Sunday, May 5, 2019

Guest Blog: Ways we learn

It is fascinating how our minds work.  Your brain is one of the most complex systems in the universe.  The ~1 trillion connections within your brain outnumber the stars in our galaxy.  It is capable of so many amazing things.  Just reading this sentence requires a tremendous amount of visual processing, synthesizing skills to identify letter and words, and assigning meaning to how they are strung together that has somehow all became second nature.

The basics of how the brain works are consistent, but the details of how exactly that plays out is unique to each individual.  Understanding those similarities and differences is critical when exploring the science of learning and of teaching.  That is true for Kate and true for Luke — they each learn differently, so we need to equip ourselves with ways to teach differently.  Last week we listened to Dr. Temple Grandin speak.  This week, I attended a conference with lots of talks on machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).  I may be stretching in places to make those talks join together, but it helps me to try out new perspectives.

One of the concepts that Dr. Grandin focused on was how people have different learning styles.  Some lean more heavily on visual, or verbal, or patterns when taking in information and making sense of the world around them.  In her case, she is an extreme visual thinker, but that is not true of all autistic minds.  She describes herself as a bottom-up thinker, which does seem to be more common for those on the spectrum.  This certainly seems true for Luke.  She described what it took for her to learn a new concept, like “on”.  To paraphrase: “You have to show me.  That cup is ON the table.  But my mind doesn’t automatically generalize.  I need lots of examples.  She put the dress ON.  The light is ON.  He got ON the plane.”  (On the plane looked to her like a man holding on to the roof for dear life.  She had to see a picture of someone Boarding a plane for it to make sense.)

More bottom-up, less abstract.  That resonated.

Generalization is hard, but there are ways to work through that.  Computers also find generalization hard.  AI is developed from the ground-up.  Want AI to price cars?  Feed it a ton of data on past car sales.  Want AI to determine what type of animal is in a picture?  Feed it a million photos labeled with the animal names.  That’s how a computer would learn the concept of “on”, through repeated examples spanning all of the different meanings.  To a large extent, that is how we all learn.  Photo recognition is done with Deep Neural Networks, named after the vast network of neuron in our brains which they are designed to mimic.

Here is the thing through: If I feed a video file into my photo recognition program... nothing happens.  It is worthless.  It is not useful input.  It requires one photo at a time, not an overwhelming series of photos with audio blended in.  If personified, my AI program would get pretty frustrated with me providing worthless data, and I might get frustrated with it for not doing what I need it to do.  If the inputs/feedback I’m providing aren’t helping, I need to find a different way to provide that information.

There’s another AI technique called Reinforcement Learning.  The computer is given a situation, it takes a set of actions, and based on the result either does or does not receive a “reward”.  It plays this game over-and-over again, “learning” what actions are most likely to end with rewards.  With a computer, you get to tell it what to consider to a be a reward.  People are more complex.  You have to figure out what they consider to be a reward.  This aligns with the first step of ABA therapy: figure out preferred object/activities (rewards).  It allows the creation of a feedback loop that both parties can recognize and agree on.  It clearly denotes whether the task has been accomplished or the game has been won.  We can reinforce positive behaviors in order to generate more of them in the future.

These simple shared understandings helped with clear-cut behaviors, like biting.  I don’t know whether Luke stopped biting because he knew that inducing pain was the wrong way to express frustration in general, or whether we just “programmed” it out of him by only rewarding when he switched to a more acceptable alternative.  I’m kind of indifferent, it was disruptive and just needed to stop.  But over time, we learned together how to convey some of these more abstract concepts.  We started figuring out what inputs were useful and what was just overwhelming.  Luke started developing his own sense for success/failure at tasks, and could set goals for himself rather than relying on our external rewards.  Once the fundamentals were in place, it became easier for him to build skills on top of that.  He was able to accelerate his pace of learning, while doing it his way.

