Thursday, June 28, 2012

Life and Floors

Some observations on floors and life. Seriously.

My wife and I are renovating an older home with the hope of having it on the market by mid to late July. At the same time, today a crew is coming to our new house to repair some early water damage to our kitchen floor. Ideally, our new house is back to prime condition by month's end.

In the old house, we found there is once-beautiful hardwood flooring in the front half. The flooring, however, was covered by carpet in much of the house, linoleum in the bathrooms, and a lousy stain job in the dining area. Worse, years of pet damage exists in the form of dark stains with white crystalline edges.

Curiously, you can see the supports and beams where walls once stood. The living room is divided in half where a long-removed wall had created two rooms. A six-inch beam of plain, unstained wood down the middle of the room means we likely cannot leave the hardwood exposed. When you look up through the basement, it is clear the hardwood was mounted across the beams. The hardwood is *the* floor.

Walls were moved when the house was doubled in size by a 1970-something expansion. The addition added a large garage, a workshop, and two massive bedrooms. It allowed for a second bath, and then the expansion of the existing rooms.

The house evolved to meet specific needs. Some of its former charm had to be sacrificed to practicality. I never contemplated walls moving, because we tend to think of them as fixed. Yet, the walls were moved within the shell of the original house. The front exterior changed little, and the house still looks like a cute little box from the front. Major change can be invisible until you look deep within.

It's a shame the house wasn't maintained well, but now we are giving it yet another chance to be a great home. The floors will be recovered and restored when possible. The paint will be updated, the exterior washed, and someone will come to love it.

In the new house, our floor was damaged by a leak within our first full 24 hours as its residents.

The hardwood, which we purchased because it can take abuse, was damaged quickly by the water. The once smooth surface now has ripples, the edges of the planks upturned by moisture.

We thought wood would be sturdy, with any minor wear adding character. Instead, it proved to be fragile when faced by the most basic household problem: a plumbing leak.

The hardwood in the old house is so strong it takes serious effort to remove the carpet tacks and staples. It hardened with age. Yet, we will have to cover it again because the house evolved and grew. Supporting families for at least a half-century, the floor does its job quietly and reliably. The new floor is only a surface, a covering that can be easily replaced. It serves no structural purpose. And it failed. The new hardwood floor proved to be "young" and weak.

I'm hoping I am more like the hidden floor of the old house.

Monday, June 25, 2012

An Interview with Heather Conroy, Autism and Education Specialist

I met Heather Conroy just before the 2011-13 school year. The university where I teach had asked me to reach out to two students diagnosed on the autism spectrum and consider how we might support those students. I contacted a Pittsburgh organization specializing in supports for high school and college students, which led to a meeting with Heather and one of her colleagues.

I encourage readers to visit her website,, for some information.

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1. I'd like to begin with a short introduction to my readers. How did you decided to specialize in helping young adults with ASDs navigate the school setting?

A: I began working in the field, as many practitioners do, by working with young children with autism. Later, when seeking a field learning placement for my social work degree at The University of Pittsburgh, I wanted to do something slightly different and was amazed at the astounding capabilities of the college students I worked with at AHEADD (Achieving in Higher Education with Autism/Developmental Disabilities). The students were fun, intelligent, and they brought me new, unexpected challenges each day. I noticed the difference between pure communication difficulties I saw in young children I worked with and the difficulties college students have with social nuances and nonverbal communication. I realized quickly that this was the main struggle for many of my students who were having difficulty with peers and professors, as well as keeping up with the class work. They didn't know when to ask for help, who to ask for help, or how to ask for help. The social piece has been my main focus since I started working with college students in 2010.

2. We know that some students with ASDs struggle in courses that are outside their interest areas. What are some other issues that affect academic performance that don't necessarily reflect the abilities of the student? How can these be addressed?

