“In proportion to the range of living relationships we put in his way, will he have wide and vital interests, fullness of joy in living. In proportion as he is made aware of the laws which rule every relationship, will his life be dutiful and serviceable: as he learns that no relation with persons or with things, animate or inanimate, can be maintained without strenuous effort, will he learn the laws of work and the joys of work. Our part is to remove obstructions and to give stimulus and guidance to the child who is trying to get into touch with the universe of things and thoughts which belongs to him.” (Pages 187-188 of School Education)
Recently, I watched a movie about Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science and designer of half the cattle chutes in the United States. This animal advocate dubbed herself an anthropologist on Mars because of her autism. While she could not speak until age four and has difficulty understanding people, she has revolutionized the ranching industry.
In her handling of cows, Grandin is a lot like Charlotte Mason. She notices what others miss and designs methods through her insight. Little things make bovines balk. They grow calm when squeezed by a chute. They are happiest moving in circles. During her years at the infant school, Mason watched children play and saw how they learned. She saw what elements created an appetite for learning in the same way that Temple knew how to move cows through the chute without fear.
Sometimes, we are unsure about applying Mason’s ideas to special needs children because her philosophy counters what the experts recommend. The standard therapy for autistic children under age six is an extensive behavioral program based on rewards, negative reinforcers, and much time indoors. Professionals recommend token systems and other non-relational ways of changing behavior in attention-deficit children. We start intervention early for the severely delayed, crowding out time for free play and the outdoor life. Can we trust her ideas when they are so alien from those of the world?
Mason knew that emotional manipulation, out of fear, love, or suggestion, drove children to seek knowledge for purposes other than its own sake. While we have dropped fear-based discipline, fear and anxiety often prevent special needs children from learning. Sometimes, they are not even aware of their stress triggers, much less their unique strengths, because they have no idea that people perceive in different ways. Dr. Grandin assumed everybody had a photographic memory that recorded everything as still and moving images. She thought other people simply had more courage in facing loud noises, crowds, and automatic doors.
The first time she observed cows going through a chute, Grandin tasted their fear. Years later, when researching cattle management, the young scientist crawled through a chute to experience what the animals felt. Hanging chains and cowboy jackets frightened cattle and created a choke point that required prods. She removed simple obstacles that prevented the smooth operation of a well-designed system. In describing step one of her science of relations, Mason wrote, “Our part is to remove obstructions” (School Education, page 188).
Special needs children face many obstacles that prevent them from seeking knowledge. Health issues such as allergies, food intolerances, seizures, insomnia, migraines, etc. make learning hard. When my daughter ate the wrong food, she forgot mathematics for three days. Seizures can reboot the memory and delete new learning. Severe seasonal allergies mean some families follow unusual timetables for school. Careful detective work, such as linking my daughter’s insomnia to apples, may prevent some problems. Sometimes medications are necessary and produce side effects that hinder learning.
The loss of a sense changes the way a child takes in the things of our world. Processing issues may be equally challenging because they take longer to detect. Auditory or visual glitches mean that children may hear but not understand or see and not perceive. Removing the obstacle involves using another sensory path while trying to remediate the problem. We may need to read aloud and provide audio books for the dyslexic child until we find the key to unlock reading. That may mean we seek and keep seeking until the right key is found.
My daughter has both autism and aphasia. During her first decade, she missed most of what we said and she could not form a single, coherent sentence. Language programs for autistic children failed her. When she turned ten, I learned about Mason and began reading aloud to her every day for hours. At twelve, we found a Mason-friendly reading program: she leapt from picture books to chapter books. She could finally hear some of what we said. At fifteen, we found the right language program, which included staples of Mason’s language arts program: copywork, dictation, and oral and written narrations. After three years of hard work, my daughter could put words together into sentences. At twenty-one, she makes herself understood to us. In moments of clarity, she converses with people outside her family.
Some obstacles come from the environment. One day, when my daughter was seven, she kept saying, “Bee, bee, bee!” I searched all over our apartment for the invader. When I reached the outer door to the hallway, I heard buzzing, opened it, and noticed fluorescent lights sputtering angrily. Whenever my daughter grew upset, I learned to stop, look, and listen for the source of her distress. Whether an obstacle is physical, sensory, or mental, we must remove it or find a way around it to the path to things and thoughts.
The second part of Mason’s science of relations is “to give stimulus.” Children with special needs cannot attend to stimulus if they are not mentally available. The summer before college, Grandin saw a terrified cow relax when squeezed by the chute long enough. She tried it on herself and discovered that constant, deep pressure soothed her frazzled nerves. She designed a human-sized chute to gentle her spirit. Schools had expelled her for her explosive outbursts, and this unorthodox device saved her. Instead of lashing out, she could survive class, head back to her room, and deescalate her stress. Four decades later, Grandin’s squeeze machine calms her and children in the autism spectrum.
