Saturday, April 07, 2007

Immigration, Theory and Practice

Even before I wrote about autism migrations last week, I had been thinking about immigration. Not in practice, as some of you are doing — thinking about crossing oceans in search of more supportive settings for your families* — but in theory. Specifically I had been thinking about how to help Sweet M understand the concept of immigration.

Just before spring break, I spoke with Sweet M's teacher. Her class had been doing a social studies unit on immigration, and apparently Sweet M just hasn't been getting it. When they're doing social studies it's all based on verbal information — on class discussions — and it seems to be the proverbial case of in one ear and out the other, or just plain over her head. So I said that over the break I'd do some work with her on immigration, using pictures and movies.

We started out making this timeline of our family. Since Fathersvox is an immigrant to the U.S. and I've lived abroad, we had two local, concrete examples of what is and isn't immigration. We started with the present, 2007, and went backward to when Sweet M was born, and then to when Fathersvox and I met and married, and then to when he moved to New York from Canada, and then to when his family moved from France to Canada.

Then we started to do my story — how I moved from California to Japan and then to New York, and how that is not immigration, it's just called living abroad.

Sweet M was so completely bored. It was excruciating. She hated doing this. And I don't think she understood anything we talked about, even with all the pictures and drawings. I realized that it's going to be nearly impossible for her to do a subject like this until she has a better sense of temporality and categories. Once you start to think about it, immigration is incredibly complicated. First, there are so many categories that you need to understand:
• continents
• countries
• states (and for Canada provinces, but we left that out)
• cities
• neighborhoods
And then there are the particular names of the particular continents, countries, and states. How do you remember which is a country and which is a state? And what do you do with something like "New York" that's both a state and a city?

And then, there is the matter of temporality. Since Sweet M's sense of time — of past, present and future — has just been emerging in a solid way, it's pretty hard to get her to think of "10 years ago" or "20 years ago." Then there is the baffling idea that time existed before you did. And harder still is the idea of temporary states of being ("living abroad" or "traveling") versus more permanent (or intended-to-be-permanent) states that would be examples of immigration.

It's really hard! So very hard. Much too hard. Even doing everything with visuals, it was impossible.

I was back to thinking about that idea of a zone of proximal development . . . when something you're doing is close enough to what you already know, but just a little more challenging, it's really fun. Then you're in what the happiness psychologists call "flow." But when it's even one step beyond that, it's frustrating, even torturous.

Sweet M doesn't have the basic structures to take-in this social studies immigration information yet, so it's completely useless. And so exceedingly not fun.

Sweet M was not having fun. I was not having fun.

We were talking about Japan, and I was trying to get her interested, so I said, "You know, Pokemon comes from Japan."

"Wow, really, Pokemon comes from Japan?"

This was the very first glimmer of interest she'd displayed in the four 30 minute sessions we spent working on this.

"Yes, really, Pokemon comes from Japan . . . The guy who made-up Pokemon is Japanese."

"Wow, cool! Let me write THAT down," she said.

You'll see it right smack dab in the middle of the time line, the central information: "Pokemon come from Japan."

Now we just have to figure out what that means. When Pokemon comes from Japan is that living abroad, immigration, or Pokemon invasion?

*Thank you all who have written about autism migrations you've made or are planning. It was immensely moving to read about the journeys you've taken or are making to find what your families need. I am interested because I am thinking of moving, but can't imagine what might be better. We don't want to go from frying pan to, well, you know . . .


Feisty One said...

I never heard back from Kristina about the reading. Should we ask someone else? Remember to spread the word about your reading.

Louise (

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about your recent posts about Sweet M's sense of time when I picked up my son G today, his first day back in school after vacation. His special ed teacher had written in his notebook that, unlike all the other preschoolers, he wouldn't discuss what he did on vacation and would only talk about what he did today--played with playdoh, etc. Then, apparently, she had to keep peppering him with questions to get him to come up with something about vacation to draw about, and eventually he drew a picture of us at a park with a turtle play structure (incidentally, we did not visit that park during the break). This description was followed by an admonishment that he needs to learn to pay attention and that they would be working on it.

Now, first of all, I'm pretty sure G doesn't know what "vacation" means, and he definitely doesn't know we were "on vacation." We've found through trial and error that transitions are most successful when we are very low-key about them, so it's not something we talked about. I'm certain he didn't know what everyone was talking about.

I've also been thinking that I'm not sure his sense of time works in the way it does for most of the kids in his class. I asked him if he remembered going to his grandma's house a week ago, and he didn't seem to recall it. I have no idea what is developmentally appropriate, what he is supposed to know, but I'm not sure he would be able to give a coherent answer to "what did you do on vacation" in a way that indicated he understood that period of time as being discrete and special, unless we coached him beforehand. Which, whatever, we can do that if it's important, and I'm sure that would make his attention seem improved.

