How Can I Compare? (#289)

Charlie can verbally identify almost all of the letters of the alphabet–he’s been working still on discriminating f from t and i from l. At our biweekly meeting with his ABA therapist team and ABA consultant, it was noted that he seems to make fewer errors identifying letters when they’re altogether in a word.
Charlie was not even three years old when he learned his numbers. We assumed his mastery of the alphabet would follow—I say this with the wry sigh of hindsight, six years later. Of course there are a lot more letters than numbers and they occur in both CAPITAL and lowercase versions. Add to this that the appearance of letters can differ widely, from handwriting style to font choice, and that Charlie’s apaxia resulted in him pronouncing b, d, e, g, p, and a few others all as “eeee” until he was six or seven. And, that Charlie has always had trouble controlling the movement of his eyes–he has looked out the corners of them since he was an infant. (Prism lenses and practice in focusing his gaze on a particular object have helped.)

The remark tonight at Charlie’s ABA therapy meeting–that he can identify the letters more readily when they are in a word–seemed emblematic to me of something about Charlie’s learning, namely, that it is sometimes harder for him to talk about–even to identify–something “in isolation,” singly and on its own. But pair that item with another thing–give him “frog” instead of just “f”–and he knows it readily. That is, Charlie can grasp some concepts more easily when presented with a varied and complex “field” of items. And when I think of all the time–all the years–he “made no or minimal progress” on IEP goals in labeling “common household objects” or letters, etc., I wonder if an over-simplified teaching approach–and an underestimation of his intelligence–have retarded Charlie’s learning.

When Charlie was tested last fall, he scored in the lowest percentile in many categories on a standardized test—no I.Q. testing was done, but the score would probably not have been in the three figures.

A test is just a test, of course; doing well on one means that you are good at taking the test. I know that Charlie is smart, intellectually, emotionally, and in many other ways, and that–due to his neurological make-up–his current capacity for communicating that intelligence–himself–is supremely limited to talking about “Farm Families, we no hah’ Farm Families, ee eye ee eye oh!” “I wahn see Goo’ Nigh Moon!” ” Bye bye no bye bye bye bye no!”–to talking about a toy he used to have, a DVD he wants to watch, and something more. And that is why he scores so low on the tests.

Jim and I are not concerned about Charlie’s test scores, except that these seem to play an overweening role in determining his educational future and (it often feels like) his future. I don’t need a bunch of numbers to tell me that Charlie understands every aspect of the conversation going on around him but I do know those numbers have a direct impact on the education he is officially allotted for, for the “educational services” and the “placement” that he gets. And that’s why the numbers–however poorly they represent the true Charlie–matter; and that’s why we keep plugging away at school and at home on Charlie identifying those ABC’s.

And we know that Charlie does well with a lot going on.

This is what Charlie did today: Two long walks (to the playground and to the center of our small town) with my parents. Trips to Best Buy and Costco and the mall. Afternoon swim during which (for the first time in months) Charlie ducked his head underwater and didn’t demand first off to use a swim noodle. Snack of two apples then off to the aforementioned ABA team meeting in which Charlie demonstrated his prowess at matching words to words. Back home for a viewing of the Goodnight Moon DVD, greeting “daddy home!” and then “beddtime, piggyback daddy!”

And while we autism parents know better than to compare our children to each other’s, or to the criteria for a “typically developing child,” we do. And, we know we love our “developmentally delayed” children all the more.

The Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes wrote that

“If god had not created yellow honey, much sweeter they would say were figs.” (fr. 38).

Given figs and honey, I can see Charlie poking a hesitant finger at both, regarding then licking off the golden nectar of the latter, while puzzled at the brown and shriveled appearance of the former.

But as for which–honey or figs–Charlie might choose as sweeter?

I really do not know. For, I am not entirely sure which taste Charlie most prefers. But seeing them together gives him the chance to judge for himself.

And for me to try to figure out how Charlie makes his own choices.

