Film review – Life, Animated

Regressive Autism

One thing that ‘Life, Animated‘ has in common with the book ‘George and Sam’, which I reviewed here a couple of months back, is the idea of an ‘autistic crash’ – a regression, where parents ‘lose’ the child that they thought was growing up in their home, and inherit an obviously autistic child with a very different developmental outlook. Charlotte Moore describes her son Sam as having had a significant crash at around the age of 6. Owen Suskind, at the centre of ‘Life, Animated’, had his crash at the age of 3, which is much more typical according to what little research there is on the topic.

In ‘Regression in Autistic Spectrum Disorders’ (Neuropsychology Review, 12/2008), the author, Gerry Stefanatos, talks about the utility of home video in supporting the ‘enigmatic scenario’ of autism following after a period of normal development. We are lucky enough to have some in this film, as Owen’s early course of development is described through interviews with him, with his parents, and in home videos.

‘Regressive autism’ is a contentious idea, tied in as it is with ‘acquired autism’ through immunisation and also with gut-flora theory (which is actually not entirely outside of the academic mainstream). As such it is extremely interesting to see that there exists video of a young Owen playing rough and somewhat imaginatively with his dad, with fairly speedy turn-taking and some sensitive adaptions and adoptions of his father’s words and actions. The contrast with later videos of Owen, with his now unusual gait, his head-down demeanour and his ‘slow-or-no’ response to social stimuli, is strong, and frankly rather compelling for those like me who wondered whether regression in ASD is really a thing or not.

This film is part biopic – showing him making his way in the world as a young, autistic adult; part fantasy animation – taking his ideas about the autistic mind and animating them; and part documentary – as he makes his way in the world as a young adult.

Stay in character

Owen’s dad says that ‘Owen vanished’ at the age of three. He stopped sleeping. His motor skills deteriorated. His language processing broke down and he started reciting gibberish. Owen now recalls that people were ‘garbled’ and he could not understand what they were saying. He was diagnosed with autism and therapy commenced, with his parents utterly devastated. The only thing that calmed the young Owen was watching animated Disney films. 

[d͡ʒusə vəʊs] – “Just your voice”. This is what the little mermaid had to exchange to become human. These were also Owen’s first recognisable words in this era. The paediatrician called it echolalia, which of course it was. 

Then after one of his brother’s Walter’s birthday parties, Owen commented that ‘Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan’. This is the moment that Owen’s magnificent dad realised that Disney was not just a refuge for Owen, but that it was something that he was starting to use as a mirror for his own feelings. A window opened, and the whole family began to speak to Owen in Disney dialogue.  

Cue Owen’s dad acting out the role of Iago, the villian’s sidekick in Aladdin. He is incredible. What a playmate he must have been for Owen. 

The film shows how Owen has interpreted the films – Hercules is about not giving up. The Jungle Book is about wanting to have friends. Pinocchio is about wanting to be a real boy. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about persecution and self-identity. Dumbo and Bambi are about breaking out on your own. The Little Mermaid is about being broken hearted. 

Owen has internalised every moment of the films, he lives the emotions, and he replays them to make sense of his own life. He finds that the exaggerated expression and emotion in the animations assists him in his interpretations. 

[From a speech therapy specific perspective, it’s interesting to meet Michelle Garcia Winner (she of the brilliant You Are A Social Detective book) as she delivers some input to the adult Owen as his ‘Social Thinking Evaluator’.]

Making an impression

For autistic kids, words, interactions, social thoughts, they all run by at a rate of knots, like a dizzying ride on a roller-coaster. The sheer simplicity of an animated social encounter, say between Simba and the threatening Scar, is what makes it so irresistible to the autistic mind. Add in the fact that it can be replayed, unchanging, as many times as you like and you have a useful learning tool for autistic kids.  

Crystallising social thoughts is at the heart of a range of approaches that aim to help autistic kids understand why people do the things they do, including Superflex, Friendship Terrace, and Comic Strip Conversations. Even outside of these formal approaches, adults working with children with autism are always having to find ways to get the child to chase back the vapour trails of social thought. They do this by choosing good play partners for the child, emphasising what that child was thinking, why they thought that what they did, why they did and said what they did and said, what they want them to do, and so on. Different children need a different slant to make this information interesting and meaningful, and we need to be alert to that child’s social references if we are to make an impact on their thinking. 

Book Review – George and Sam by Charlotte Moore

Published in 2003, George and Sam is a record of family life with two autistic boys, hugely different from one another, along with one “neurotypical” child. Charlotte Moore, the boys’ mum, is an excellent writer, a writer first (with an Observer column), who has a wealth of home experience to talk about. Her recollections are funny, touching and extremely thought provoking, for parents and therapists alike.

