Technology-enabled communication

October 14, 2010

I’ve occasionally reflected on the hypothetical question of which I would more mind losing, my sense of sight or hearing. Being a very visually oriented person, I would prefer to keep my sight. But after reading an article in the Wall Street Journal today, it occurred to me that I would rather lose either or both than lose my ability to communicate with others.

The article is about how parents of children with speech and communication problems are finding the iPad very useful in providing a means for their children to communicate. There are specialized devices that can help such children, but they cost thousands of dollars. Now less than a thousand dollars, you can buy an iPad and software that lets someone point to pictures to convey his meaning.

The article makes it clear that the iPad isn’t an all-purpose solution for everyone with speech or communication difficulties. Someone who can’t use his hands well could make little use of the tablet computer. But for a lot of children, the iPad is just the right size, and the mere fact that it is mainstream technology rather than a device made for handicapped people helps such children fit in better with their peers.

I’m very glad that Al doesn’t have the kind of problems that would require that kind of help. Back when he was a preschooler, though, I can imagine how useful such a tool might have been. At an age when most children are chattering away and driving their parents nuts with endless questions (my mother used to say that she couldn’t wait for us to talk, and then when we did she wished she knew how to make us stop), he could barely put two or three words together.

He knew lots of words, but they often weren’t useful ones. He could name every animal in his picture book of wild animals, but he couldn’t tell me which kind of cereal he wanted for breakfast. He often resorted to pointing, which doesn’t work well unless you’re close enough to make it clear which thing you’re pointing at – and when you’re three or four years old there’s a great deal that’s out of reach. Both of us ended up frustrated a great deal.

Fortunately a preschool director was able to connect us with the county resources for testing and working with special needs children, and over the next few years his speech and language improved dramatically. Now his biggest problem is that he has so much to say that he tries to talk too fast and we can’t always make out what he says. Today the school speech therapist met with him and talked about using his “snail voice” instead of his “racehorse voice.”

I’m not that much of a talker myself, so I could probably even manage without being able to talk, but I’d sure miss being able to write if I lost that ability. My emails can get as long and wordy as an old-fashioned handwritten letter – and I don’t get writer’s cramp in the process. I hardly ever finish the stories I start writing – but I tell myself that someday (perhaps after Al is grown up) I will. And of course there’s this blog, where I write about whatever strikes me as particularly interesting that I’ve been thinking/reading/learning about lately.

I don’t care for using a laptop, let alone a smaller device like an iPad. I’m a good typist, and I like using a full-size keyboard to relay my thoughts from my mind to the screen (and to whatever digital storage is available). But if I ever did lose the ability to speak and to type, it’s good to know that technology is making more and more ways for people to communicate.

Books: No More Meltdowns

January 24, 2010

I purchased this book because its author, Dr. Jed Baker, was recommended by the speaker at a meeting about autism at our local library. After looking through the books he has written, I ended up choosing one that is not specific to the needs of children with autism, though. One of his other books, on social skills, may be helpful as Al moves into middle school. But for now, dealing with his frequent meltdowns is a higher priority.

His teachers have taught him some coping skills, so they don’t occur as frequently as they used to. But situations that exceed his coping skills happen on a regular basis, and I hoped to learn some strategies to help me as a parent as well as to teach him.

Parents and teachers generally know that it is important to set rules, then use consistent rewards and punishments to enforce the rules. The problem is when a child continues to have meltdowns in spite of appropriate disciplinary measures. Dr. Baker points out that too often, parents and teachers think the only options are to hold to the rules and perhaps make the punishments more severe, or else give in – which of course they know is not a solution.

Dr. Baker offers a third approach – to work at understanding what is triggering the meltdowns, then to reduce the triggers and/or teach the child better ways to respond. To some extent, I think that we do this already without thinking about it as a specific strategy. We know that small children get cranky when they are tired, so we make sure they get their naps rather than have to deal with the consequences of their being over-tired. We know they need to eat more often than we do, and I quickly learned to have a snack available for my son when we got home at dinnertime, rather than expecting him to wait patiently for me to finish fixing dinner.

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Books: By the Light of the Moon

September 2, 2009

Perhaps it’s because I just finished reading By the Light of the Moon, but right now I think it’s the best Dean Koontz novel I have read. (And I actually did read it, not listen to the audiobook, because it wasn’t available on CD – though I forget how I happened to learn of the book and go find it on the shelf.)

It has a lot of elements that I like to find in books. Besides Koontz’s writing style, which I happen to particularly appreciate, it has suspense and paranormal phenomena (of course – this is a Dean Koontz book), some humor, and a bit of science fiction, including time travel. To round off the genres it borrows from, it even has superheroes (what else do you call people with special abilities who dash to the rescue of people in danger?).

The one thing it doesn’t have, which some of my other favorite Koontz novels do, is a dog. But really, a dog wouldn’t have fit in well with the circumstances of this book. Koontz’s dogs are appealing characters because they acts like real dogs, not people in canine bodies – and a dog with paranormal abilities would be too anthropomorphic.

I also like the fact that there are three primary characters. This means that Koontz can develop them through their interactions with one another, rather than having to rely on the narrator’s omniscience to tell what is going on in the character’s mind. It also allows for greater use of humor, and of characters learning from one another – always an important part of real life.

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Books: A Friend Like Henry

August 16, 2009

I don’t normally take an interest in a book about someone else’s pet. Of course that pet is wonderful to the people who know and love it, and its particular habits and quirks are endearing to them. But I suppose I’m not enough of an animal lover to want to read about the animal whose love is tied up with someone who is a complete stranger to me.