8 Responses to “How Can I Compare? (#289)”
  1. Bronwyn G says:

    Figs and honey actually taste very similar to me.

    I like dried figs, but only really take honey when I’m sick. And sometimes figs will make me sick as well.

  2. StyleyGeek says:

    Just a request for clarification: if Charlie does better in standardized tests, does that mean he gets better/more educational services or less support? I would have thought that the more he is struggling, the more support would be provided? Or am I hopelessly naive?

  3. Lisa says:


    What you mention about Charlie grasping letters in context really struck home for me. As an unidentified ‘aspie’ (well, to be fair, in the 1970’s AS wasn’t on the US radar and *certainly not* in relation to a *girl*), I was hyperlexic. I taught myself to read well before Kindergarten, probably by word shape recognition. Where this relates is when I entered Hebrew School with its own alphabet and teachers who tried without success to teach me letter by letter.

    I’m still, as an adult, completely unable to read Hebrew. The letters just squiggle and dance across the page and make no sense to me. I can recognize certain familiar Hebrew words, but it’s a slow (painfully slow) process.

    I think it’s a good thing I learned to read on my own, because something tells me if I had been taught in the way reading was taught in the 70’s, I would be functionally illiterate.

    Love to you all.

  4. Eileen says:

    I worry about future teachers underestimating Andrew’s intelligence. Not with his current teacher, who has so much faith and belief in what he is capable of. Andrew will be with this teacher again next year, but after that is when I will worry.

    I notice that Andrew likes to look at whole words on the back of DVD boxes, books, etc., but is not as interested in a letter in isolation. I know he needs to learn letter recognition, but I am thinking that teaching sight words as a whole may be a better approach for him.

    I am so happy to hear all the great progress that Charlie continues to make! I hope he enjoys his visit with Gong Gong and PoPo this week!!!

  5. Styley Geek—You’re not na├»ve; the relation between how Charlie does on tests and the services he qualifies for is complicated (and something that always changes). Yes, lower scores do mean that Charlie can qualify for more of certain services but the lowe scores can also (albeit unconsciously) create lower expectations in those teaching him. And those lower expectations can result in not setting up academic programs that can really challenge his intelligence. (I have already heard the suggestion made that Charlie might need to concentrate more on “functional,” “self-help,” and “vocational” skills, rather than learning to read, do math, etc..)

    Lisa, I once taught Greek to a student with severe dyslexia—he could never learn the alphabet, and we spent hours working on it. He had wanted to learn Hebrew, but was discouraged because of the dyslexia.

    Eileen, does Andrew have some of the letters down? Perhaps for his name?

    And Bronwyn, I’m fond of figs _and_ honey, of all types.

  6. squaregirl says:

    Those standardized tests can be a catch-22. When I taught and had to do testing, my students never performed what I knew they wer capable of for many reasons…change in setting, change in routine, the way the info was presented, what was being asked, how it was being asked, etc., etc. And of course as far as lowered expectations, I remember readding my students IEP’s before I even met them and they had things like “…will sit in a chair when called to the table for five minutes four out of five trials” or will “wait his turn for one minute 90% of the time”. I knew hardly anything about my students before I met them and I read a two foot stack or reports and IEP’s.

    The one thing I know is that so many, if not all of our students and children understand and are capable of so much more than we are able to see if we are utilizing a “standard” way of looking.

    I’m glad you are teaching reading and writing to Charlie…these are some of the most functional skills…reading and writing give us a whole new way to communicate, express ones self, process, understand the world around us, learn…reading and writing has opened up doors of communication for so many who have not been able to find a way to be understood.

    When I talk about things in my students presence I ALWAYS do so with the assumption that they understand everything I am saying…I’m quite certain they do.

  7. Sq Girl: Charlie’s taking the Alternative Proficiency test–I have to see how he did on it (his teacher administered it back in February). Yes, reading and writing _are_ “functional” skills—I can certainly see how learning these would help Charlie overall with things like his speech, too.

    Very glad to know teachers like you are in the classroom.

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