Update from the 2e Center for Research and Professional Development

2e Center News

By Susan Baum

March, 2018

 

About this Column

The 2e Center is located on the campus of Bridges Academy in Studio City, California. In this column, we share what’s happening at our center and report research findings, teaching ideas, and parenting suggestions we have found to be successful in helping 2e kids thrive.
— SB

The last several months have been busy for us here at the 2e Center as we offer support for professionals and parents. We are excited about the growing awareness of the needs of twice-exceptional students, both here and abroad.

Members of our advisory board have been active in the state of Washington, for example, where there is much interest in and growing advocacy for 2e students. Robin Schader and I presented workshops there to parents and teachers in the Renton public schools, and Robin has been working with a parent group, ParentWiser.org, active in parent education in the Issaquah schools. In addition, Dan Peters and I were speakers at a mini-conference in Spokane sponsored by Whitworth University that focused on the social and emotional needs of gifted and 2e students. Then, at the California Association for the Gifted, Kim Vargas and I spoke about how to understand twice-exceptional students by understanding their “brain wiring” and resulting cognitive differences.

Internationally, Robin and I will be participating in a 2e Conference in Penrith, Australia, organized by Mark Long, Principal of the Penrith Selective High School for gifted students. We will be conducting a training workshop on the suite of tools that we have developed to identify the strengths, talents, and interests of 2e students and their obstacles to learning. The goal of this training is to use the information gained from the tools to create a strength-based, talent-focused program for 2e students. While in Australia, we will also offer workshops for teachers and parents on a variety of other topics related to 2e education.

Finally, we are preparing for our summer training program “Master Classes in 2e Education,” where participants will learn from the masters in our field. Space is quickly filling up. To learn more about this opportunity, contact Kim.vargas@bridges.edu.  

Our column this month is the second of the three-part series, Brains Wired Differently. We will focus our attention on students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

 

Brains Wired Differently: Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Caroline Maxwell and Laura Bahr

“Say I’m old-fashioned: that’s enough,” says the lead character of The Age of Innocence to his son, as he refuses to take the lift up to see a lost love.

At Bridges, Mark is a brilliant student on the autistic spectrum. The irony of his choosing to discuss the themes of the Edith Wharton novel, The Age of Innocence, was not lost on his humanities teachers. He was a student who refused to be in the room when injustice or “man’s brutality to man” was the topic of discussion. Yet, during a study of the Progressive Era, this high school sophomore chose to read this book, one that many students struggled to “get into.” Then, once Mark had read it, he refused to take part in discussing it. When directly prompted in a group setting, he would immediately leave the room. Obviously, this behavior was not conducive to the Socratic-style seminar that was the class mode.

Mark’s Story

Mark is a very gifted mathematical thinker, able to make conceptual connections and do higher-order sequential thinking far beyond common textbook knowledge. He is also a skillful cartoonist who uses art to create and re-create many of the cartoon and video game characters he loves. In addition, Mark is able to understand literature and write in a deep and sophisticated way. However, his challenges can limit his ability to exercise those gifts.

Mark’s ASD manifested in many complicated ways. One of the most consistent issues for him was a high sensitivity to sensory stimuli: noise, light, motion, and touch in particular. This went beyond the obvious difficulty of being in a big classroom full of loud noises. Just carrying on a conversation was difficult for Mark. If a student bumped into him over the course of the conversation, or if the topic of conversation was something challenging to his comfort level, Mark would shut down. At that point, he became completely unable to verbalize his thoughts and feelings. Any attempt to push him further to answer questions or even to explain why he was upset would usually be met with shrieks and panicked breathing. Then he would run out of the room.

A particular aspect of Mark’s personality, beyond his ASD, was that he was extremely uncomfortable with any topic of conversation or class content that could be emotionally stirring or provocative. For most high school students, this is the bread and butter of their humanities curriculum and social lives in general; yet for Mark, it elicited a willful disengagement from the conversation as well as from the larger social setting of the class.

These patterns of behavior made it very difficult for Mark to succeed in school, where many demands are made of students to verbalize their thoughts in both speech and writing; to be socially engaged with their peers; and to handle a good deal of sensory stimulation on a regular basis. Due to his extreme sensitivities, Mark experienced far more discomfort and anxiety than the average student at this neurologically diverse 2e school. Nevertheless, his teachers were able to acknowledge his tremendous intellectual gifts and work to make adjustments. They took the time to recognize Mark’s needs, they harnessed his strengths, and they tried to minimize the factors that caused him stress.

Learning to Avoid Sensory Overload

The level of sensory input we are exposed to in our current world can make it challenging to determine what is important and what is not — what to focus on and what to ignore. Add to that the level of stress and anxiety that permeate our culture, and one can see how monitoring the information we take in and modulating our sensitivity to it can seem like insurmountable tasks.

One of the first steps in helping Mark modulate input was getting him a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. He was also given permission to take breaks or leave the classroom if the stimulation became too much for him to handle. Most importantly, he was given words to use when he needed to express how he was feeling in over-stimulating situations. Mark rehearsed phrases to use with his teachers like “I need to take a break” and “Just give me a minute.” These would buy him valuable time to process a situation, to formulate a response, and to finally contribute something once the stress of the moment was alleviated.

Mark’s teachers learned the value of giving him questions or requests in writing rather than asking him directly. That way, Mark could think and reply in his own time, minus the sensory stressors involved in a verbal conversation. Many people with ASD respond best to clear, concrete information and facts; yet, in the classroom, a lot of discussion can be nuanced and roundabout, ranging from opinions to questions to suggestions and other tangential commentary. If students like Mark can have the essential questions and goals expressed clearly in writing and the time to respond through a means of their own choosing — writing, drawing, or speaking — they can be quite successful in the end.

