Neurodiversity in the Classroom

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Arboretum – Collingwood, Ontario

Recently I co-presented to a group of teachers to share some of  my experiences with living in the world, being neurologically atypical. I touched on experiences which would relate to classroom experiences for neurologically atypical students. In doing the presentation I was aware of my challenge of fielding questions teachers might have.

It’s beneficial to structure time for questions so the presentation could be more effective. At the same time, my ABI (acquired brain injury) makes thinking on my feet a real challenge. It’s a skill needed to manage and respond during a question and answer block of time.

There was one question to which I gave a very ineffective response. So I will share here a more effective answer. I realize that it is not unusual for a presenter to wish they could go back and rephrase some of their responses. Likely not to the same degree that I feel the need.

Question: When a student is uncooperative how can a teacher determine whether the child is simply coping with their neurodiversity challenge or whether the child is being defiant?

Initial Response: You don’t always know. As a teacher, as you work with a student you will hopefully gradually figure it out. Hopefully you won’t cause any serious misunderstandings with the student and undermine their trust in you.

Thought out Response: The traditional response to a student who is uncooperative is to give some reasonable reminders and then move into more punitive measures to coerce the student to cooperate within the classroom.

My way of addressing student concerns gradually changed. As I developed in the art of teaching I had settled on one simple classroom rule: Do not disrupt the teaching and learning process. What I found to be most effective was to have the student choose the corrective measures when they were ‘disrupting the teaching / learning process’. Initially when I would ask the student what measures would be helpful I would get various boring responses.

  • Make me stay in for the whole recess time
  • Make me write lines 25 or 50 times “I must cooperate in class.”

My response to their suggestions would be, “And how will that help you?” Initially they would not have an answer for me. So I would ask them to suggest something that would be helpful. In the end I would ask if a note on their desk with an appropriate reminder would be helpful. If the student had been interrupting other students the note might be “I must wait my turn to talk”.

Once students became familiar with my approach, they understood that it was their job to come up with workable solutions. At times students became quite creative in their strategies.

When students had to decide their own corrective measures they would own it. They were holding themselves accountable.

This method was not intended to be punitive. It was a means to help a student identify what their challenge was. If their challenge was one of attitude, they were committing to working on it. If the behaviour was related to their neurodiversity they became a partner in exploring the means and measures that could help them overcome their challenges or find suitable accommodations.

The accommodations might be a matter of allowing a student to leave the classroom for a break when they needed it. The accommodation my be an arrangement to work in a different space. There are any number of adjustments that can be made.

It was my intent to have the student become reflective of their own actions and be an active participant in the process. This was as much part of teaching students as learning the skills outlined in the curriculum. Both take time to learn and reinforce.

And so, in summary, to respond to the original question, it doesn’t really matter whether the student is dealing with an attitude issue or whether they were coping the best they can because of their neurodiversity. The focus is on helping the student.

The Challenge of ABI

My better answer, if you were to ask me, came a few days after the teacher workshop ended. My ability to problem solve has been noticeably affected by my ABI. That doesn’t mean I am not able to resolve situations or answer questions. It simply  means I need more time to find a solution. The more challenging questions and situations will quite often require three or four days before an effective response or solution presents itself. At that point I’ll think, “Now why didn’t I think of that sooner? It just makes so much sense.”

I guess I need to accept that my brain is synchronized to a slower internal clock. And that’s okay.

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Pushing forward

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Recently I committed to addressing a group of educators. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was torn between turning it down and going ahead with it. On the one hand going ahead with it made me vulnerable to the possibility of failure. On the other hand I felt compelled to advocate for atypical students and the challenges they face in a neuro-typical classroom.

Compelled to move ahead

I chose to share some of my observations of students I had taught during my 25 years as a classroom teacher. I recognized students over the years for whom I had made accommodations due to the way they presented themselves. While I recognized  some of their behaviours as their attempt to cope, I had no idea to what extent their behaviours masked or gave indications of their struggles.

