Every Angle of a Word

First thing first.

I started teaching Robert the ordinal numbers more than 12 years ago. My efforts to teach:  first, second, third, and so on coincided with teaching Robert to follow simple directions of the form, “Color the third duck red , Circle the last duck. ” I was introducing, at the same time, directions and ordinal numbers.  It seemed logical to me, and only by observing and analyzing Robert’s struggles,  I realized how difficult it had to be for Robert to respond  to  such directions as “underline, draw a circle above, put a spot on”  when the addition of  “first, second, third” complicated the tasks.

Nonetheless, that was the first time  Robert heard and/or read the word “first”.

Later, Robert encountered the same word again in a different role.  This time word “first ” was organizing events in a timely order.  Robert had to put the events (sentences) from a   story in a sequence of  “first,  next, then, and last”.

I believed that I made a strong connection between the words “first” and “one” .  I believed because, the first character in a line had a   number 1 written on it or below it.

At some point Robert also understood that January is the first month of the year, and knew that Sunday is the first day of the week.

So I was surprised that just a few days ago Robert couldn’t answer the question, ” What day of the week is the first day of February?” He had a page from a calendar spread in front of him.  He could say what day of the week was the fifth day of the month, and 23rd day of the month.  He couldn’t say what week day was the first day of the February.

So the question is,” Does Robert know the concept of the “first”, or he doesn’t?”

I felt the obligation to bring that question up, as it is almost a natural one, the one that expresses some anxiety about what my child knows or does not, but I am not concerned about it myself.  Instead I am troubled by another problem, “How to teach all the angles, meanings, and uses of a new concept/word?”  All at once?  Separately? Spaced by time as not to confuse? In contexts? .  Should I treat the word’s each use as a new concept, or should I present it as a variation of other applications of that word?

Without Questions

In my previous post  Now You Know It , Now You Don’t I stated that knowing something doesn’t necessary lead to correct answers to the  related questions.  I believe that this is a reason why there is a discrepancy in how parents see their children and how the children are viewed through many formal tests.  Nonetheless, such statement might seem more than controversial. After all,  it is through quizzes, tests, and everyday  serious and trivial inquiries that we determine  what one knows and what one doesn’t know.

When Robert was four years old he had the first neuropsychological evaluation. During the interview I was asked if Robert knows “left” and “right”.  My thoughtless and immediate reply was “Of course not, he cannot talk yet.”  The next question clarified the first one, “Does he put a left shoes on his left foot?”  Yes, he always did.  He never  hesitated.  Even more, Robert experimented with  Ken’s shoes.  He was turning the doll up side down, and backwards  as he was removing and then placing back the shoes on Ken.  Robert was either teaching himself what right and left was or making sure that  it stayed the same, even after the position of the doll changed.

I was confronted with a radical idea that knowledge can be demonstrated without the support of language.

To make matter more complex, there are also  inconsistencies in Robert answering differently structured questions. His responses depend on how the question is worded.

“Is the lemon sweet?”


“How does the lemon taste?”


The questions above are not identical, but they both refer to the taste of a lemon.

Or another example:

“Does the airplane has wings?”


“Draw an airplane.”

Roberts draws an airplane – not too great but with wings.

“What are these?” I am touching wings.


“Does the airplane has wings?”

“No…Yes, yes, yes.”

To make matter worse, when Robert responds incorrectly once, he will keep on making the same mistakes when the questions are repeated to him in the next few minutes.  (Interspersed with others).

My conviction that Robert knows more than his score on the quiz indicates, is supported by many more examples.

Although the ability to answer questions is not entirely reliable method of checking ones’ knowledge about the environment, it is still a tool to measure the  chasm between Robert and the “typical” crowd raised on questions and tests… And that chasm can be  very deep.

Now You Know It, Now You Don’t

During the last three years Robert was tested twice with the same test of academic achievement.  After the first test, the person who administrated the test wrote an IEP in which she stressed over and over, how very low the results were.  Very, very low.

I don’t think the numbers changed significantly during the second testing. But there was a difference.  This time, the teacher supported his report with a few pages with Robert’s answers.  Maybe he shouldn’t do that.  After all, the questions are usually kept secret.  Releasing them might compromise the sanctity of the test. I  am, however, very grateful to that teacher for letting me have an insight into Robert’s performance on that test.

One part specially attracted my attention.  It was a set of 38 question which required “yes” and “no” answers.  The questions related to the generally known facts and, in my opinion, Robert knows them all.   And yet, he failed this test.He answered the first question correctly and then from it down he just circled “Yes”, “No”, “Yes”, “No” in ABABA pattern.  Only once, by the end of the page, he circled two “Yes” answers.  Something must have distracted him for a second so he missed the beat and he … read a question for a change..

