Thursday, January 19, 2006

Islets of Ability

Yesterday M brought home some reading homework that required her to figure out when a compound subject such as "Tim and Jane" is converted into a first-person plural indirect object pronoun.

Confused? Well, I was too.

It went something like this:
Tim and Jane asked Mary and Joe to come with them. "Come with us," Tim said.
Circle the names that can be substituted for "us."
a. Tim and Jane    
b. Mary and Joe
c. Tim
M found it difficult, and we worked on the idea of "us" for quite some time. By the last question on the worksheet, she seemed to understand it. Sort of.

It reminded me of our earliest ventures in personal pronouns, and what I learned then about how professionals in the autism and special education world may understand us and our children.

As you probably know, one of the language "defects" observed in children in the spectrum is difficulty understanding personal pronouns. This difficulty is attributed by autism experts such as Simon Baron-Cohen to the autistic individual's supposed defects in theory of mind, or their "mindblindness."

And, when you think about it, personal pronouns are fairly complex.

Let's say that I say: "It's a picture of me." If you respond by saying "It's a picture of me," you'd be wrong, unless of course you and I were both in the picture. Getting your child to learn that "you" and "I" and "me" are relative words is one of the early speech-language challenges.

One day, not long after M was first evaluated for her speech and language deficits, I brought home a package of snapshots. M was about three years old at the time and she was thrilled by snapshots. Still is, though we're mostly digital in our photos these days. Anyway, as we were going through them, I was talking to her about each of them. We came to a snapshot of me, sitting at my desk in my office.

I said, "Look M., it's me at my office."

"Me at office," she said.

"No honey, it's me—Mama—at the office," I said, pointing at myself.

"No no," she said, "Me at office."

"Honey, look, it's Mama, me, at office," I tried to persuade her.

"Me-me at office!" she said.

I was about to give up and move onto the next picture, when she took the picture from me, and pointed to a tiny, tiny image inside the image. On the shelf in my office there was a framed snapshot of her. "Me in office," she said. She had zoomed in on the photo of herself on the shelf in my office.

I was amazed. That's some visual acuity that she's got there . . . to pick out an image of herself that was no more than 1 or 2 millimeters wide, inside a 4x6 snapshot.

When M was evaluated by the in-network speech language pathologists, they generated a report that labeled her play "perseverative" and her speech "echolalic," and that commented on her inability to use personal pronouns accurately.

At that time I was still in the autism mom stage that I call "refusal." Some people call it "denial"—suggesting that one just can't wrap one's brain around the truth about your child . . . that one is just incapable of grasping the horrible reality. But I call it refusal, because I think it has more to do with refusing to accept professional authority and pronouncements.

Anyway, I was on the phone with the SLP who had written the report, and I told her about M's amazing recognition of herself in this photograph . . . About how I had at first thought that M was having a problem with pronoun confusion, but that actually I just wasn't seeing what she was seeing, and therefore wasn't understanding that she was right, that she was in the picture. I was very excited and effusive telling the SLP about my discovery.

"Yes," she said, her voice flat and deflating, "M. has splinter skills."

"Splinter skills?"

"Yes, splinter skills. She has some specific strengths. That's typical of kids like M."

Apparently, autistic kids have a remarkable capacity to see the parts of an image, even in the absence of the whole, making them particularly skillful at putting together jigsaw puzzles. A splinter skill.

O-kaaaaay, I thought. So now I'm starting to understand this:

Autism Axiom #1: What's good about my kid is bad, and what's bad about my kid is also bad.

Most people get to understand that their personal characteristics may be viewed as assets or liabilities, depending on the context. The ability to focus and persevere is tenacity in one setting, obsessiveness or perseveration in another.

But in the land of developmental diagnostics—at least among the clinicians we first encountered—there were only liabilities. Everything was to be converted into evidence of the four D's: damaged, defective, diseased, disabled.

