learning how we learn

When educating a child with autism or special needs it’s important to take a look at how we learn. But wait a minute, if this works, won’t it work for me too? Of course it will! Let’s take a look at the science behind how we learn new skills. Every time we learn a new skill the brain forms new connections.


enjoying a teething biscuit

One of the things I found particularly interesting is that children learn to crawl before they learn to chew and swallow. Who would think crawling has anything to do with chewing? Is it something like the saying “He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time”? There may actually be something to that. There is a connection between the coordination used different tasks. For example crawling involves a coordinated repetitive movement and chewing and swallowing also involves a coordinated repetitive movement. And I thought those skills listed on the side of the baby food containers were just suggestions to know when your child is ready to chew. Silly me.

Another thing I find interesting is the shift in historical perspective of disabilities. Most of us have heard the phrase “deaf, dumb, and blind” (typically referring to congenital deafness.) Although we consider it offensive these days, the origin of the word dumb actually refers to the inability to speak. The words ‘deaf’ ‘dumb’ and ‘blind’ are used together in the Bible (Exodus 4:11) the Torah (which also includes the book of Exodus) and the Quran (2:18). The context reveals that the word ‘dumb’ was used to describe the inability to communicate.

It seems the connection between vision, hearing and the ability to communicate was known – at least on some level – for thousands of years. The first deaf-blind person to learn a language was Laura Bridgman in 1837. Laura studied at the New England Asylum for the Blind, now known as Perkins School for the Blind.

These days the word ‘dumb’ typically means stupid (as in a stupid question.) My mother always said, “The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.” I agree! A question is never stupid – not asking a question you do not know the answer to is stupid.

When my son was a toddler, it seemed like I got more advice and suggestions than I had time for. My birth-to-three coordinator stressed focusing on an approach that would work best for Stephen. Smart woman! She realized that every single specialist and every single provider had their own list of suggestions – all valid – but the question remained – where to start? We couldn’t possibly use or have time for all the intervention options.

For Stephen, the best advice came from the National Center on Deaf-Blindness (DB-Link.) The reason? The focus was on communication and how to interact with a non-verbal child.

The NEC (New England Consortium of Deaf-blind projects) mailed me a large manila envelope when my son was identified as deaf-blind. The packet was a simplified explanation of where to start. I learned so much about how we, as humans, communicate and learn in just a few pages – ok – more like 15-20 pages – but that’s not too much to start when compared with the countless books on autism, special needs, epilepsy, etc…

books on special needs

Communication is the foundation of literacy, and literacy the foundation of education. Communication is key for children with autism, deaf-blindness, vision impairment, hearing impairment, or multiple disabilities. I think it’s amazing how many of these strategies we can use for children with autism. Parents of children with autism typically have difficulties bonding with their child. The same is true with deaf-blind children. We have to seek out and learn new ways to reach them.

Communication is broken down into two basic categories: expressive and receptive. Behavior (good or bad) is communication! Positive behavioral supports are useful in teaching disabled children (and adults) to communicate more effectively.

I’ve learned so much from my non-verbal autistic, deaf-blind son. A label is just that – a label. The relationships we form with our loved ones teach us the most valuable lessons in life. Learning to communicate with everyone we love is learning how to be truly happy…

Student, Teacher | The Daily Post

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Image Sources:
Learn more – CC BY-ND 3.0
Enjoying a teething biscuit – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
picture is worth a thousand words – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Creative Commons License
Love, Support, Educate, Advocate, Accept… by Liana Seneca is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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