This tendency to answer in ABABA pattern was not new to me.  I encountered it many times before.  Every time, I devised a way to ask the same question in a different format to asses if Robert knew something or if he didn’t.  Not once, I came to the realization that for Robert knowing something doesn’t translate into answering the questions correctly.  Knowing and knowing how to answer are two different skills.

This test was checking Robert’s ability to answer questions, not the basic knowledge related to this set of sentences.   I know  that Robert is familiar with all the facts (with one exception) but he cannot answer questions about those facts.  Even his correct answers should be dismissed as they were as accidental as the wrong ones.

But the skill of answering questions is important in itself.  In this society (as in probably any other)  we demonstrate our understanding by, most and foremost, answering the questions posed by people around us.

So with one axiom, that Robert knows facts, but doesn’t know how to answer questions about those facts I divided questions into two sets and decided explore the conditions which govern Robert’s ability to reply correctly.

I read to Robert 19 of the questions and he made only one mistake.  Had, I not experienced before that Robert was capable of providing correct answers to questions about things he didn’t know nothing about, I would quickly come to the conclusion that simply removing visual cues in a form of written “Yeses and Nos”  would suffice to put Robert back on track.  But, unfortunately, I knew better. From prior lessons I learned that Robert is very skillful in reading nonverbal cues coming from me, even if I am not aware of the existence of signals I send.

I cut 19 remaining questions into 19 strips of paper, and ask Robert to place them on big pieces of paper with huge words “YES’ and “NO”  written on them.  This time Robert correctly placed all “NOs” and incorrectly almost one-third” of the “Yeses” .  I attributed that to a behavior I had already  encountered in the past.  Robert is a very fair guy.  He is as fair to “Yes” as to “NO”.  He wants them to be spread evenly.  Since there were more “Yes” answers, he had to place them with a fewer set of “NOs” so both groups had the same amount of sentences.

Robert is equally capable of answering questions he doesn’t know answer to and of making mistakes in answering questions about facts he knows well.

And that is a problem.

Colonel and Jugsy Therapy

Every Wednesday, Robert and I bring a packet of carrots to The Bridge Center.  We divide the packet into two halves.  The first one is for Jugsy, a veteran horse, who lately enjoys his corral for the most of the day as he is recuperating from leg surgery.   The second half is for Colonel, who took after Jugsy the responsibility of teaching Robert to ride.  Of course, there were other horses before and they taught Robert a lot about riding:  from not bouncing in a saddle to keeping balance, from good posture to careful grooming, from names of equipment to joy of riding.

Jugsy, however, is the first horse who listened to Robert.  Jugsy allowed Robert to lead him around the walls of the arena.  He let Robert weave  between orange cones. He turned right when Robert told him to turn right and he turned left when Robert asked him to.  He went around the barrels and, with some reluctance, walked over the posts.  Jugsy stopped when  Robert ordered him to stop and resumed walking when Robert  gently touched horse’s sides with his feet.  In a horse’s language that touch must have felt more like a whisper than a loud command.  Nonetheless, Jugsy listened and walked.

After Jugsy,  Colonel took over the teaching. Colonel put emphasis on a clarity of communication.He listened as attentively as  Jugsy, but wanted Robert to improve the intelligibility  of his “speech”.   Gentle touch would not suffice to move Colonel. Robert had to kick the sides of a horse a little more assertively.  To convince Colonel not to avoid walking over posts, Robert had to hold the rains very firmly.

Jugsy and Colonel  listened to Robert, so  Robert kept on “speaking” to them for 30 minutes every week.  I don’t think there is another creature in the whole world, who has listened to Robert as much as those two horses have.  By attentive listening and calm compliance both horses installed in Robert the strong belief in the power of communication.

Of course, it has to be said that at this phase Robert is mostly a translator.  He translates commands given by instructors into horses’ language.

The instructors say,  “Go to the letter A (letters are attached to the walls) , turn left, and weave”, or” Tell Colonel to stop at letter B”, or “Tell Jugsy to walk” and Robert translates those directions into the language horses understand.  In this way Robert is a medium between trainers and horses.  This has a positive impact as it forces Robert to listen and process directions while engaging in the activity.  It is a good exercise for both: working memory, and attention.

For the most of the “typical” riders that would be enough.  From that point on they would take over and make their own decision as to where and how they want to ride.  But for Robert making and/or expressing his own preferences  as to where and how to lead the horse is  almost impossible.

