As a stay-at home Mom, I’ve recently been thinking on the best ways to support my youngest son’s cognitive and social development at home, particularly because of his recent diagnosis of Autism. With the help of a recent mentor, I am shaping a framework to use in support of his development that draws from a socio-cognitive framework for learning and apprenticeship model.
For the past few months, I had lunch dates with Jackie,* a former special education teacher who now works as a caregiver for a profoundly autistic young man as well with groups of young children. I expressed my frustration in finding support for my son’s development outside of school. I started researching long-standing therapeutic approaches such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and a contemporary socially-based therapeutic method such as FLOORTIME. But I don’t have a background in behavioral sciences, and consequently I’ve often felt overwhelmed and under-skilled. Talking with Jackie has helped me consider bridges between learning how to support my son’s learning while feeling validated in my ability to integrate within working with him my own background in literacy and socio-cognitive development.
While sharing my concerns and frustrations, Jackie suggested employing Vygotsky’s construct of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZOPED). Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, proposed that learning occurs through social interaction. Regarding ZOPED, it is the “space” between a child’s current capability and what they can do with scaffolding, meaning the help, guidance and support of an adult essential to reaching that level. Jackie helped me to reach an epiphany. Namely, to examine my son’s current capabilities and the “next level” he could achieve with assistance. Then, create the situations and scaffolds that would help him practice his capabilities at that next level and eventually achieve autonomy. One skill I have identified is learning sequence (First, Then).
First, I began drawing data from mine and my husband’s recent meeting with our son’s child development team. The speech therapist shared that our son knows his colors and can easily identify them. Then, I created a “baseline” for myself. I wanted to learn and understand what he knew pertaining to colors. Given his favorite music group is The Wiggles, I borrowed books from the library that contained The Wiggles characters. Given their trademark colors, I asked my son to identify each Wiggle. I asked such questions as “Which one is the yellow Wiggle?” and gave commands such as “Point to the Purple Wiggle.” He successfully identified the characters and their corresponding colors. For another group of activities centered around color identification, I got the iconic Simon electronic game. As each color lit up, I prompted him, saying “Touch the green button,” “Touch the red button.” He was successful in identifying and touching the correct colors.
Next came the challenge. My son’s speech pathologist (outside his school) has recently introduced the teaching of sequence (first and then) through having my son interact with least and most preferred toys. Noting her work in teaching sequence, I combined the concept of teaching sequence (first, then) with his familiarity with colors, using the Simon toy for situational practice. The underlying premise is fostering my son’s understanding of sequence through his familiarity with colors, doing so using an unfamiliar toy that requires knowledge and application of both color familiarity and sequence. Noting my son’s love of sound, I thought the use of the Simon toy would be a great vehicle to bring his interest, the practice of pre-existing knowledge and skills together in learning the concept of sequence.
To this end, whenever playing with Simon, I prompt my son to push the button that lights up. This has been challenging, as at times he waits for a given color to light up and when it does then takes the toy and runs away. However, for the times he stays, I will guide his hand, saying “First, touch the ____ button.” When he remains, he successfully completes the task. Next, when the toy increases the demands of task by adding another color, I prompt my son saying “First, touch the ____ button, then touch the ____ button.” What has emerged is his receptivity to observe the sequence of colors lighting up, staying still long enough to watch them, then follow my verbal prompts and the toy’s visual cues to execute the sequence. He’s worked up to touching two colors one after the other successfully.
What’s also begun to emerge behaviorally is his seeking assistance from other adults to help him complete an unfamiliar task. At a recent Thanksgiving dinner, he brought his toy over to two older cousins (one in her late teens and another in her mid-twenties) to assist him with playing with it. His bringing his toy over to his two cousins whom he rarely sees is an incredible step in his evolving comfort with people, particularly interacting with people outside his immediate family. I observed his actions. After bringing his toy to one of them, he would wait for the color to light. Each would prompt him to push the button quickly, but he would quickly grab the toy and run away. However, as the evening transpired, he stayed around them longer. Later, I came over to them and briefly explained what we were doing at home, and suggested trying the first/then protocol I was using with him at home. As he came to each of them with the Simon toy, they used the first/then protocol with him. With their verbal prompting, physical guidance of his hand, and positive reinforcement through praise, he was successful in completing touching the colors when they flashed in succession (up to two times).
I am also supporting his understanding of matching colors (in a sequence) through an online game, “Inside Out/Thought Bubbles.” The game, kind of like a pinball game meets Connect Four, requires taking colored balls from a stand and hurling them into clusters of balls of like colors, knocking them down and out into collection chambers below. I have begun with first guiding my son’s hand from the stand, propelling them into a cluster of matching colors, and us watching them fall. I give him verbal prompts while guiding his hand (for example, “First launch the yellow ball, then the red ball”). Periodically I give him only a verbal prompt to see if he can identify the color and launch it on its own.
The conversation with Jackie about Zone of Proximal Development inspired me. Rather than be weighed down by what all I don’t know, I sought out how to support where my son is and what I do know about where he could go with scaffolds and supports. Specifically, that conversation spawned in me new ways of figuring out how to help my son build conceptual knowledge of sequence based on what he already knows and interests him (colors, The Wiggles) with stretching his application of them into initially unfamiliar ways through different activities (Simon toy, “Inside Out” online game). The games serve as practice of his understanding of colors across different contexts and new practice of his emerging concept of sequence.
Recently, my husband heard someone say, “When you meet one child with Autism, you meet one child with Autism.” Autism is unique in how it manifests child to child. What are strategies you are using to help your child learn new things? Please share your suggestions and experiences in the comments section below.
*Jackie is a Pseudonym.