In my learning to live with ABI (acquired brain injury) and therefore experiencing life as a neurologically atypical person, it has prompted me to think back on some of the undiagnosed, neurologically atypical students in my past.

Tempted to back out

At the risk of failure, I was reluctant to move ahead with sharing my observations. First of all, an hour and a half presentation was beyond my limits to remain cognitively engaged.

I had questions about my ability:

  • what if I experience sensory overload?
  • what if the delivery is incoherent?
  • how well will I be able to follow my notes?

I had other reservations related to the limitations that I experience with ABI. I’m often searching for the right noun, while verbs don’t elude me. I easily lose my train of thought. Stray thoughts send me out on tangents not directly related to the topic.

Planning, planning and some more planning

In working with my OT (occupational therapist) I was reminded to structure the presentation to match my limitations. In addition to that it was important to have a plan B. What if I couldn’t finish the presentation? Design the presentation in a way to minimize my own sensory loading.

I failed to minimize my sensory loading in part by not limiting the size of the group. But the larger group might have doubled my resolve and increased my focus.

The most important part of the planning was to partner with a co-presenter. By brainstorming, identifying the key points, recognizing what information and experiences were relevant, and settling on a comfortable structure and flow, hopefully the central theme would come through clearly. And most importantly, that attendees would benefit.

Heartening response

The next day an educator stopped by to see me. She told me that attending my workshop is what got her through the two day convention. Having shared my limitations as part of my presentation gave her the emotional space to give herself permission to acknowledge her limitations. That allowed her to modify her participation and choice of activities without being apologetic about focusing on her own needs.

In closing

I was reminded last summer that as a leader, when you share your own limitations or vulnerabilities, you give others permission to begin to push their own mask aside.

For me, the desire to advocate for struggling students made me push my own misgivings aside and focus on a need in others. That convinced me to push ahead. By acknowledging my limitations I maintain my integrity as an educator, yet connect with others on a personal level.

The Paradox of Being Alone

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Wilderness cabin

So often I prefer to be alone but I don’t want to feel left out. This conundrum is one of the challenges of living with ABI (Acquire Brain Injury), though probably not limited to those who live with ABI.

Living with ABI can become a very isolating way to live. By that I mean, saying no, or passing on opportunities to participate in activities with others when I realize my sensory loading is reaching a point where I add to it at my peril.

The Paradox is real

When I engage in prolonged physical activities, such as cycling for a three to five hour block I  know I am committing to a recovery routine that I should not ignore. That means that as much I want to join in I will have to forego activities immediately following my vigorous activity.

When I am engaged in a discussion with a half dozen people I know my internal timer is counting down. As I am busy listening, reading body language, assessing people’s tone of voice, formulating responses to what I’m hearing, finding a socially appropriate way to interject, my neural fatigue is rapidly building. Even if I find the discussion very engaging at a certain point the internal timer runs out. I want to stay with the discussion but at the same time I want a quiet place to regroup.

When I’m at a music concert it’s does my heart good to take in the music, the lyrics and the energy of the venue. The music can be totally captivating, bringing back wonderful memories or creating a memorable experience. At the same time I know that at some point, maybe 30 or 45 minutes, and sometimes much sooner I will reach a tipping point. The captivating music will suddenly become a memorable failure, a start of a slow recovery in which I crave solitude while missing the company of family and friends.

When I volunteer at the nature center close to home I need to remain self aware. The last time I was there I had only worked for about three hours but was totally exhausted. Being introduced to the project on my arrival was neurologically challenging because of my lack of mental flexibility. Sizing up the project for the day, coordinating with two other people, and doing something unfamiliar all contributed significantly to my sensory loading. While I enjoyed doing the project and wanted to see it completed, after three hours I was longing to get out of there and find a quiet place.

Planning Ahead

This week I have the opportunity to address a room full of teachers. I have offered to  share my own experiences of living with ABI, living as a neurologically atypical person in order to advocate for neurologically diverse students hoping that more teachers will develop a sensitivity for their needs.