The college campus needs to be more easily navigated in general. First, professors should clearly outline expectations for their courses. Sure, this is done by way of a syllabus, but a student may not know what "participation" means, for example. Does it mean coming to class? Coming to class on time, every time? Does it mean raising my hand every class? And how often should I raise my hand? And if I raise my hand 10 times every class because I want to be sure that I earn my participation grade, why do I receive strange looks from my classmates and professors? Students on the spectrum are not always able to pick up on the social cues of a classroom. They do not always know when and how to participate.

Also, students may be given accommodations, but they are often not sure how to use them, or they feel that they will be singled out if they do. They may not recognize the value in having extended test time or a note taker or the use of assistive technology, because they have never used either of these supports in the past. Students may not know how to get to the office of support, or who to talk to once they are there, or how to ask for help. It all becomes overwhelming, even for a "neurotypical" student.

I've also seen many students become depressed due to feeling socially isolated. Mental health will certainly affect one's performance, particularly in subjects that require them to work harder.

Finally, I've met many people who have never studied or written a paper before. They are computer programmers or musicians or actors through and through and have somehow gotten through their high school careers without learning the necessary skills to complete a standard English or writing course. Trying to find ways to organize oneself at the age of 18 for the very first time can be a pretty daunting task that will require some support and lots of time and coaching. Visiting a support office once a week may not help a student learn the skills necessary.

One way to address these issues is to begin the self-awareness and self-advocacy climb as early as possible. By age 14, if students are lucky enough to be diagnosed during childhood, individuals with any disability should actively participate in their high school IEP meetings and transition plans. They should learn what accommodations are being made for them, request additional accommodations when needed, and know what makes them different from any other student. Parents should do their best to allow their children to practice independent skills like laundry, cooking, filling prescriptions, etc. so that they can focus on academics and socialization.

Additionally, colleges and universities can begin to address the needs of students by building programs that address the needs of these students. Many are popping up across the nation, but nearly all of them require an additional fee for service due to the time it takes to provide the additional support.

3. In my experience, it is the social setting that poses the greatest challenges, both in school and in the workplace. Do you help students develop skills to navigate those social settings? What are some strategies you might suggest?

You are right that the social piece seems to be the most challenging part of the college experience, whether it be with peers, professors, cafeteria staff, housing, etc. Role play is commonly used, but college-aged individuals don't always feel up to the challenge. I guess they have learned at some point that pretending is "uncool" or childish. However, I sometimes start by showing clips of a TV show. For instance, if someone is interested in learning how to be funny or how to show others that he/she finds something funny, we might watch a comedy series, pausing at specific points to pick out what each character does well, or what would be acceptable in certain social situations. That can be a starting point for video taping our own sessions for future critiques. I try to stress what my clients do well vs. focusing on the negatives and I begin by asking what they think they did well - often a difficult task.

I also suggest that my clients/students try to emulate a socially successful friend or acquaintance. I tell them to try and think what that friend would do and try that when they approach a girl or ask a classmate to share his or her notes.

I try to normalize situations for the adults with whom I work. I have realized (fairly recently) that many adults with ASD think that their thoughts are strange or that they are the only ones who feel uncomfortable in group settings. I've heard many people express feeling plagued with guilt over finding a girl attractive when they know that she should not be pursued because she has a boyfriend, she says she doesn't want to date, or she hasn't shown enough interest yet. (Please excuse my overgeneralization of pronouns.) We all feel this way at some point and it is hard for many of us to know how to talk to someone we find attractive. We have all been embarrassed by a bad grade or a social faux pas. But we find ways to change the impressions we may have made that aren't ideal by trying again and paying attention to what others appear to be thinking.

4. Colleges and universities are cutting supports, such as reducing disability services staffing levels. What role can be filled by private specialists to help students succeed? What can a private specialist not provide, in terms of supports and advocacy?