I am hopeful, however,  that Colonel and Jugsy with  the help from the riding instructors will encourage Robert to  find his own words, and make his own choices while in the saddle and everywhere else..

Understanding Robert… Fifteen Years later.

When Robert was 4, 5, 6, and 7 years old, he often drove with me to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to pick up his sister, Amanda, after her art classes.

At that time, it was not easy to drag Robert everywhere. He had a tendency to bolt whenever he could  and an uncanny ability to wiggle out of my hand. I had to be always on guard and, well,  that was stressful.  Still, for more than a year, no major tantrum had happened during those trips and I began to relax.  Even more, I  decided to use our weekly expeditions to the Museum to make short visits to galleries.  Just one room, or a part of one room. A few pictures, or a few sculptures. Just a few. We stopped in front of the artifact, and looked.  Well, I looked, and encouraged Robert to look as well. He glanced a few times. I hardly remember my comments.  I know they were short and obvious.  And if I asked Robert any question it had to be only about colors, as colors were the only things he could name. The simplicity and banality of our artistic critiques probably offended more sophisticated visitors, as they scurried away from us, as soon as they heard our sort of a dialogue.

Sometimes, we didn’t talk at all as we slowly walked through the sections of the Museum that displayed musical instruments, Japanese tea sets, Chinese furniture, or Egyptian Mummies.

After  ten minutes long encounters with art, we returned to the Rotunda where Amanda was  putting last touches on art of her own. A few more strokes of a brush and the three of us were on the way home.

Once, however,  we returned too early.  The class was already winding itself up, but Amanda needed 15 more minutes to finish.  I decided that Robert and I would wait for her outside on the sunny and breathy stairs in front of the main entrance. As I started leaving, Robert spread himself on the  tile floor, screaming and kicking. With huge difficulties and a  lot of embarrassment I picked him up and carried him outside.  On the way out,  he demonstrated a full range of his abilities to free himself from my hold.  Like a fluid he seeped out of my arms and not once I had to pick him up again gathering all his kicking and wiggling parts.

I was not prepared for that behavior. I did not expect it.  I didn’t know what to do. I wondered how I would survive the next fifteen minutes.  I was petrified of going back to the  museum with this untamed creature in my arms. I was hoping he would calm himself down.

To my surprise, he did.  And just in time.  When I started going up the stairs back to the museum,  Robert didn’t try to wiggle out of my hand.  He made a few groaning sounds to let me know that he still held a grudge, but at least he didn’t attempt to escape.

I am not sure  if Amanda noticed anything. If she did, she didn’t let me know.

For the next few years, Amanda continued with her art classes, but Robert and I stopped visiting the galleries. I was too scared to go back not knowing what caused this tantrum so we waited on the stairs until Amanda came out.

We resumed our visits to the Museum four or five years later.  We don’t  often go there  as Robert prefers Science Museum in Boston or Museum of Natural History in New York, but we still do go there from time to time.  And there never was another incident.

It took me 15 years to understand the reasons for the tantrum.  Just a couple days ago it came to me, that Robert had tried to prevent me from leaving the place without his sister.  She was always coming with us, but on that day, I was, in his eyes, abandoning her.  He could not allow that.  He wanted her to come with us.   But how could he share his concerns with me when he wasn’t even able to pronounce her name?

I should have known better.  Around the same time, another incident happened.  When the car we were driving started making funny noises, I  left it at the nearby gas station.  As we walked home, Robert protested vehemently every step we were making.  He did not want to go home.  He ran in the opposite direction. Amanda ran after him, caught him, and waited for me to carry him home. I did.    I immediately understood that Robert wanted to get our car back.  He was upset that we left it behind.  The car was a part of our family and we abandoned it.

If  I understood Robert’s motives in regards to our car, why I didn’t understand Robert when he protested leaving his sister in the Museum? Why did I believe that Robert was so attached to our car that he couldn’t tolerate leaving it at the gas station, but didn’t realize that Robert was even more concerned about his sister being abandoned at the Museum?

Such dissonance, sadly, came from my own faulty perception of Robert.  I saw his autism first, and the “normal” boy later. So it was harder for me to acknowledge Robert’s affection toward his sister, than his attachment to the car.

I regret that fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand what Robert tried to tell me.  Had I understood it, we would make more trips to the Museum galleries, talking about colors and attracting patronizing scorns of sophisticated consumers of art. Sure, I regret that. But  what really pains me today is that I did not realize what Robert was thinking at that time and thus  I could connect neither with his feelings nor his thoughts.