The paradox of wanting my own space yet feeling compelled to share is staring me in the face. I am not sure how to prepare, to avoid sensory overload while doing an hour and a half presentation in a room full of people.

I know I need to ensure that my sensory loading is at a low level at the start of the presentation. That means I need to watch what types of activities I choose to do in the two days leading up to the presentation. Taking in an extra bike ride or two would be helpful. Engaging in socially or cognitively demanding activities of any kind needs to be kept to a minimum.

I know I need to ensure that my sensory loading is at a low level. I hope that booking a motel and arriving a day ahead of time will give me time to shed the sensory loading of driving in a car. Or maybe I should take the extra day to cycle the 160 km to the event.

Presenting

In order to manage my sensory loading while addressing a room full of teachers I need to be mindful of the structure of the presentation. While I would normally consider it conducive to allow for questions during the presentation, I am aware of the extra demands that will place on me. With my problem solving skills being severely compromised, fielding questions would be counter productive.

In order to manage my sensory loading it’s important to manage my level of stress and anxiety. Most people experience a measure of anxiety when addressing a room full of professionals, or non-professionals for that matter. I have conscripted a co-presenter who is scheduled to do part of the presentation. In addition to giving me a break when she presents she will be available to back fill what I am not able to complete.

Summary

The paradox of being alone colours much of what I do. At the same time I make a point of pushing forward, setting goals so that I don’t end up feeling that I’m living in isolation.

To resolve the paradox of being alone, my aim is to avoid isolation, by seeking solitude. Finding activities and finding places that refresh my being, that helps me manage my neural fatigue, that is my idea of a place of solitude.

When I am able to experience a measure of solitude on a regular basis, that gives me the energy and endurance to reach out, to share and not slip into a place of isolation. It’s not an easy balance to achieve. It requires increased self awareness, an understanding of my limitations and setting worthy goals for how I want to participate in my community.

Common Sense doesn’t always make sense

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A Toy Box in the Making

Many hands make light work. If everyone could take a few minutes and pitch in, the work will be done in no time. We’ve all benefited from this type of sensible advice.

That’s not just practical advice, it also builds a sense of camaraderie. That all rings true unless you are dealing with ABI (Acquired Brain Injury).  Since my ABI the opportunity to work with someone else will usually add more demands to my day. At time it seems easier to be a recluse.

Working on something alone makes it less likely that I’ll develop neural fatigue. Help is great. However, working with a helper means there are a variety of social and practical considerations that need to be managed.

Pre-ABI

When is comes to completing smaller jobs I have always appreciated the opportunity to work with one or two other people. At times it’s the best way to get through a mundane task. Even making it enjoyable.

Assessing offers of help

Now a days, when I receive an offer of help, to simply lend a hand I’m inclined to decline the offer. It’s not that the offer of help makes me feel less capable. It’s just that things quickly get complicated. If on the other hand the offer of help is an offer of taking on the job, I am quite likely to accept it. I’ve learned to delegate things that I can’t complete in a timely manner.

In the last while I’ve had offers of help. An offer to help me pitch my tent – I declined. An offer to help me install a coat rake (for which it seemed I needed three hands) – I declined. Too proud? – no. Too complicated to coordinate.

Often I lose more than I gain by accepting an offer of help. Simply put, I will be more exhausted if someone helps me than if I do it by myself.

When I work alone it is cognitively less demanding; I don’t need to explain how I want to do it. I don’t need to coordinate my efforts with someone else. I don’t need to observe and explain changes in the execution of the job.

When I work alone it is socially less demanding. I don’t need to pay attention to tone or body language. I don’t need to assess how much to explain. Explaining too little can be just as annoying as explaining too much. I don’t have to match my pace to that of my helper.

Working with a helper brings into play a level of multi-tasking. What would have been a simple job, now becomes cognitively more demanding and socially more complicated. This invariably leaves me more exhausted.

Other’s experiences

Others with ABI have a similar take when working with a helper. For some there are other considerations.