By the way, National Geographic makes a really nice kid's atlas with pretty, brightly colored maps.

Anonymous said...

On time, I find that mine want time divided into chunks that they understand. Saturday is "Mommy day." That means that two weeks is "two mommy days away." The time it used to take to get from home to granny's house was four Shrek movies. An hour is three episodes of scooby doo. And so on. Not sure how that would work with years, exactly. But what DID help is a long string of interlocking school photos of me throughout school that my mom sent. They understand about school pictures, so they understand that this is a long time if there are 12 school pictures. I think that was how they finally understood how old I am! I have also had some success with pictures of their birthdays lined up: the time between the birthdays is a year.

Distance I have a harder time with. Much less differences in government or culture! Mine understand language differences very well, but have a harder time with other cultural things and how far away some places are. Good luck with this! I think that the whole concept is very difficult to grasp.

KathyIggy said...

yjqxbSocial studies is hard! Meg loves to memorize lists of presidents, countries/capitals, etc. But the whole time thing throws her too. And explaining slavery and the civil rights movement is a challenge. I finally made a timeline with historical events and included family events and other events of interest (when certain Disney movies were released for example). But understanding others' actions which are not happening in the present and inferring the reasons for those actions is very difficult. Now, if only a social studies test asked the birth and death dates of historical figures, we'd do fine!

MothersVox said...

Louise, I just sent you an email -- I think Kristina is onboard for reading -- she posted about the reading on Autism Vox . . .

Laura, That is so interesting about G. I have a similar story . . . after the Christmas vacation, M's school-home chatbook came home with a note that said "So glad to hear you had a good time at the beach on the break." I was totally baffled. We didn't have mid-winter Caribbean vacation -- in fact, we hadn't gone anywhere -- so what was going on?

I called the teacher to ask. When asked where she went on vacation, Sweet M talked about the last real vacation she'd been on -- when we went to the beach in the summer. Since we hadn't gone anywhere on the Christmas holiday break, she didn't think of it as a vacation at all. Vacations are when you go away somewhere, not just when you stay home from school. Or at least that is what I'm thinking M thinks.

As you point out, it's really hard because the generalization of a word to multiple meanings is so difficult . . . .

Vacation means --

* break from school?
* trip somewhere?
* visit to Grandma's?

So it's not just the temporality piece, but also fact that the word means a time period (school break) or an event (a trip). Too hard.

For a long time, M just talked about the future as "tomorrow." But now she asks "how many days of no school?" during the breaks and weekends. So time is getting more structured internally.

And about "needing to learn to pay attention": I'm sorry, but sometimes I just wonder about the folks teaching our kids. Needs to learn to pay attention? Do they have any idea what it means to have a different kind of mind? The idea that it's all so volitional -- that if they only tried harder or worked harder -- well, if you were here right now you'd see steam coming outta my ears.

A Mommy, I love that idea of using birthday pictures to distinguish years! Excellent tip! Thanks so much!

And KathyIggy, Meg sounds amazing. In the old days -- when I was in school -- she would have done swimmingly on social studies because we had to memorize all that info! Now that way of learning is out of style. Maybe one reason our kids have a harder time at school now is because memorization is so out of fashion now.

Anonymous said...

Sweet M has the right idea--hanging out at home all week 'cause it was too cold for the park definitely didn't feel like a vacation to me!

It is maddening, isn't it, the assumptions some teachers make about motivation, jumping to the worst conclusion without ruling out any other possibility. That's encouraging, though, to hear that Sweet M is getting a better foothold on concrete measurements of time (for G, the abstract idea that people get older over time make sense, and calendars are endlessly fascinating, but it's sort of hard for him to make sense of the time we experience on a day to day basis in an organized way).

Anonymous said...

i think i'm commenting on the wrong post--but DARN IT! i won't be able to come see you and kristina. i wish i could!!!!! i'll be sending my best thoughts for a rousing and successful and wonderfully moving event, as i know it will be.

as to migrations, we are embarking on one come the fall. moving to northampton, MA. hope that will end up being a place of bounty and support and community and progressive educational opportunities for my guy. we'll see...

VAB said...

If you do move, do an awful lot of checking things out in advance. Ideas like acceptance and support have different meanings in different cultures. Don't make assumptions. We assumed, for instance, that since Vancouver funded autism better than New York did and the official policies are very inclusive, that it would BR more inclusive. We were wrong because we forgot about the high premium that Canadians put on conformity as compared to individualistic New Yorkers. That's just an example of the sort of assumptions that can trip you up when moving with a child on the spectrum.