I’ve under-focused on the fact that the mind is so much more than just an AI machine.  My point is not that they are the same, just that it can be a helpful to view through that lens at times.  The mind has free will, creativity, and personality.  If I’m training Netflix to respond to my commands, I’m going to consistently correct it every time I ask it to play one show and it plays a different one.  If I only correct it 70% of the time, it will think it might have been right the other times and continue to try that wrong action in the future.  When training a new skill, that kind of consistency can be tedious, but important.  Once the skill has been mastered, it’s a lot less tedious and a lot more fun.  When Luke is watching the movie “Tangled” and tells me “It’s Sesame Street”, I can recognize that he’s telling his hilarious joke again, laugh along with him, and pretend like he fooled me again!  He gets to decide his own reward function for that.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Meeting Dr. Temple Grandin

I've been avoiding the blog for a few reasons.  Mostly because it allows me to be alone in my thoughts in this space.  I've been trying to keep busy because I'm finding when I'm alone I'm grieving over the death of my Dad.  I know he is always with me, and that I will see him on the other side.  However, it's the times that I want to call him and "check in" is when I have trouble.I wanted to call him to talk to him about meeting the amazing Dr. Temple Grandin.  I packed a Secret Service pin to give her - and would you believe it, when I told her about my father and how I brought her this pin, she asked me, "Will you put it on me?  Right here?"  I was so nervous meeting her! 

If you don't know who Dr. Temple Grandin is, watch the movie "Temple Grandin".  It's an HBO movie but it's on Amazon Prime Video for free!  Among other impressive titles, she is a professor at Colorado State University, specializing in animal science.  The most important feather in her cap, for me, is her advocacy for the autism community.  She is on the Autism Spectrum and has a Visual Thinking mind.  She thinks in pictures.  She gave a great example of her mind - for instance - like a church steeple.  She said most people see a vague church steeple with a point at the top (and she made the hand motion).  She sees exact pictures of church steeples she has seen in life or in pictures.  She gave some examples, but the diverted to the Notre Dame Cathedral.  She said she was fascinated with how they would rebuild since the fire and already ordered three books on the subject.  

It's like you get sucked in to hearing her fascination with objects and how she sees the world.  You want to know more.  I wanted to know more.  She is utterly fascinating - but what makes her most special to me is that SHE is a connection that I can make to my own son.

There were two events in Richmond.  The first one was a Meet and Great held by the Autism Society of Central Virginia.  It was a lovely event, with a book signing and hor d'oeuvres.  I took my Mom with me.  When we got there she went to "powder her nose" and there I was, standing there, watching Dr. Grandin get a plate of food.  


My Mom and I ended up both getting a plate and grabbed a standing table.  My Mom said, "you should go over there.  Look, wait right behind these people."  I ended up being the second one in line.  Dr. Grandin asked me, "Are you a teacher?" and I said, "No, I'm a mother."  She asked how old my child was and what his name was as I handed her my copy of her book, The Way I See It.  She autographed the book to Luke (which I LOVE).  She said some children have trouble with loud noises and mentioned the vacuum cleaner.  I told her it was funny she said that because the first thing I noticed when Luke was an infant was how he cried and cried when I ran the vacuum.  She told me to let him play with the vacuum.  That turned into me asking her about haircut.  She told me to let him play with the clippers.  Let him turn them on and off.  Let him be in control.  Once he figures it out, he will be fine.  She gave an example of someone who didn't like the buzzer at a basketball game, so they got this person into a gym after hours and let him control the buzzer.  Things weren't so bad for him anymore.  Then she gave some tips on how to control the sound with putting fingers in her ears.

It was all so remarkable because I heard it from a source.  A real source from someone with firsthand experience with auditory sensory issues.

My Mom also talked with her about my Dad, and how he had protected President Clinton, among many other people.  Dr. Grandin immediately commented how President Clinton shut down an airport one time because he was getting a haircut on Air Force One.  We laughed about how he probably had no idea that he was holding up the show.  

My Mom and I got to sit in a reserved section at the Byrd Theater (we chose the second row) and watched Dr. Grandin give a speech with tons of slides.  She took questions and gave really great answers.  