My friend tells me he needs to work alone so that he doesn’t make mistakes. This he finds particularly important when he is baking. Even though he has done the same recipe countless times, whenever he tries to bake with a helper he will miss a step. One can appreciate that with baking a misstep will more likely spell a disaster rather than invent a new recipe.

Making it work

That doesn’t always rule out doing things with someone else. Often enough there are tasks that involve a simple routine. When I was sorting and cleaning our crop of garlic, my four year old grandson was glad to help. He had his part in the process. At the same time, it was relatively easy to monitor how he was doing and make the necessary corrections if he got it wrong.

This is just one more area of my life in which I am learning to be mindful. Rather than just accepting or out of hand rejecting an offer of help, I need to pause and weigh the benefits over the extra demands it will put on me.

Helping others

Having shared the challenges of receiving help, there is a different dynamic when I offer someone else some help. In many ways this can be easier. Knowing my own limitations I will first ask for an overview of what needs to be done and how the job is to proceed. I will then explain what accommodations I might need. If the job involves processing too many instructions I need to find a way to simplify it. If the job requires some concerted focus, I will suggest the need for some regular breaks or a change in activity after focusing for 20 to 40 minutes.

The benefit of being monitored

What I have appreciated the most when helping someone is having them check in with me. Several of my friends are aware of my limitations at a higher level of understanding. They will check in with  me and seem to know when to ask me how I’m doing. That helps me with my mindfulness, since it’s so easy to get caught up in an activity and just focus on getting it done.

The nuances of living in community while living with ABI has a way of bringing out the best in some people. I have had people give me a heads up when something is about to happen that will negatively affect me. Experiences like these reinforces for me a sense that I’m not alone in adjusting to life with ABI.

IKEA and ABI: a Confusing Combo

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IKEA cupboard with bookshelf

My recent experience made me realize I have not bought anything at IKEA since the pre-ABI era. In the past I was able to assemble an IKEA purchase in record time. Not only could I assemble the computer desk or end table or cupboard quickly, I also didn’t have any pieces left over.

My recent IKEA purchase left me wondering whether from now on I should avoid that store.

I won’t bore you with the details but I ended up assembling every page of the instructions twice. No matter how carefully I would line up the parts with the IKEA hieroglyphics booklet I would somehow get it wrong.

A few years back the instructions included the step of gluing all parts that are held together by dowels. While it makes the furniture more durable, I now know why they no longer include that step.

After I assembled each section, I would take a break before going on to the next step. After getting back at it I would eventually line up the right pieces and the necessary hardware only to find out that the part I had completed was put together wrong.

I would back up one step, hoping the glue would let go, reassemble that part and move on to the next step. I didn’t think it was possible, but sadly putting things together backwards and reassembling happened all the way through the process.

I did manage to put the doors and handles on the right way the first time. That’s because it would take a total idiot to install them wrong. There is no upside or downside to confuse.

Once I was done assembling the cupboard with the upper bookshelf I had more than a few pieces left over. I puzzled over the left overs for awhile. After studying the hieroglyphic booklet I recognized several parts from assembling the cupboard.

I worked my way through the hieroglyphics booklet and emerged with a fully intact second cupboard. Sadly I once again ended up reassembling each section twice before I had it right.

Sleuthing expedition

I stopped in at IKEA to find out I had completely mixed up my purchase. I prefer to blame the IKEA showroom for the mix up.

The showroom had the cupboard displayed as a single purchase with a price tag of $129. Nearby was the same cupboard with the bookshelf attached. The price tag of $149 was attached to the bookshelf part of the display.

Since I wanted the book shelf and the cupboard I made note of the order number for each. I went down to the self-serve area and confidently loaded up the boxes.

You’ve probably figured out my oversight. I couldn’t see how there could be only a $20 difference between the cupboard by itself and the cupboard with a bookshelf as a complete unit.