Her descriptions of her boys define the range of autistic behaviours that I have experienced in practice. Like many of the parents of autistic children that I have worked with, she is forever worrying about what makes for ‘normal’ and trying to minimise her children’s stress. She doesn’t want them ‘stimming’ all day, but she also doesn’t want them to be ‘programmed’ to the hilt, or to have empty lives.

One aspect of the book is her description of the various therapies and approaches that she tried with the boys. These included:

  • Auditory Integration Therapy – which she says was helpful for George, but not for Sam. Her reference gives www.auditoryintegration.net for this, but that doesn’t seem to be up anymore – try here instead.
  • Applied Behavioural Analysis – which she says she wishes she’d started earlier for both of the children. There is more information at www.peach.org.uk. She also calls it ‘Verbal Behaviour Therapy’
  • Dietary intervention – the GF/CF diet, for which the main reference given is the Luke Jackson book.
  • She often mentions the ‘central coherence’ model, which is the rationale behind the ‘Visualising and Verbalising’ programme.

My interests are naturally on the linguistic side, and as such we have in this book some brilliant, sparkling gems of autistic thought and language such as the following.

George’s obscure lyricism:

  • What have you been doing today George? ‘Watching the shadows dance’ (music and movement session).
  • George, pulling out the slimy slice of dill pickle from a hamburger and saying ‘mum, this is my conscience’.

George’s fantastically intelligent delayed echolalia:

  • Pointing at his mum and saying ‘she was a wonderful writer, artist and countrywoman’ – picked straight out of a Beatrix Potter biopic.
  • Saying ‘he jumped into the bath with a tremendous splash’ as he did exactly that.

Sam’s habit of spotting visual correspondences:

  • Regarding a plate of tagliatelle, he said ‘I like seatbelts, mmm, ‘licious’.

Literal interpretations running wild.

  • Charlotte eventually came to the conclusion that one of the reasons George was not eating was because adults were telling him that eating food would make him big and strong. He did not want to change at all.

Review: STASS Semantic Links

semantic_links_cd_largeSemantic Links, the STASS publication which helps children with word learning, word finding, categorisation skills, and semantic organisation in general, has been updated, and is now supplied with a CD so that individual pages can be printed off from the comfort of your computer chair. It’s the same price as it ever was – £80, including delivery.

yellow-coverI bought the book six months ago, when it still came in its gaudy yellow binder, without the very useful-sounding CD, so anyone buying it now is getting a relative bargain. As far as I can tell, none of the pictures have been updated. The resource sounds the same from the description, with 240 graded worksheets that enable the child to weigh the relative connectedness of a range of objects and action words, arranged as spokes around a central idea.

set1My copy is printed on lovely high-GSM paper and all of the punched holes are reinforced. I’m not sure how the new version has been bound. The pictures are fairly good – nice and simple, black and white images that just about do the job. There is some inconsistency, particularly around the action words, which appear to have been drawn by someone else entirely.

Some of the choice of vocab (‘knitting’, for example) may not match the experience of your average 21st century-born learner. There are enough examples that you can skip anything that you feel might baffle.

set8I bought it because I can see myself trying to make something similar in the future (possibly using Boardmaker, or maybe even passing the project onto someone who can build apps) and I wanted to see what a large corpus of child-friendly semantic links looked like. Since then I have made quite a lot of use of it during therapy.

I do categorisation-based work with children who have autism, word finding difficulties, and even speech difficulties (usually using the excellent Black Sheep Press Categories pack), and this resource backs that up in its depth, and also in its different angle of approach. Furthermore, it is a fantastic resource to pass onto TAs and parents – it’s simple enough that they can just pick it up and use it.

It’s a bit dry, but if you provide a few colouring pencils, I find that children engage very nicely with it. I always model for the child the nature of the connection – ‘apple and orange go together because they are both types of fruit’, ‘hammer and nail go together because you use a hammer to knock in a nail’. I want the child to be able to explicitly describe the nature of the connection. Unfortunately, there is nothing here in the material that scaffolds the child to achieve this.

To this end I went through the examples, broke them down into the different types of relationships, and boiled it all down to a few archetypes which I could then present in an analogous manner to prompt the child as they go about making their explanations.

I’ve written enough in my other posts about why I work on semantic knowledge. It’s the other side of the phonological awareness coin, it’s the z-dimension to the x and y dimensions of ‘input’ and ‘output’ phonological features. There is an interesting study from Tim Pring and many more in Child Language Teaching and Therapy which shows that a small amount of work on a specific category can improve retrieval of untreated items from that same category.

 

 

Donguri Wobbly Wooden Toy Review

Here’s disturbingly real video review of a delightful toy that I picked up on holiday in Tokyo. It’s called ‘Donguri’ and it’s made by Comaam. Anyone remember the Weebles? Well these are similar, but a lot cuter:

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As I state, in a fairly incoherent manner in the video, these sorts of toys are great for helping children who have attention difficulties to take turns in a small group, and children who have difficulties initiating interaction might  be encouraged to request them (verbally or through picture exchange).

