Sunday, November 6, 2011

Language barrier & school struggles

We had teacher conferences last month. All in all, it went well, especially for Cuddlebug and Bearhug. They are working really hard and doing great - all A's and B's (mostly A's!) :) and they are thriving in their accelerated classes.

Bitty is also working really hard but he is struggling more with school this year than he has in the past. I'm grateful that his teachers "get" autism and understand the source of his difficulty is language related and not cognitive or attention related.

His teacher shared her concern that he is really struggling with anything that requires verbal explanations or verbal interaction. It's something we've been aware of for long time (obviously), but in 1st grade there is more of a need for language skills to be able to keep up with the class. His teachers have all noted that he is very bright and catches on quickly with anything that is not language-intensive.

The best analogy I can think of is someone who is going to school in a foreign country, and they aren't exactly fluent in the native language... they have the added challenge of trying to keep up with conversations and translate instructions so they can understand what is expected.

That's pretty much where Bitty is at. The good news is, he is not being disruptive or having behavior issues when he runs into difficulty following what the class is doing. The not-so-good news is, he is basically zoning out when that happens. They're working with him to raise his hand and ask questions when he doesn't understand something, but often he just tunes out and ends up either not responding, repeating back the question, or saying "I don't know" when asked a question (the "I don't know is fairly new, he's been working on that as a more appropriate response than repeating back the question since last year).

He comes home with a daily communication sheet with the day broken out into the various activities and subjects that they work on every day and feedback on how he did during each. There's a 4-point scale, with 1 meaning he was able to work independently or with minimal reminders and 4 meaning he need LOTS of reminders to follow instructions and stay on task. He started out getting mostly 1's and 2's but as the school year progressed we started to see more and more 3's, and then 4's.

His teachers often write in the comments that his behavior is fine, it's just a matter of not seeming to understand what is expected or not being able to appropriately respond to questions (eg. answer questions about a book they read during reading time). He tends to do better earlier in the day (but not always) so I think to some extent it just takes a lot of effort and his capacity to put forth that level of effort starts to wear thin as the day goes on. But beyond that I have come to believe that there are situations where he truly does not understand what is being taught due to the language barrier.

He has started asking us on a regular basis what words mean. It's great that he can do that now but I am sometimes surprised by the words he asks about, having assumed he already knew them. And I find it difficult sometimes to explain what one word means without having to define it with another word he doesn't understand. When you think about it, in order to understand the dictionary you have to be starting from a basic understanding of the language.

Anyway, so dh and I discussed and decided that since we know that both his regular ed and resource teacher are well aware of the issue and are working with him on it, we'd see how he did over the next few weeks and if things didn't improve we'd approach them to see if we may need to consider adjusting his level of support.

Well, we didn't end up needing to suggest that, his resource teacher called me last week to say that she and his speech teacher wanted to schedule an IEP review to consider increasing his services at school to better meet his needs.

This is why I love our school - we've been fortunate that most of the teachers we've worked with over the years so far understand autism and they are proactive about meeting students' needs. (it's also a big part of why I'm nervous about the transition to middle school next year - a whole new environment, but keeping our fingers crossed).

We're scheduled to meet next Monday, I'll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, we're working with him at home also and trying to use visuals and hands-on learning as much as possible. That's nothing new as all of our kids learn better that way, but we're kind of in new territory with Bitty as his delays are more pronounced. Suggestions welcome.

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I'm a mom of three boys on the autism spectrum, 11-yr-old identical twins and a 7-yr-old. My husband is a SAHD.


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