Private specialists can spend more time with students - which I've found to be very important. Like all of us, students on the spectrum benefit from having a point person or a social translator - someone to call when you are not sure how to approach a person or why someone gave you a funny look. Although I've met incredibly dedicated and skilled college support staff, their caseloads are simply too large to spend the time with these students that is often required. Where do private specialists fall short? Depending on the culture of the school, if can be difficult to get the inside scoop from professors about how a student is performing because they are not a part of that campus community. They may not be able to communicate directly with professors if the student does not sign a release or the college does not allow for the communication. These are often great opportunities for students to take the wheel and drive for themselves, though, after receiving some coaching in advocacy. Private specialists should become very familiar with the campus(es) at which they are supporting students, but I imagine that could also pose some difficulty if a student needs to know how exactly to get to office hours or the writing center.

5. You might work with some clients for months and others throughout several years. How would you explain the different needs to families considering working with a specialist?

It has become cliche, but ASD truly is a spectrum of very different individuals with very different needs and experiences. Some students have never had to study, while others have studied for hours on end and need to learn how to become more efficient. The student's current level of independence in the areas of academics, organization, time management, and socialization will likely determine the length of support required. Some students have continued receiving additional help for all four (or more) years, mostly as a safety net, but many fall somewhere in the 1-3 year range.

6. I've told parents and students there is no "one right" answer to what is the best college setting for any student. Some students with ASDs need a small, personal campus, while others seem to thrive in larger settings that provide anonymity. Do you help students evaluate what might be the best path forward for them individually?

I agree! If students come to me prior to choosing a college, I can absolutely help them find a good fit based on campus culture, e.g., "Can I see myself interacting with the students at this school?" and the level of support that is needed. This is an interesting topic for me...when I think about my college choice - I was purely focused on the social aspect and the "feel" I would have in a city versus a rural setting. The students with ASD that I meet tend to focus on the best school for their interest. I tell students to take both into account with equal weight.

7. What other thoughts would you like to share about autism and higher education?

College is an opportunity for young people to begin to discover their talents and potentials. Across the board, I would like to see college as a more supportive student environment with approachable staff. Providing support is not an option, but a necessity, as there are surely students with ASD on every college campus across the nation. I would like for higher education, as well as the work force, to recognize the rights and needs of people with "hidden disabilities" just as they recognize the needs of those with physical disabilities. To be fair, the autism community presents challenges because the same accommodation cannot be used for every person. For a person in a wheel chair, generally, we know we can build ramps and provide elevators or accessible toilets. For a person with an autism diagnosis, we only know that there will be difficulty with communication, but how that will look for each person is very different. Despite the difficulty in providing accommodations, I would like to see more of a genuine effort to learn more about what autism is and how one can at least begin to provide support to autistic individuals by assessing each person individually.

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* Thank you. I'm sure my readers appreciate your time and the information you've provided. Again, I also encourage them to visit your website, for more information.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Being a Generalist, Feeling Lost

Readers know that my first passion is writing, followed closely by a dozen or more other interests. From computer programming to typography, my interests are broad and lack a "disciplinary home" within most academic models. When I'm not writing, I'm trying to learn more about the dozens of topics that interest me. I am a writer, but I hate to be limited to one label as if that's all I can or should want to be.

Modern universities are discipline-based, with departments and programs hiding behind ivy-covered ramparts. The concept of a computer programmer and Web designer with a passion for creative writing isn't easy for the university model to embrace. You're supposed to have a narrow research specialty and a similar teaching interest. Few professors are fortunate enough to teach across the disciplines, even though many institutions market themselves as "integrated across the disciplines" and open to unusual mixes of talent.

In private industry (or within many non-profits), the more skills you have and can use, the more valuable you are. Certainly, some colleges and universities also value someone with an unusual combinations of skills, but the traditional academic model does not. More importantly, some colleagues don't accept the idea anyone is an expert in more than one field. If you spend 20 or 30 years studying one tiny slice of your greater discipline, you aren't going to consider a generalist to be that valuable or insightful.

Do I want to focus and conduct narrow research to earn tenure? Do I want to be a generalist and work within industry? Can you be a generalist and complete sufficient scholarship in today's world? I believe a generalist can be a scholar, finding unusual connections — but finding collaborators and publishing opportunities can be a challenge. Collaboration helps, too, because then you can have one "expert" to help navigate a specific discipline and its peer-review maze.