Using a Reward-based System

Helping Mark to be successful in demonstrating his understanding of the themes of The Age of Innocence took a number of interventions, strategies, and team meetings. Most important was taking the time to establish meaningful connections and communication with Mark in a way that let him know his thoughts and expressions were valued. We did this by adjusting to how Mark could demonstrate his learning and how we could differentiate instruction for him. Through meetings with parents, teachers, and support staff, we devised a reward-based system for him.

The computer was an effective tool for Mark. It helped him to self-soothe, allowing him to enter a world where he felt comfortable. Plus it enabled him to type and submit homework as well as send messages to teachers and parents about what work was due or where he was struggling.

However, the computer also became a crutch. Mark tended to use it to pursue his own interests and entertainment and to avoid engaging in discussion. In particular, Mark was enthralled with an array of children’s video game characters, and he loved exploring details, lists, and statistics involving those characters. This pastime could occupy hours of his time.

We created a contract for Mark with a specific behavioral and academic plan that enabled him to earn the use of his computer. The plan allowed for breaks from class, gave him words to say when he needed more time to respond or process information, and outlined specific strategies for dialogue with teachers and peers. The plan also allowed him to spend time on favorite pastimes, like drawing video game characters or cartoons, when he needed a break from prescribed classroom activities. This contract provision was essential because, for Mark, drawing was a key point of connection and communication with his teachers. He would draw detailed cartoon panels and characters that he would bashfully share with them. When a teacher “got” his comics, his delight and sense of trust grew. Sometimes Mark’s cartoons and characters would even be directly related to — and cleverly commenting on — the topic of class study, revealing that Mark had been aware of and actually quite engaged with what was going on in class. He just needed a different way to express his thoughts.

Overall, it was important that Mark’s contract was structured as a system of earning rewards rather than as something punitive. Mark needed to have a clear understanding of what was expected of him. Furthermore, this system appealed to his love of games by working through achievement-based goals and positive expectations.

Back to The Age of Innocence

In Mark’s humanities class, he was given a clear plan for how he would participate in a book-club-type setting. He worked with his teachers to select a small peer group with whom he would discuss the novel’s themes and meanings. His role, he understood, would be to shape the dialogue and guide the discussion.

Mark was able to draw on his strengths not only to engage in the discussion, but to successfully lead it. Using his conceptual/sequential-order thinking, Mark was able to outline topics he wished to address and demonstrate how they could lead to a strong thesis. Employing his cartooning skills, he created illustrated panels of the characters that sparked a dialogue demonstrating important themes of the book and highlighting salient quotes. Mark amazed his lab facilitators with the depth of his understanding of the themes, his perception of subtle characterizations, and his ability to make sophisticated connections between the relationships of the characters and the larger themes of the humanities course.

Conclusion

In working with students with an ASD diagnosis, it can seem on the surface that they are unable to communicate or understand on the same level as a typical student. In reality, they are often capable of incredible levels of comprehension — sometimes far deeper than what we might expect — and their potential to make new connections, and to translate ideas between different modalities like drawing, music, and writing, can be downright innovative. As teachers, the most valuable things we can offer these students are the time, patience, and creativity to build these connections.

Challenges and Strengths of Students with ASD

Challenges of Individuals with ASD  

Strengths of Individuals with ASD

Difficulty with open-ended projects

Strong with sequential information

May find verbal communication challenging, especially if it demands immediate responses

  • Good with rules, steps, clear guidelines
  • Benefit from concrete goals and positive rewards

Can become anxious in social situations, especially if the student had not been able to rehearse them ahead of time and the situations are unexpected

Will be honest and truthful about their feelings and behaviors when given a way to express themselves

Nuanced or interpretable information can be confusing and can cause anxiety

Prefer dealing with factual information

Content outside their sphere of interest can cause difficulty in getting students engaged in learning.

Delve deeply into details and love logical systems of information: comprehensive lists, charts, codifications, and classifications

Often highly sensitive to physical stimuli: sound, light, touch, taste, etc.

Are often very passionate about very specific topics

Can struggle to see the big picture beyond specific details

  • Can provide very different points of view
  • Often notice details and make connections that are not obvious to others

 

Strategies Teachers can Use to Help Students with ASD

Here are some strategies teachers can use to help students with ASD brain wiring to be successful in school.

Strategy

How it Applied to Mark

Present clear expectations about what is expected including timelines.

He had a contract that spelled out expectations in detail. 

Provide thinking time for student to prepare verbal responses.

Mark was told what would be discussed ahead of time so that he could prepare his ideas.

Provide a means for these students to use their linear-sequential thinking in producing work.

Teachers encouraged Mark to use outlining as a means to generate and organize ideas .

Integrate interests and talents as a means to engage these students in the topic at hand.

Mark was encouraged to use his sense of humor and cartoons to communicate ideas and promote positive relationships with his teacher.

Create a physical environment responsive to sensory issues.

Wearing noise-cancelling headphones was a way to block out auditory stimulation.

Provide space for centering, or regrouping, that aligns with the student’s natural “go to” strategies.

Mark was allowed to take breaks when necessary and to use the computer to help calm and soothe himself.

 

Caroline Maxwell teaches studio art, photography, and art history to middle school, high school, and college students.  A practicing artist who has exhibited her work internationally, she spends her days at Bridges Academy, evenings at Rio Hondo College, and weekends on a soccer field.

 

 

Laura Bahr has been a teacher at Bridges Academy since 2007, teaching everything from mathematics to performing arts. A published author, film producer, and actor, she loves literature, film, theater, music, and is a full-time student of life.

 

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