Notes to my ABI self

  • Do not shop alone at IKEA.
    • Reminds me of the paint store that wouldn’t tint paint for a husband unless his wife was along or he had a note from his wife approving of the colour.
  • Ask the cashier what I am actually purchasing.
    • That’s assuming the cashier actually knows what’s in the plain beige coloured boxes.
  • Price in the cost of hiring a furniture assembler.
    • That’s assuming someone else understand the booklet written in hieroglyphics better than me.
  • Return the extra furniture and tell them I changed my mind once I saw it assembled.
    • I was told they would be friendlier with me if I had the receipt but even with it assembled they would take it back.
  • It’s not worth driving an hour to return the extra cupboard.
    • Find a local person looking for a bargain
  • Don’t shop at IKEA on the weekend.
    • Unless you want to be one of the customers lined up 15 deep in each of the 20 checkout lines.

Anyone looking for an IKEA cupboard pre-assembled and ready to be enjoyed? Just think. You won’t have to waste time in the checkout line. You won’t have to waste time driving into the big city. You won’t have to waste time assembling the dresser. That makes it worth double or triple the purchase price.

What I ended up with.

Being AWOL

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Snowbirds – Niagara-on-the-Lake

When guests are arriving or soon to arrive that’s when most households go into an “all hands on deck” mode. There never seems to be enough time, despite attempts at planning ahead, to get everything done.

That’s when I am the least helpful. I do most poorly when there are last minute jobs that need to get done. The lack of mental flexibility is one of my ABI challenges. That means dealing with a few simple requests quickly leads to neural fatigue.

Neural fatigue sets in because the brain is called on to change the trajectory it was on. Putting a halt to what I was doing and all the thought processes that are part of the activity takes neural energy. The so called wrapping my brain around the new activity is like having my brain activity level decelerate and accelerate, using up precious energy.

It’s not a question of the tasks being complicated. No. To do even a simple task puts the brain through several steps. First, the request needs to be acknowledged. If the request isn’t fully grasped then a question needs to be formulated to get clarification. Once the clarification is received it needs to be interpreted. If it is properly understood then a plan, even for very simple tasks, needs to be worked out. To execute the plan the ‘where’, ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the request needs to be worked out.

All the steps that a brain goes through when changing gears and taking on a new task happens seamlessly with most people. Most people don’t even notice it till they find themselves in a situation where they say, “Oh, this multi-tasking makes me tired.”

With an ABI the brain lacks the strength or endurance to change gears easily or seamlessly.

Limbic System

Why does the brain experience neural fatigue after only a few simple requests?

The nature of my limitations lies in the fact that my limbic system has been injured and so the neo-cortex is working extra hard to fill in.

For me the limbic system, which should be adept at rapidly changing activities, isn’t able to perform it’s normal functions. To give a simplified explanation, the limbic system has the following key functions:

The structures of the limbic system are involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbic_system

Following up on requests to complete small tasks might not appear difficult at first glance. However, a different picture emerges when one realizes that the small task requires the following functions; motivation, learning, and memory, functions which the limbic system is designed to handle very efficiently.

When these functions are handed over to the neo-cortex, the brain function loses significant efficiency. When the neo-cortex takes on these functions it requires much more effort and the processing speed is much slower.

Analogy

Compare the change in brain function to a weight lifter being called on to stand in for a sprinter. A champion weight lifter will be struggling. Just as each athlete has a specialty so too each part of the brain has a specialty.

Just as an athlete can cross train and develop additional specialties so too can the brain. However, it takes time, effort and practice to take on new functions. Also, there needs to be a propensity for the activity. The ability for the brain to relearn is referred to as neuroplasticity.

Social settings

Many things happen during social settings, that my brain can’t process efficiently.  The social setting could be a dance, a birthday celebration, a wedding anniversary etc.. After several conversations I will find a quiet place to give my brain a rest. When there is a change in the activity I need time to adjust. When there’s live music I need to walk away more often. Most often ten minutes is enough to make a difference. On returning I will do a cursory overview and decide if I’m ready to join in.

This does break the continuity of the event for me. Often that is a minor inconvenience. Other times there is a sense of having missed something. Trying to get up to speed can contribute to neural fatigue. In those situations it’s helpful when someone fills me in on what happened while I stepped out. Though I don’t count on someone to fill me in.