The research that would appeal to me might involve testing Web site designs for students with special needs. I might want to test adaptive technologies and language skills. Maybe there are some psychology/neurology questions involving the language of students with cognitive challenges.

I'm not interested in most literature and writing program research I've read. Much of the research is nothing more than a writing instructor crafting a defense for something he or she does in the classroom (or online). Yes, such articles might help other teachers and offer new ideas, but it doesn't seem like "research" to me. I read a lot of material on my way through a doctoral program, and the research on language education was "scholarship" but not what I'd call "research" in the way I envision research.

How do iPads or eye-trackers enable written communication? What are the unusual markers, if any, in writing composed with adaptive technology? Do students using technology produce writing that is identifiable? If so, in what ways is the writing demarcated? Those are some interesting questions.

Over the next nine months or so, I'll be in the position of many entry-level academics. During your first few years at many institutions, contracts are renewed year to year, until tenure or "non-probationary" status is earned. Not only does the university evaluate the professor, but it is an opportunity for the professor to decide if he or she "fits" within the institution and profession.

While I have made some basic decisions, larger questions remain.

Questions such as "If not here, where?" are complicated by the current economic environment; there aren't many "where" opportunities for professors. But, having a doctorate doesn't mean one has to be a full-time professor. Maybe there's a path that includes teaching as a part-time adjunct and working within industry. Maybe there are opportunities to be a consultant and freelancer, while also teaching from time-to-time.

There are many questions I will need to answer in the months ahead. Some are easy to answer, while others will depend on external circumstances.

No matter what path is ahead of me, I'll be writing along the way!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Ask a Question: Teachers and Families

This question was posted to the "Ask a Question" page:
I currently have a bachelor's degree in Special Education. I am working on getting my Master's in Applied Behavior Analysis. I am working on a Family Perspectives Assignment. I would love to get our input on what children and family needs are not met and what I can do as a future teacher. I have read some of your posts and feel that your [insight] would be very valuable. Specifically, I am looking for what teachers and educators can do to help families as a whole.
There is no single answer to this question. Every set of families is different, depending on where you teach, the grade level(s), school district policies, and much more. Helping families in urban Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, or Detroit is not going to be like teaching in a "Super Zip" suburb dotted with McMansions.

I live in a rural area with above-average median incomes and respected school districts. There are two autism specialists nearby and at least two private K-12 schools with autism programs. Parents in this area have different expectations of a classroom teacher than what is needed in the urban or poor rural settings.

The less financially secure families and schools are, the more likely it is teachers will be expected to be everything imaginable for students and their families. In struggling areas, the special ed teachers and classroom aides are educators, physical therapists, behavioral experts, and family counselors. It can be overwhelming when you are "the expert" in the lives of students.

The first thing I would do as a teacher is find out what resources are available so when parents ask (or when you need to mention the services) you have a handy list. Start with the basic services: city and county disability offices, medical specialists, testing centers that can provide evaluations, and so forth. You will compile a small directory of names and numbers. (I did this using the address book on my laptop, which syncs to my phone.)

Next, learn about the families so you can anticipate their needs and expectations. Are you in a well-off suburb or a struggling area? Are the parents likely to be educated professionals, trades people, or something else? And remember — having a degree simply means those parents might be more familiar with and comfortable talking to experts. It does not make people inherently wiser or better. Sadly, I've watched too many teachers and autism experts "talk down" to parents. Never forget that parents are experts when it comes to their own children.

Finally, make sure you have whatever resources you can get at your school site. Principals, nurses, psychologists, and others should know you and be ready to help you with any issues that might occur. The more confidence you have in the people around you, the more you can focus on teaching and helping students.

Sadly, school districts, counties, and states are cutting supports during this economic downturn. As a result, the gaps in services are increasing. The best you can do is know where to locate additional help when you need it.