Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Living the Least Dangerous Assumption

Some of the most difficult things we face in our field are those things which are intangible.  One of the most damaging to our students and possible our sense of purpose as educators is that our students must somehow prove themselves, repeatedly, to show they are capable, competent and are acting with intentionality when they attempt to communicate be it through language, AAC or behavior.  We live in a land of pre-requisites and accountability, which leaves little room for "The Least Dangerous Assumption" as pioneered by Anne Donnellan in 1984 and clarified by Rosetti and Tashie.  The least dangerous assumption is, of course, the premise that (in the absence of evidence) we believe we not yet found a way to make it so a child or adult with a disability "can" instead of believing he or she "can't".

The issue, sadly, sometimes becomes that making the least dangerous assumption and thus presuming competence uses resources (time, money, energy).  We must come to understand that refusing to presume competence is, in the long run, more costly than making that least dangerous assumption.

Let's take, for example, a child who at age ten is presumed to be functioning at "a 6 month level" in spite of the difficulty of truly measuring the capabilities of an individual who moves only his eyes and tongue, communicates only through moaning vocalization, sleeps most of the school day and does not live in an English speaking home.  While it may be true that this individual has significant developmental delays it also may be true that this child does NOT have significant developmental delays.  When we choose not to accept the premise of severe cognitive disability and instead begin to form a relationship with the child, build trust in that relationship, respond to eye, tongue and vocalizations as if they are intentional and then introduce assistive technology we may find that this individual in fact is at grade level.  This is a true story and it turned out that little boy was, indeed, not developmentally delayed, and one has to wonder how many stories are out there are there where individuals are capable of so much more than is being presumed of them.  Even if it were just that this little boy functioned three, six or 24 months higher developmentally than his initial evaluation suspected it would have been a triumph of "the least dangerous assumption".  The child would have been given the gift that presuming competence creates.  And what a marvelous gift it is.

How DO we go about living the least dangerous assumption and giving the gifts that presumed competence creates?  Here are some ways:
  • Focus on who your students are becoming, not what they are doing
    • it is the process not product
    • every interaction of the possibility of being the A-HA moment
  • Give the gift of assuming intentionality in communication
    • because even if you are wrong in your assumption you will teach intentionality by responding as if the action was intentional (pure application of behavior analysis there)
  • See strengths
    • what can they do
    • how can you shape what they can do
    • how can you better understand why they do what they do within the assumption of competence
  • Wait.  Then wait more.  
    • Patience makes things possible (allow processing time)
    • Rushing is no path to discovering abilitiesb
  • Puzzle out possibilities
    • think critically about your students and how to reach them
    • treat writing evaluations and IEPs as an opportunity to better understand the individual and share that understanding with others
  • Use the right tools for the job
    • introduce assistive technology (AT)
    • teach assistive technology
    • always work towards the next step in using assistive technology (don't be satisfied with cause and effect, keep trying for something more)
  • Ignore the nay-sayers and negative people who see every student action through the lens of the lowest possible level of understanding and imply your presumption of competence is no more than your projection of your wishes for the child
    • you can do no harm by making the least dangerous assumption
    • and you might even change the world
  • Never give up
    • even when everyone else has
    • especially when the student has


  1. Another fantastic post, Kate! I'm going to be sharing this one with friends AND other educators. Especially as my nonverbal-smart-as-a-whip boy goes back into the school system!

  2. LOVE this. LIVE this...as a parent, that is. And, like Niksmom, will share it far and wide. I'm not sure you know how grateful I am for you and your blog, Kate - how motivated I am by it, the doors opened for both of my daughters by your insight and information. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the positive comments. I actually was worried this post would be offensive... Explaining that is too difficult but I really appreciate the reminders of why I post the hard blog entries.

  4. As a Parent to a child with multiple special needs, this post and links provided were very reaffirming and inspiring! Thanks much.

  5. This is such a great post I wish my son's teacher can think his way. Thanks for the inspiration and the encouragement.

  6. I got to hear Carol Tashi in person a few years ago. Very inspiring speaker.
    I think all the testing mandated by various govt organization can work against this, ironically. So much time can be spent repetitively working on a small measurable goal, when the student is capable of taking in so much more, that is perhaps immeasurable in the short term.

  7. Thank you so much. Sometimes it is hard to hold on to this when everyone is so negative!

  8. thanks Kate, for another "that's what I was trying to say" moment. Unfortuntely those who need this reminder/lesson most are those least likely to seek out resources like you for their professional/personal development. I will be sharing this widely where I am before I leave, Unfortunately i know i will find more than a few people who will find it offensive because they think they already do this (they DON'T...) or can't even wrap their mind around the concept. Thank you Thank you Thank you Kate and everyone else who fights to broaden the minds of the masses and empower our students.

  9. Another great post! Also love the new look to your blog :). Hope you are having a great summer.

  10. I really liked this blog post and the links within.

    My daughter Kelsey(almost 3)has benefited by me believing in her ability. Kelsey works the hardest for the therapists that believe in her. She doesn't try as hard for those who I know question her. She has amazing ability to intuitively know this.

    I am hopeful b/c of the communication devices we have been able to show she understands and uses with great accuracy that people will presume competence even though she is currently nonverbal.

  11. I continue to be impressed by your blog. I reference it very often during the school year. I was very touched by this particular post. I believe the same thing. I work with children who have significant special abilities :) I call it that as they are so smart in many ways and it is evident in their progress daily. Many, many people don't believe me when I tel them how many talents they all have. Each one of my students KNOW who cares and believes in them and who doesn't. God has given us these children to teach us all what it means to love.

  12. great post... hope you don't mind a link!

  13. This is one of those posts that needs re-visiting when it all feels like an uphill battle! Those last bullets are so powerful. Thank you!

  14. I'd like to mention that sometimes the least dangerous assumption isn't assuming they *can* do something but assuming they *can't*. For example, I have asthma and exposure to gas fumes has put me in the hospital in the past. I would rather just assume that my asthma sensitivity is still there, rather than risk a hospital visit testing it out. But I've had someone pressure me to get closer to a gasoline pump than I'm comfortable doing, because she doesn't think it would be enough to trigger my asthma.
    Sometimes people overlook that a disabled person can do something, and sometimes they overlook that a disabled person *can't* do something. Both mistakes can cause harm.


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