This book didn’t interest me until I notice the word autistic in the subtitle: “The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog That Unlocked His World.” We had just gotten our new puppy when I decided to buy the book, and I wondered how she might help Al, even if he is hardly “locked” in his own world the way Dale Gardner was.

Somehow the book got buried in a pile of books, and I just unearthed it recently. I read nearly the whole book Tuesday afternoon and evening, while Al was enjoying music and crafts and other activities at VBS (see my recent post Overnight with Noah). This afternoon I finished it – and managed to choke back some tears near the end.

Thinking of our experiences with Al, I can recognize in this account much of what we dealt with. As his autism is much milder, we never went through the total lack of communication that the Gardners had to deal with. I do remember, though, the terrible frustration both he and I felt when he couldn’t tell me what he wanted, the sense that he was sometimes looking through me instead of at me, his indifference as to what adult took care of him, his unwillingness to get near other children, extreme pickiness in eating, throwing up at will, running around in circles, arm flapping, and so on.

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Books: Fatal

April 16, 2009

When I started listening to this book, my first impression was that it was going to be another screed against big business and toxic waste. (The last audiobook I listened to was Grisham’s The Appeal, regarding which I posted a moderately negative review six weeks ago.) Not counting the prologue (an apparently unrelated incident which is not explained until much later in the book), the novel starts with an accident at a coal mine, prompting concerns of safety violations and hints of possible toxic waste.

Then the book jumps to a separate storyline, regarding the pending approval of a new super-vaccine. Here the apparent villains are those responsible for pushing vaccines on the American public, touting their health benefits and minimizing or denying the risks. There are the drug companies, looking for big profits, doctors who benefit from a cozy relationship with the drug companies, and researchers dependent on grant money (much of it coming from drug companies).

Like David against Goliath, a small group of concerned parents (many of whom have watched their own children suffer terrible diseases – some have even died – after getting routine childhood immunizations) is fighting to make their concerns heard. They aren’t trying to get rid of vaccines, just to educate the public about possible risks, ensure that parents have a choice whether to have their children vaccinated, and push for more thorough research on the long-term effects of vaccinations.

Unlike Grisham’s book, this one was very enjoyable simply as a story. The plot is fast-moving, with a roller coaster of suspense as one new development after another reveals new dangers and new villains. The main characters find themselves in danger, escape in the nick of time, and are promptly back in harm’s way. The characters are well-developed and likable, heroic when needed but hardly without their own failings. There were hints which way the story was going but the end contained some surprises.

The controversy over vaccinations was also handled very well, I thought. Despite my initial concerns that the novel would simply feed widespread suspicion of the medical establishment, later on the perspective seems more nuanced. Vaccines do save a great many lives, the book acknowledges (via consumer advocate Ellen Kroft), and it is hard to argue for curtailing their use in order to prevent a muchsmaller number of children from developing disorders which can’t even be proven conclusively to have any causal connection to the vaccines.

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Neurotypical Syndrome

February 5, 2009

I found a fascinating website today while working on an idea for my next Toastmasters speech. I want to talk about autism, but that’s a pretty broad subject – causes (unknown), diagnosis, typical behaviors, treatment, etc. Then I came across a link to Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical.

Neurotypical is a term used to refer to people who do not have autism spectrum disorders – in other words, most of us. People with “high-functioning autism,” especially Asperger’s, object to the idea that they are defective, while we are normal. Rather, we are “typical” – most of us have brains that work a certain way – while theirs work differently. Some of them are perfectly happy with the way their brains work, and think the rest of us are a bit odd.

After all, whether something is considered defective depends on what you consider its purpose to be. When I was a student in Spain, I had the opportunity to tour the Lladró factory. Lladró makes very high quality – and high priced – porcelain figurines. I admired them but could not afford to buy one.

Then we ended our tour at the “seconds” shop. Here they sold the pieces with very minor defects – often so minor that it was hard to spot them – at significantly reduced prices. To a collector, such pieces would be worthless. But for me, the presence of a nearly invisible “defect” meant that I could afford to buy a beautiful figurine. To me the piece isn’t defective at all, as I have no interest in its value as a collectible.

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Books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

January 9, 2009

This book was listed in my favorite book club’s catalog (Quality Paperback Books) for years (I just discovered it’s not anymore), but I always ignored it because of the odd name. It sounded like another of those modern literary novels that critics think are so wonderful but ordinary readers don’t. QPB editors seem to like those kind of books.

Then I read somewhere recently that this book is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy who has Asperger’s Syndrome. My nephew has Asperger’s, and my son has mild autism (Asperger’s is considered an autism spectrum disorder), so I naturally have a lot of interest in the perspective of someone like that. When I saw the book on CD in the library, I grabbed it.

And it grabbed me – even before the first sentence. I usually don’t pay much attention to chapter headers, especially when they’re just numeric headings. But when the first words spoken on the CD (after the introductory copyright information) were “Chapter 2,” I knew something interesting was going on. It was a very short chapter, followed by chapter 3, then chapter 5. By chapter 11 I had figured out that he was using only prime numbers (which he had mentioned in chapter 3 that he knows up to seven thousand something), though it wasn’t until chapter 19 that he explained why he likes them so much (they are what is left when all the patterns are removed).

Christopher’s perspective is engaging and fascinating. His explanations make perfect sense – but the world seems so different to him than to most of us. He does not lie – not because it is bad but because the possibility of the infinite number of untrue things one could say overwhelms his brain. He is confused by metaphors, so he does not like them. (He can understand what they are supposed to mean, but having two meanings overlay one another is like listening to two pieces of music at one time, he says.)

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