Can you believe that I got to see her AGAIN the next evening?  My dear friend's mother gifted John and I tickets to the Richmond Forum on the night where Dr. Grandin was the guest.  If you haven't been to the Altria Theater - it's beautiful.  Old but renovated.  Lovely.  We had a great time watching Dr. Grandin interviewed.  She had lots of great answers but I paid attention to how John Donovan, the interviewer, kept her on track.  She wanted to almost take control of the situation by asking to pull up slides, but he did a good job of balancing the slides and getting her to answer questions.  She wanted to pull slides up so she didn't have to describe things off hand, but could refer to her slides.  

It's almost as if she was on the Autism Spectrum and had memorized how she wanted to say something instead of coming up with answers off of the top of her head.

That isn't meant to be degrading, and maybe it sounds that way, but I'm not on the spectrum, and having a conversation comes very natural to me.  I can pretty much talk to anyone.  When you're on the spectrum, I'm finding conversation can be difficult and having visual aids, or slides, can make it easier to get your point across.

I loved it.

I learned so much from Dr. Grandin.  She has set such a high bar for overcoming obstacles and leaving her comfort zone to speak with others on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.  

That is a hero.

Just like my Dad.

Mom and I went to get dessert at Shyndigz after the show <3
John and I went out to dinner before the show and they sat us next to this wine rack that held 225 bottles.  I counted.

Monday, April 1, 2019

What Does the End Look Like?

My dreaded alarm clock went off this morning at 6:25 AM.  It's the Monday of Spring Break today and I really wanted to cuddle with my sweeties this morning watching cartoons.  Instead, we got showered, dressed, my mom came over and grabbed Kate for me, and Luke and I headed to the Neurologist.  Halfway to the office (30 minutes away), I realized I didn't have Luke's new insurance card.  I had a copy on my phone, but still.  I had an old ABA plan, but didn't have a new physical copy.  Boy, did I ever have it together this morning.  Luckily, we just needed the numbers for the insurance, which I had, and I didn't need the plan.

I lacked in paperwork but I did bring a happy and healthy boy.  I was a little anxious because last Thursday I had a meeting our our new Behavior Analyst and our current BA (I will miss you, Julia...) about Luke's progress and to meet our new BA at our home.  Luke was there but not officially part of the meeting, and was asking for cookies and wanted to watch the iPad (to stim on the pause button on this particular Sesame Street video which has been driving John and me absolutely crazy).  I was dealing with him while talking to the analysts.  

The new Analyst said, "How do you feel about graduation?"

Me: "Like....from ABA?"
New BCBA: [Not completely verbatim but you get the idea.] "Yes.  I see you working with him in your home.  He's meeting his goals nicely.  We are already pulling back from three days a week to two.  We are going to work with him at the center (the new facility through their company with lots of swings, a slide, and fun stuff to play with) this summer on turn taking, more social skills with other kids, and community outings, but maybe by the time school starts we back away and see how things go.  He's obviously doing well around the house."


Also Me: 

So, this is what the end looks like.  There is no cure for autism - but we can help Luke function better as a boy and a member of his community.  He's only 7 years old.  We have such a long way to go in school, but so does Kate.  He has a different learning style.  

When we met with his Neurologist today, he was super pleased with the way Luke greeted him ("hey!"), his ability to do a 100 piece puzzle in a short period of time, and how well he is doing in school.  He was completely on board with our plans for speech, ABA, and school going forward.  He reminded me that Luke has Childhood Apraxia of Speech.  His motor planning disorder is significant.  If he doesn't make language goals - it isn't his fault.  He is attempting to repeat when I am prompting him. 

John and I (and Kate) are properly trained.  We know how to handle meltdowns, belly aches, provide help when needed, support when wanted...we've got this.  Luke finally has the ability to navigate through his safe space at home.  He's independent.  More importantly, he's HAPPY.
Painting outside this past weekend.  Independently - no hand over hand, no picking colors for him, his own design. 

Someday I will put together a progression of pictures.  I tended to try to take ones of my children smiling, but I did take lots when Luke was younger and his eyes were down, head down, "in his head" with an electronic toy that he pressed buttons on constantly.  He has worked so hard and come such a long way.  This is what the end looks like.