I don’t always realize the source of the disconnect that is nagging at me and therefore not realize the need to ask someone to fill me in while I stepped away.

In the past year I have met several people who are very observant. These people know and recognize when I’m reaching my limits often before I’m aware of it myself. That brings with it a strong emotional sense of Wow! To have others looking out for me is heartwarming and in some ways beyond words.

When I’m around people who understand my limitations I don’t feel like I’m going AWOL. I have the assurance that I’m unofficially on an approved leave.

Post cycling reflections

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Portugal Cove, NL

This past summer I was on the road for 70 days. Starting on June 26 I was riding six days on, one day off. The 60 days of cycling gradually created a rhythm of it’s own.

The organized part

Initially the challenge of meeting the tour schedule, packing camp in the morning, getting breakfast, making lunch and gathering snacks for on the road was too challenging. It was the first time in over two years that I was on a rigorous schedule. Not only was I on a tight schedule but each step was critical for me to be prepared and equipped to ride for the day.

Eventually I more or less mastered daily hurdle of the rigorous morning routine. I was glad that getting accustomed to new routines was not impossible despite having difficulty with adjusting to new situations.

After the organized tour

Once I had completed the nine weeks with the organized tour I continued to cycle through one more province with two other cyclists. I wanted to include all ten provinces in my summer of 2017 ride. (I’ll have to do something about the missing three territories. But that’s for another day.)

Completing the supported tour and cycling with only two other riders made things much easier for me. I hadn’t realized how much my sensory loading was impacted each day simply by having 80 or so other people around me in camp and on the road.

The extra week of cycling Newfoundland had a negligible affect on my sensory loading. Riding with two other cyclists and having two support people meant there were fewer surprises and disruptions to my day. A more predictable day meant I needed minimal time to recover. This gave me more energy during the last part of each day.

The exception to experiencing reduced sensory loading was when we spent a day being shown around St. John’s. By mid afternoon I realized I needed to temper my activity level. By late afternoon I knew I needed to bow out. Pushing myself to a point were I would need a day or more to recover was not a good way to begin my trip back home.

Amazingly, my 16 hour ferry crossing of the Gulf of St. Lawrence went very well. That was despite having the ferry being battered by waves up to 10 meters high during most of the crossing. I experienced no noticeable sensory loading from that trip. In fact I slept quite soundly for most of the crossing.

Coming home

I had managed a summer long routine of being on a schedule and I had gradually fared better as the summer progressed. I was looking forward to a more relaxed schedule that comes with being at home.

With a more relaxed schedule of being at home I would be better able to manage my sensory loading. I didn’t need to push forward each morning to get cycling.

Unfortunately, a relaxed schedule after getting home didn’t happen. Very soon I was having to monitor myself more closely than I expected. I had hoped that my tolerance for sensory loading would improved over the summer.

Once I got home, I had left behind the simple life of cycling. I had left behind the simple life of doing one focused activity each day. All the routines that made up each day had one single purpose, support the bike riding.

Once I got home life became much more complex. I’m back home. That means there are bills to look after, there’s the yard work, there’s family to visit and more. Some things had been put off for the summer. Being home brought with it the full range of responsibilities.

One noticeable challenge I was once again reminded of is driving and riding in a car. A whole summer in which I probably covered less than 100 km in a car, while cycling over 7000 km. Once again I need to be mindful of the fatigue and nausea that come with riding in a car.

While my physical endurance has improved over the summer, I will continue to monitor the various activities that add significantly to my sensory loading. What I am grateful for is realizing that I can take somewhat of a holiday from having to manage my sensory loading. It’s not a holiday from work, but nevertheless, a necessary holiday that I need from time to time.

With the family gone to a music festival in town, I will head over there shortly on my own. I will cycle down there. I will like need to leave after about a half hour. I will enjoy the bit of time my brain can endure. I will value the memory of being there albeit only for a short time. When I’ve reached my limit I’ll cycle the 25 km back home.