Friday, July 11, 2008

In autism, as elsewhere: it's all about education

When we speak of fixing our schools, we too easily point to everything but education itself.  We tinker with school size, architecture, scheduling, community involvement, and technology.  Too few of us pay any attention what's actually being taught.

The same goes for autism.  We obsess with diet, sensory regimens, and therapeutic philosophies (that eternal debate: child centered vs. adult led).  As for the details of an educational curriculum?  We can't be bothered.

But education, research suggests, is key.  Today the AP reports on a Harvard genetics study that suggests that autism results "in a brain that cannot properly form connections:"

The findings also may help explain why intense education programs do help some autistic children — because certain genes that respond to experience weren't missing, they were just stuck in the "off" position.

"The circuits are there but you have to give it an extra push," said Dr. Gary Goldstein of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, which wasn't involved in the gene hunt but is well-known for its autism behavioral therapy.

The genetics suggest that "what we're doing makes sense when we work with these little kids — and work and work and work — and suddenly get through," he said.

And exactly what we do in the way of work is key. Education. Social Stories. Social skills. Comprehensive language instruction. Facial expression reading exercises. Systematic rules about knowledge flow and belief formation (Theory of Mind).

Key as well:  teaching not just to weaknesses, but also to strengths. Math (not Reform Math); science (not Reform Science); computer programming (not "technology"); analytical essays (not journals and open-ended projects).

School teachers and education experts:  please take note.

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