Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Thought Experiment

Let's do a thought experiment. You'll come along for this journey with me won't you?

Imagine that your classroom receives a new student. She's 7 and has been home-schooled until now, no formal education at all.  Her parents report that she developed normally until around 20 months. At which time she became very ill and developed multiple disabilities. The audiologist reports that she has no hearing (based on an evoked auditory potential test done under sedation) and the neurologist has provided a report saying she will not recover vision and that she is untestable using standard measures. Additionally, she has significant behavioral challenges and she appears to have a cognitive or intellectual disability.

When a home visit is completed the child is noted to move throughout the house destroying property and at times having behavioral meltdowns where she is aggressive.  She is unable to participate in class at all when she comes to school and does not appear to attend to adapted materials when you present them.  It's fallen to you to develop an IEP.  You bring in the team to complete assessments and make recommendations.

The behaviorist at your school completes a functional behavior analysis and determined that the child is acting out to receive tangible items and to avoid demands. She's completed a preference assessment and determined a few sensory experiences that will be rewarding. She lays out a plan to increase sitting at the table with her peers and to decrease aggressive outbursts.

The occupational therapist notes her upper extremity use is within functional limits and does not
recommend OT. However, she suggests a sensory diet and frequent sensory breaks. The physical therapist finds no need for PT services.

The teacher of the visually impaired has brought in a number of sensory items to trial with your new student. She is also suggested using a calendar box/object schedule.  She wants you to begin introducing object symbols. The speech therapist agrees with the TVI and wants you to begin to work on exchanging object symbols
for actual items.  The TVI also suggests you make a modified "little room" with plenty of tactile and olfactory stimuli.

The teacher of the hearing impaired comes in and teaches you and your staff two dozen keyword signs and shows you how to do hand under hand signing. You learn the signs to go with the object symbols that you will be working on. You all work together with the behaviorist so that you can cue transitions using these keywords signs and the object simple cards.

The assistive technology specialist helps you set up switches to control things like fans. You also set
up other sensory experiences to be run by switch.   You have a foot bath and a special aroma fan.  The behaviorist is working these things into her positive behavior support plan.

Your paraprofessionals are feeling ill prepared to deal with your new student. They're worried about her aggressive behavior. You have requested a one-to-one aide and one is brought in and trained and certified in de-escalation and restraints.  She will be with your new student all day.      

You are a little worried about the number of adults in your classroom now. You do have six other students who have wheelchairs and equipment and there is a lot of feeding and changing to do. You were worried you will not be able to address the core curriculum as demanded by the state with so much to do and so many people to manage.

Can you imagine all of this? Can you picture it happening in your classroom or your school? Do you know who the student is?

The student is Helen Keller. Can you imagine what would happen if Helen Keller arrived in one of our classrooms today? Can you imagine what the world would be without Helen Keller because that is what you need to imagine when you think of this scenario.

Our thought experiment leads us to understand that if any child with the capacity of Helen Keller and the disabilities that Helen Keller had were arrive in nearly any special education setting in the United States and possibly abroad her intellect and talent would be wasted.  If Helen Keller was a student today what would happen when we took the behavioral and sensory approach that we nearly always take?  What would happen if we failed to presume competence and fell back on our hierarchies and prerequisites?

Luckily, Helen Keller was not educated using behavioral and sensory interventions. She was educated using a presumption of competence; a belief that she could and would learn and was provided with intensive aided language stimulation. That is not what it was called then, but that is what we would call it now.  Annie Sullivan spoke to Helen Keller in the language that Helen Keller would then learn to use for the rest of her life. Think about that.  She spoke to Helen USING the language she expected Helen to learn to use.

We know, for a fact, that Helen Keller succeeded because Annie Sullivan presumed competence and dedicated every waking minute to teaching Helen a robust language system. Helen Keller wasn't given a choice between two objects. She wasn't forced to touch an object symbol that was supposed to mean "more" for every bite of food. She wasn't pushed through a (false) hierarchy of symbolic representation. No one ever said that sign language wasn't transparent enough or that she had to prove herself with three signs before she could be exposed to 16 signs. Helen Keller succeeded precisely because  Annie Sullivan did not do what we do now.  Helen Keller succeeded because Annie Sullivan believed in her and gave her the gift of language without testing to find out if she was capable of learning that language first.  What do you make of our thought experiment?

What I make of it is that we cannot judge our student's future accomplishments based on first impressions.  We must, MUST, presume competence and believe that our students can learn.  We must treat every "untestable" child as if she has the intellect of Helen Keller.  We really have no other choice.


  1. Thank you so much for this great article.

  2. Love this. Set the bar high, show respect and patience and watch them soar.

  3. What a wonderful post! My son has a genetic condition called 22Q 11.2 deletion syndrome and amongst other issues has global development delays. Speech in particular. He is 6 and although he started in a main stream school this year, I have decided to home school now, although I do hope for him to return to his school in time. I feel exactly the way you commented on. I know Sam is capable of learning and I have never assumed otherwise. He just learns differently and we need to understand that way and work with him. Since I started home schooling and working one on one with him, I think I have learnt more than he has :) He is teaching me how he learns. It is a wonderful experience. Thank you so much for your insight.

  4. I do believe Ann Sullivan started with sign real object, one thing first and got no where for a while until the light bulb went off with "water". Then she probably moved from there. don't underestimate what EC teachers do today with many students at one time and create miracles every day!

  5. Anonymous, I am not underestimating early childhood teachers. You sound a bit defensive, I didn't intend to insult anyone but to get people thinking about if our sensory and behavioral approach to severe disabilities is really best, or, if high expectations and communication modeling would be better. I did, however, do my research on this post. Annie Sullivan finger spelled from the first moment she was with Helen. She modeled language by spelling constantly and then when, as you said, the light bulb went off, she continued to teach language. My intention is for us to think about that it take tons and tons of intensive language modeling for the lightbulb moment to happen. Offer a choice of jellybean or gummy bear for years isn't going to lead to a lightbulb moment.

  6. Important to note Annie Sullivan used Helen's sense of touch to make her aware of the vibrations caused by speech together with finger spelling. She reports 'experimenting for a time', so it's not clear to what extent she assumed competence at the outset.

  7. The mere fact that she experimented shows a presumption of competence. If Annie Sullivan presumed Helen Keller was anything but competent and capable of learning she would not have experimented. She would not have even gone there to be her teacher. Just because we don't know what methodology will work when we meet a child doesn't mean we don't try to find the right methodology. Not knowing what to do and instead experimenting is a lot different than not knowing what to do and giving up.

  8. I am at a crossroads. My highly dependent 9 year old was homeschooled until five months ago when we enrolled her in a special needs public charter. I have seen her make improvements in language and there is an intense emphasis on life skills. But I am not content with her being there. I feel like she is missing something. But I do not know if I can truly help her at home. I am glad to take part in this thought experiment as I dig deeper into what she really needs. Thank you!


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