Before starting any lesson, we must assess emotional availability. The other day, my daughter flew to the mailbox on her break. She staggered into the house, shaking and crying, because eBay had not kept its promise. I spent the next fifteen minutes subduing her before returning to reading. Hiccuping with tears rolling, she said she was ready but she clearly could not process much. I comforted her until her body relaxed and a real smile dawned on her face. Ten years ago, she needed spinning, hugging, and rocking to recover her composure.
I recently met a teacher of a few children with mild, but similar sensory integration challenges. Her classroom runs more smoothly when she addresses these needs. Some children wear shoes, but some do not. Some have quiet fidget toys for their hands to help them concentrate during read alouds. Some chew gum for oral-motor stimulation. When they leave, she stands by the door with a wastebasket: what is chewed in her classroom stays in her classroom. When she notices rising anxiety in a child, she grants permission to leave the room for a drink of water. That is often enough to clear the air.
Mason’s educational design creates mental availability for special needs children. Short lessons help lengthen short attention spans. Wide and varied curriculum reaches those who bore easily and disrupt when bored. Shifting to something new when attention fades invigorates the mind. Spreading books over terms, even years, gives slow processors more time to digest their intellectual meals. The New York Times article entitled “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits” notes, “Hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase . . . it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out . . . When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer.” Mason was right about spacing out learning!
Children are not mentally available for tasks beyond their reach for the sake of keeping up with peers. When my daughter was six, her school and I agreed to the goal of printing her name. She had no hand preference. She could not cross the midline of her body. Her pencil grip was immature and she could not even speak in sentences. She cried at the sight of a pencil. What were we thinking?
When I started homeschooling the following year, I realized these goals were unrealistic. She needed to work where she was developmentally. She took a sabbatical from writing and focused on pre-writing skills: developing hand preference, doing cross-patterning exercises, strengthening her fingers through play, and a better grip by coloring with crayon stubs. After a year-long break, we spent two years doing the Kindergarten level of a handwriting program developed by an occupational therapist. A decade later, she enjoys writing. She makes lists, keeps a journal, and writes narrations within her developmental ability. She writes so neatly that friends are surprised at its legibility, especially those who work with autistic children at the local early childhood center.
Dr. Grandin’s side career is teaching educators and parents to understand autism. Mentors like her high school science teacher changed her life. They knew how to work around her weaknesses, tap into her strengths, and inspire her with big ideas. They guided her down the paths of knowledge like the tall, smooth walls of her chutes that moved cattle smoothly on the circular paths they craved. Likewise, Mason wrote the third step of the science of relations was giving “guidance to the child who is trying to get into touch with the universe of things and thoughts which belongs to him.”
We cannot always use Mason’s ideas exactly as described. With picture study, I knew my daughter would not understand mind-to-mind communication and revamped how we did it. My daughter chose one painting from a set of cards done by the same artist. While looking at a masterpiece, she described what she saw and I drew to provide visual feedback. Since I did not know which picture she had selected, I asked her authentic questions until I narrowed down the choices in my mind. I went through cards, explaining why I had ruled them out, until I reached my candidate. Once she realized how my success depended on her narration, I slowly increased the challenge and guided her to the process Mason outlined.
A decade of building the science of relations with my daughter has encouraged me to trust Mason and other relationship-oriented thinkers as my guide. Other parents and educators are coming to the same conclusion. During the special needs talks at June’s conference, many shared their trials and triumphs and their excitement about how her methods inspired children who had failed in other settings. One mother enrolled her son with autism in a Mason school last year and wrote, “It is a wonderful place for him and has transformed his attitude toward learning.” One teacher said her school was getting a reputation for working with special needs children, even though most of their students are typical learners.
While I admire Dr. Grandin for her work, her talks on the education of autistic children come across as utilitarian and I listen to them with caution. Because she cannot enjoy relationships, she emphasizes accomplishments over the dignity of personhood as Mason understood it. In one scene in the movie, Grandin tearfully tells her mother that she will never be able to read faces. She could not even hug her own mom until years of squeeze machine therapy had gentled her.
My daughter may never change the world, but she feels what Wordsworth describes, “The Babe, nursed in his Mother’s arms, who sinks to sleep rocked on his Mother’s breast; who with his soul and drinks the feelings of his Mother’s eye!” She basks in the warmth of a hug. She sees the beauty of an expressive face and communicates with her eyes as well as with her lips. She still holds her daddy’s hand and leans on my shoulder at church. She flashes a smile at her brother’s jokes. She laughs in anticipation at a gag unfolding slowly. Tchaikovsky and Bach sing to her spirit. The words of the Bible speak to her soul. Every day, she is educated by her intimacies as she broadens her understanding of the universe of things and thoughts as well as the world of people.
© Tammy Glaser 2010