ASD Workstation Colourful Semantics Activity – Free Download

The more verbal autistic children that I work with seem to develop independence and pride in their work when their school adopts a TEACCH / Workstation-type approach. However, many of the activities that are available to download of the internet aren’t, for want of a better word, very ‘language-y’. For an example, take a look at the wealth of ‘match the shape’ / ‘match the colour’ activities that are made by Twinkl.

In order to redress this a little, I have started to provide the children with my own workstation activities where I take the aspects of these activities that I like – the fact that they are self-contained, self-checking and fairly satisfying to complete, and added in a dash of language. Today it’s Colourful Semantics. Next I will make something that is designed to develop superordinate and sub-ordinate category knowledge.

mainsvopic

Once again this activity requires you to own the Black Sheep Press Verbs Pack. This costs £15 plus VAT and it’s a must-buy for anyone working beyond the single word level with children.

The specific prompt pictures that I have selected are as follows:

Subject – Verb: man running, baby waving, girl crying
Subject – Verb – Object: boy throwing ball, boy cutting cake, girl eating banana, man reading newspaper, bear pushing pig, girl kicking balloon, man brushing dog
Subject – Verb – Location: man sitting on chair, girl sleeping on sofa, cat jumping over snowman, boy falling off chair, girl hiding behind tree, dog hiding under bed, cat standing on table.

As these pictures are copyright Black Sheep Press, I haven’t included these pictures in the download version – you will have to cut your own ones out and stick them in.

Individual pictures are provided of the subjects, verbs, objects and locations. Each page has a frame which the child can use to arrange the pictures, as well as the answer. In my version I have placed the frame behind a sheet of plastic, which has velcro spots for the elements of the predicate, as well as a flap to cover / reveal the answer. You will need to limit the number of pictures that you provide to the child so that the choice is not overwhelming.

secondsvopic

You can download the activity here.

Developing language processing skills (3)

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I’ve written already about the tasks that I use to develop semantic skills and phonological skills. In these pieces I’ve gone on at great length about how I don’t think there is such a thing for us to target as ‘auditory memory’ per se. This is because it is my view that ‘limited auditory memory’ is just another way of saying ‘impoverished semantic and phonological knowledge’. There is however one further skill that I do develop to support children’s language processing though, and that is visualisation.

Using visual imagery to anchor interpretation isn’t the be-all and end-all of verbal comprehension, but it is a good place to start. Higher-order abilities depend on it. By higher-order abilities, I mean the ability to struggle on, and to draw some kind of interpretation, where the context is only vaguely understood, where nouns and verbs are not familiar to the child, and where possible interpretations are forced into a duel, to be scrubbed and absorbed into the growing proposition. A proposition which needs to embody stability and fuzziness in equal measures, and which is somehow able to snap into a new shape upon the turn of a word or the flicker of a grin.

Back at the most basic level though, some of the children I work with have not learned the art of combining ideas that they hear together into a coherent whole. Descriptions and instructions just become a salad of ideas to them. Language goes ‘in one ear and out the other’. Working on visualisation teaches them to build their interpretations on something concrete, not on sand.

I use elements of a very clever programme called Visualizing and Verbalizing for this work.

The Visualizing and Verbalizing® (V/V®) program develops concept imagery—the ability to create an imagined or imaged gestalt from language—as a basis for comprehension and higher order thinking.

This material is difficult to come by in the UK, and postage is prohibitively expensive. I came across one of the ‘stories’ books in a clinic I used to work in, and loved it. I recently got to buy my own copy of Visualizing and Verbalizing Stories 2, for £15 plus £11 delivery from Abebooks. Compared with what’s available at the moment, that was a bit of a bargain. It’s worth keeping an eye open though.

The book has an impressive 108 stories which range from stories of 4 short sentences designed for preschool children, up to stories composed of three fairly long paragraphs designed for children in year 8. Each story is followed by five questions which probe the child’s ability to extract detail, to give the main idea, to infer, to draw conclusions and to make predictions. The stories are rich in colour and movement, and this, along with the gradual progression in complexity through the book, helps the child develop a strategy for listening that is as effective as it is simple. The scenarios all have very well thought through intentions, consequences, humour and feelings for the child to mull over, alongside the literal comprehension element.

I can’t recommend V/V enough. Hopefully the publishers won’t mind me including an example of a story from the lowest level of complexity to give you an idea of how the stories and questions work:

The little yellow fish swam slowly in the water. Then he darted into a small cave. A big red fish swam by the cave. Soon the little fish swam  out.

  1. What colour did you picture the big fish?
  2. Why do you think the little fish darted into the small cave?
  3. How do you thik the little fish felt when he saw the big fish?
  4. What might the little fish do if the big fish comes back? 
  5. What is the main idea of all these images?