See First

pic23What if a student was highly intelligent, perhaps even with stronger understanding of complex concepts than you and me, but was unable to speak or write or type. What then? How would we know? How would we see?

I recently had the pleasure of talking with wonderful parents of a boy who was considered to be nonverbal until he got his hands on a letterboard — a way to communicate that didn’t require fine motor skills. It turns out that he processes auditory information quite well, is very bright, and is now on a path to prepare for a college education likely in physics. That letterboard was a game changer.

His story reminded me of Carly Fleischmann whose inner voice could finally be “heard” by typing. The part about Carly’s story that stuck with me was her dad reflecting on how they used to talk about Carly with Carly in the room, as if Carly was not able to understand. He later found out that she was comprehending everything, and the regret weighed heavy in his voice.

These stories are awe-inspiring, but what about the more mundane stories out there?  There are so many other students who are being assessed by methods that are limited. The limited methods… limit our ability to truly “see” students for all that they are. This is more common than not. One of the problems with most school assessments is that they are limited to “paper and pencil”, or perhaps computerized, tests that required verbal-linguistic skills.

Why do we do this? It’s a cycle. Those who did well with verbal-linguistic skills, along with meeting other neurotypical expectations, are the ones who go on to become the test-makers and evaluators of the test results.

Now it is time to see beyond. The first step is gaining awareness through stories like Carly’s and studies such as the following:

Words Say Little About Cognitive Abilities in Autism by Nicholette Zeliadt, Spectrum News

Interaction Takes Two: Typical Adults Exhibit Mind-Blindness Towards Those With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Edey R, et al. J Abnorm Psychol. 2016

Note that second one isn’t about verbal so much as nonverbal, and the title caught several people by surprise when it was first posted. This reaction shows how pervasive our preconceived filters can be, including in how we frame our research.

To quote Douglas Adams, “See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise, you will only see what you were expecting.”