After I wrote yesterday about my frustration with Janey's learning, I thought very hard about how she does learn. It struck me that two major things make her learning different that typical kids. One is motivation. She has to be internally motivated. She is not motivated in any way by pleasing others, or just be the thrill of accomplishment. She is motivated by actually getting to do or see or hear things she enjoys. She also does not have a drive to move on, to find the next big thing, to seek novelty. She would never enjoy a role-playing game, as I do on occasion, where the big fun is getting to the next level and seeing what is there. She lives in the moment when it comes to learning.
The right motivation can drive Janey to do very complicated things, things we'd never guess she'd be able to do. For example, she loves to pick videos on Netflix. She isn't quite able yet to get to the Netflix program on her own, but to be fair that's tricky for all of us---it involves changing a setting on the remote, pushing the right button on a row of buttons and making sure the Wii is on, and going to the right place on the Wii with a different remote...it's a wonder it ever gets done. But once you get her to Netflix, she can do it all. She finds the right list of videos (Recently watched or favorites) by scrolling up or down, then when she gets to the right list, she scrolls right or left to find the picture of the video she wants. She clicks on it, then finds where it says "Play from Beginning" and clicks that. If she gets tired of a video (as she often does), she can exit out and switch to another one. This is all from a girl who sometimes acts like she barely knows her own name.
However, without motivation, she will not do the most basic things. She can put on her socks and shoes and coat when she wants to go someplace, but when she doesn't, she'll look at us helplessly like she has absolutely no clue what we could be expecting. You can't convince or prod or force her to put them on. She simply sees no reason to do so. Our disapproval is not a reason.
The other big factor in her learning is the lack of desire to move on. I realized that when watching her this morning playing with the First in Math program on the computer. She was very eager to play with it. She woke up and asked for it very first thing. We went to the shapes matching game, where you pick shapes from a cloud of floating around shapes to make three in a row that are the same. She can easily get the right shapes when she feels like it, but I realized she really doesn't care about that. She likes the floating shapes, the music, the whole bit. She puts shapes in the wrong place and then just watches the program float around. I would be driven to see what happens if I get enough right in a row---I'd want to see what came next, what kind of reward there was, how the next level got challenging. I was so driven I almost jumped in and just played the darn game myself. But Janey was happy with it the way it was. It wasn't that she might not have liked the next level too---but that just didn't motivate her. I don't usually get into the whole "We can learn a lot from our children with autism" bit. I feel like autism is a disability, not just a difference. But in this particular case, I might make an exception. When I let myself relax and just look at the shapes floating around, I could also see her point. It was relaxing. It was something in itself to do, not just a step to the next part.
However, kids with autism do need to learn. I think the key is designing learning programs that understand them. They have to be highly, highly motivating. Getting something right has to result in a big reward, like a song the child loves or a video clip or so on. But the actual tasks, in contrast, might have be kind of boring. If Janey is happy just watching shapes float, the task might need to be taken down in interest a notch. She needs to do the task to get to the reward, and therefore actually have some motivation to get the answer right. Even writing this, I'm fighting that way of thinking. It goes against my grain. Learning should be natural, should be enjoyable! Kids learn best when they are having fun! All those phrases are hitting me. But autism changes the rules, for a lot of things. Learning might be one of them.