did each exercise (he is shown a word in a box on the left and then has to select the matching–“same”–box on the right.) “Much faster than on the computer,” noted the therapist, in the midst of turning to go back up the stairs while piggy-backing Charlie.

In the past seven years, I’ve noted tons of computer software programs and electronic products geared towards children and many more created with the “special student” in mind. Many of these, such as Laureate Learning System software or the PictureThis CD’s for making flashcards have been invaluable. Yet, time and again, I am reminded that the most basic, “traditional” educational devices–a paper booklet, a smile at getting it right–have been the best for Charlie.

And in my own teaching. In teaching languages, I always need to have a large writing surface–a chalkboard or a whiteboard–and I fill it with words, declensions, congugations, sentences decorated with arrows and underlinings in three different dry-erase colors. The classroom in which I teach my Elementary Latin class has an aging chalkboard whose center is so warped and eroded that it is almost unreadable, so I write on the edges and erase a lot (and walk out with my shoes powdery white).

And, as today’s lesson was on Participles, I had to write, erase, explain, and smile a lot. It was Friday afternoon, there had been some kind of ruckus in the dorm yard the night before, and here I was saying “a participle is a verbal adjective, with tense and voice like a verb and with case, number, and gender like an adjective like bonus.” Old-fashioned chalk and dancing around the room work pretty well, but–for such lessons–a little technology can go a long way. There is a computer with an LCD monitor in my classrooms so I occasionally put together a Powerpoint presentation to show how to translate a Latin sentence. (The Powerpoint “pointer” comes in very handy to draw ridiculous loops in different colors, and I always throw in some “animation effects.”) I also passed out a Latin Word Search Puzzle on fourth and fifth declension words made thanks to a DiscoverySchool’s Puzzle Maker. (And I keep a DVD of Gladiator in my desk drawer, just in case.)

Bells and whistles?

A lot of merriment can go a long way in teaching, whether the paper of a book or a dot-to-dot (Charlie likes these) or the plastic of a computer. Both ABA and “grammar” (Latin, Greek, English) can have unpleasant connotations. The study of classical languages like Latin and ancient Greek has declined for many reasons but uninspired, rote teaching with an overemphasis on memorizing the endings for third declension i-stem adjectives probably has had something to do with it. I’m no “master teacher,” but I like to see my students learn Latin and Greek well enough to get to the next stage, of reading a “real” ancient text–a bit of Catullus, or of Plato, or the Lord’s Prayer as St. Jerome translated it.
And it is hard for us not to attribute Charlie’s open face and peaceful-easy feeling to seeing himself learning–to read, to communicate more and more about himself, and much more. Charlie hopped onto his bike and rode off with Jim in the evening sun, his ABA therapist smiling “bye, have a great weekend!”. And Charlie was all eager smiles as we walked to get his favorite Friday “Bang-gok noo-dohs wiss shwimp” and handled not getting to sit at his favorite round table fine.

There is much passionate feeling against and for ABA–especially if the name of Lovaas gets added (and we currently have a Lovaas ABA home program)–in Autismland and across the blogosphere. Indeed, I would go so far as to say there is simple hatred of ABA and incensed critique of Lovaas’ history in particular. This passion and this hate parallel the “culture wars” debates of a previous decade about whether students ought to study “the Classics” (written by DWEM, Dead White European Males ) or multicultural texts by African-American, Latin-American, Native American, Asian American, Ethnic American, writers. Why, it was asked, ought we to read a “canon” of DWEM writers when it is the multicultural writers who relate an experience that is ours, is mine, the reader’s. who is living here and today?

So I suppose we have entered the “autism culture wars,” and it will only get messier, more heated, and meaner.

Several years ago (in 1997, the year Charlie was born), I wrote about <a title=”What does E Pluribus Unum Mean?: Reading the classics and multicultural literature together (originally published in The Classical Journal 93.1 (1997) 55-81)” href=””>What does E Pluribus Unum Mean?: Reading the classics and multicultural literature together. And I ended my essay by talking about the notion of amicitia, of “friendship”–not an easy thing to cultivate in a world of so many neurodiverse differences.

But it is surely worth it. We in Autismland have many and neurodiverse opinions and that is a very, very good thing, whether the topic is ABA, mercury in vaccines, the notion of “cure.” What we share is autism.

Is Charlie, my son who has autism.

Thank you, friends, for welcoming Autism Vox!

4 Responses to “Paper or Plastic?: Of ABA, DWEM, and the Autism Culture Wars (#284)”
  1. Eileen says:

    It is a good thing to get it all out, to agree and disagree. We all really do want the same….the best for us all, Autistic or not. I embrace the difference of opinions and continue to learn from what others have to say. ABA or whatever…whatever helps an individual with Autism succeed.

  2. Wade Rankin says:

    Thanks for making Autismland a less judgmental place. By focusing on Charlie, you help remind us what is truly important.

  3. Phil Schwarz says:

    Maybe it’s time to dust the following URL off:

    More than a decade later, so much is still true.

    Ten and a half years ago, I got so many flames in response to it that I stopped posting on the AUTISM listserv (then at St. John’s University in NYC), where it originally appeared.

    Hopefully, there are now more people who agree with what I said, and fewer who will flame me for it.

    And Jeremy and Rachel both — now 15 and 17 — are turning out to be wonderful kids with solid values and self-esteem. It may take them longer than the norm to enter independent adult life and earning a living (Jeremy because of his slower but steady developmental trajectory, Rachel perhaps because of signs of the danger of becoming a perpetual graduate student…), but I think they are both headed in the right direction.

    — Phil

  4. Eileen, Wade, Phil: It often seems to me ironic that, even as there are so many calls for neurodiversity, being “differently abled,” and the different spectra of autism, that so many seemingly refuse to consider a more nuanced viewpoint, whether the topic be ABA, mercury in vaccines, presidential politics.

    Phil, thank you for undusting the URL–we’ll see if any flaming results!

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