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Hi Yoga Mother.

We are reading the novel Holes by Louis Sachar in English Language Arts. Joseph had some difficulty remembering some of the details of the novel when we were doing a quiz on some of the chapters. (The former aide) suggested he take the book home and have you re-read, and/or “front load” the book with him… I will send an extra copy home with him if you think reading and discussing the book would be helpful. Thanks.

I get emails like this fairly frequently from Joseph’s school.  To me they scream two words: Executive function. This is the part of the brain that’s front and center: Sitting just behind our foreheads, it’s a really, really, really helpful area.

executive-function-brown

We spent part of this past weekend going over some chapters from Holes. Sometimes I can step out of being Mom and step into the part of me that wanted to be a psychologist (I started college with that goal, but changed it when I realized how long I’d have to stay in school). When I do this, instead of being frustrated or despairing, I find it soooo fascinating to see  how Joseph’s brain works.

For instance, he read a chapter that was only a few pages long and that described a fun story that had occurred in the life of Stanley’s great-great grandfather. I asked Joseph to tell me, in his own words, what he’d read. The mumble-jumble that came forth was — here’s that psychologist’s word again — fascinating. He started toward the end of the story, jumped into an incident or two toward the beginning, and left out most of the important details.

And he was trying.

What to do? Perhaps some real psychologist could tell me how best to approach this, but since s/he wasn’t there, I took over. Borrowing on RDI’s idea of shared perspective, I lent him my more-organized mind’s perspective. Go to the beginning and then onto the next steps, I coached. End with the end.

Isn’t it funny that this has to be explained? Those of us with strong executive functioning grasp this intuitively from a very young age. But the autistic mind (and many others) has definite executive function challenges. It simply can’t do this.

So we work with executive function. When Joseph tells a story from his own life, we have him describe who, what, where, when, and why. When we talk about decorating for Christmas, or heading out to do errands, or getting ready for school in the morning, we often ask him, “What’s your plan?” We try to keep executive function in mind and to help it develop in many ways.

Slowly, slowly, oh so slowly, we see it helping. Research shows that executive function isn’t fully developed until the late 20’s in males. Time is still on our side.

In the meantime, I expect to see many more notes from school, and mistakes at home, and strange conversations, that scream executive function challenges. Bring ’em. The more we see, the more we can work with.

buddist-statueInterestingly, the meditator is coached to focus on the point between the eyebrows, and studies have shown that this area grows and develops in the brains of regular meditators. This must be part of why a meditator can generally control their emotions, regulate themselves, and concentrate well.

It also makes sense that someone without much executive function would find meditation to be a very difficult and frustrating activity. If you can’t concentrate well, how can you concentrate enough to meditate? Ironic.

Learning about executive function has helped me a lot in working with Joseph. Instead of blaming him, I listen hard to what his brain is missing. Then I work to fill in the gaps.

Maybe I should have stayed in school. Psychology is fascinating.  😉

It’s been a deep sorrow for me that Joseph and I don’t have real conversation. My questions are often ignored or answered as if I’d asked something else entirely. If I try to engage him in a conversation, I’ll usually get one- or two-word responses.  Fragments come out, or words out of order. I get confused as to what he’s trying to say.

Sometimes, frustrated, Joseph will burst out with, “Don’t talk to me! I don’t want to talk!” Having a mind that can’t organize words or concepts must make verbal self-expression very challenging.

A few years ago I brought up to John, our RDI Consultant, my sadness about the lack of conversation with Joseph. It’s another autism-based missed opportunity, I’ve felt — the chance to engage our hearts and minds via our words.

But John has told me that RDI addresses the conversational deficit. And guess what? At last, at last, we  have a strong enough foundation to get to work on it.

To start with, I’m not to ask Joseph those open-ended questions that parents are supposed to ask their children (have I mentioned that autism parenting is counter-intuitive?). Right now it’s too confusing for Joseph. I’m to ask more specific questions. Instead of, “What did you do at school today?” I ask, “Did you play on the blacktop or the playground today?” “What did you do there?” “Why?”

I’m to ask who, what, where, when and why questions. Not all at once. Not overwhelmingly so. Just enough to get Joseph used to the different ingredients of basic conversation.

This afternoon Blue Eyes asked Joseph, “Where did you just come from?” Joseph answered, “John’s house.” “What did you do there?” “We went swimming.” We are focusing on this sort of thing — Joseph does something and then reports on it in a way that is clear and understandable. We guide him with the basic ingredients of conversation.

Coincidentally (or not?), Joseph has recently gotten into telling stories — either made-up ones or stories from Blue Eyes’ and my childhood. It’s the perfect time to exercise the who-what-where-when-why concepts. If Joseph jumps in on a story without setting it up properly, I look confused. “Wait a minute. Who was this? Where were they?” Joseph has to backtrack and fill me in on the basics before continuing.

It’s exciting. I’m already seeing progress. My long-held dream of conversing deeply with my son is moving in the right direction. And the great thing is, Joseph doesn’t even know we’re working on this. It is happening for him in what appears to be a natural manner.

RDI is getting a lot of flak from our local funding agency. They lean toward Applied Behavioral Analysis, which works with kids in a much more rote way. The thing is, life is dynamic and ever changing, and learning rote ways of thinking, talking and behaving are not going to serve these kids in the long run. When I see Joseph getting along in his mainstream classroom — when I see his friends including him in their activities, even seeking him out — I am filled with admiration for my son and for the intervention that is making such a difference in his life.

Where autism is concerned, there is no such thing as small talk. Small talk is big talk, and big talk is even bigger talk.

I could say a lot more on this, but for now I (who) am signing off (what). It’s late (when) and I’m tired because it’s been a long day (why). Off to bed (where) with me.

Nice talkin’ to ya.