This approach might work for a professional building a case for the child's pathology, but it sure wasn't working for me.

Writing in 1943, psychiatrist Leo Kanner called the skills of autistic kids "islets of ability." I'm not sure who came up with the even more dismissive term "splinter skills." Sounds as though we ought to be looking for a pair of tweezers to yank those skills right out of them.

The earliest example of this language of "splinter skills" that I've come across is in a 1971 article by DeMyer, et al, in the first issue of the Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia. But that was the first issue of this publication, so who knows—clinicians might have been using the splinter skill language for much longer. I'll have to look into that.

Personally, I prefer islets of ability. Sounds rather nice . . . though I can't figure out if I should be imagining small, lush, tropical islands of skill in a great sea of plentitude, or great craggy stones jutting up from an ocean of ineptitude.

Whichever it is, I'm quite certain that the best course of action is to remember that even when I can't quite see it, that Sweet M is in the picture.



kristina said...

When I teach pronouns and grammatical concepts like "indirect object" to my students, I like to use a bit of math. As in I + I + I = we. He + she = they. You + you + you + you = you plural = y'all.

"What's good about my kid is bad, and what's bad about my kid is also bad" is one of those bittersweet--sweetbitter things about autism. But the images you're drawing on here, of islets and splinters, make me think of how mosaics and stained-glass windows are assembled from such shards and fragments, and how we have to stand back to see the whole, as when we view a pointilliste painting. Perhaps that is yet one more way to describe our work as autism parents: Connectors of dots.

Mary said...

Great post! And after considering Kristina's reference to shards and fragments, I think I prefer to think of those "splinter skills" as "coral reefs of remarkability."

Alana said...

This is a great post! I think one of new my goals for 2006 will be to get more professionals to read these blogs in order to better understand not only the children we work with, but how unenlightened some of the "professional terms" really are.

Mom to Mr. Handsome said...

What an awesome post! Great information and gorgeous pictures. I must say, I am sometimes envious of my son Gabe, because some of the so called "splinter skills" he has I value as being intelligent in their accuracy and very insightful. He has strengths in some areas that I have always struggled in.


Anonymous said...

just beautiful! thanks for that wonderful post! i love that M saw herself in that picture and i love your last line here. i prefer islets of ability too; it focuses on these areas of strength and we all know that bridges and causeways can be built, that the earth is dynamic, in constant motion, shifting and rearranging.

MothersVox said...

Thanks everyone! I've been thinking about the language of "splinter skills" ever since I first heard it . . .

I love your conversions and extensions of the metaphors . . . pieces of stained glass and causeways and bridges out to the islets.

And yesterday I actually came across the photograph that M was looking at . . . Maybe I'll scan it and post it sometime.

hollywoodjaded said...

I very much like this term and much prefer it to spliter skills, which I never say: But I shall be more than glad to use the term "islets of ability" and use it often. Thank-you!

MothersVox said...

Hello hollywoodjaded! I think islets of ability is sort of the lesser of two evils in terms of metaphors . . . given the choice between the image of splinters and image of isles, we prefer the islets.

But the real problem is that we don't want our children's power and potential to be described as symptoms of a pathology. We prefer they be thought of as persons rather than pathologies.

Maybe it's possible to talk about our kids' potentials as potentials, no?

hollywoodjaded said...

OK then - maybe "islets of genius" or "genius spectrum ability" ....

MothersVox said...

While our kids, and all kids, have strengths, gifts, abilities, calling our kids' strengths "genius" overstates the case for most. Most are not so-called "savants." They aren't geniuses and they aren't "mental defectives," to use the language of the early 20th century. What is disturbing is having one's child's aptitudes used as markers of pathology.

hollywoodjaded said...

Um, my comment was tongue-in-cheek.


MothersVox said...

Oh, sorry. :)

Not knowing you well, it's hard to read your affect . . .

Amanda Chu said...

What a touching description...thanks for ur sharing!