On US States and States of Mind

Each day of the  last week, Robert built from puzzle pieces a political map of the United States. After completing the task, he used the map as a reference to answer questions on one page of his geography workbook by writing names of the ten states and their capitals under the  drawings of the states’ contours. The order of those two activities seemed to indicate that the role of the first one was just  to support the other.  Not exactly. Building the map was the main goal.  Writing names under contours was only  an excuse for repeating the same activity five days in a row.  Since Robert could name only a few states based on their shape, he had to build a map to answer questions in his workbook.  Thus, although making a puzzle seemed to support another activity,  it was a goal in itself.

Moreover, although I usually want Robert to be independent, with this puzzle I kept “helping” him. Fully aware that he could finish the puzzle all by himself just by looking at the shapes of the connecting pieces,  I, nonetheless, kept giving him cues, ” North of California is Oregon” , “Remember, after we left South Dakota we came to Yellowstone in a state of …”  Somehow Robert remembered the state of Wyoming. If he did not, I would tell him the name as well.  “What state is east of California? We drove through it after we left Utah.”

I don’t have any doubt that each of my suggestions, cues, or “helpful” questions only prolonged the time needed to solve the puzzle.  As I redirected Robert’s attention from shapes to spoken words, I caused more problems not less.  Each day, however, Robert was becoming more and more attuned to my directions, although he never stopped relying on visual cues.

By the end of the fifth day, Robert certainly knew what states were on the west coast.  He knew where to place Texas, Florida, or Maine on the map without looking at the shape of the puzzle pieces.

And so, we moved to another task.  He had in front of himself a map  of North America with only the countries drawn on it and thier names written in proper spaces.   Although the states were not shown on this map, Robert was supposed to name two states bordering Pacific and two states bordering Mexico.

I was sure, that Robert would immediately name California.  He was there three times, he had never had difficulties placing it on the map or recognizing  its shape.  But in a context of  empty contours, he could not do it.  He did not know what I asked for.  The word “state” sounded hollow.  After, however, I told him, that one of the Pacific states was California, he soon came up with another one, Washington.

Later,  he named Texas as a state bordering Mexico.

The fact that Robert’s knowledge doesn’t transfer easily from one setting to another, is not surprising.  Many children with autism have the problems with generalization – carrying over skills from one setting to another.  Term “generalization” helps define the condition, but it  is not a cause.  The cause  of the problem, in my opinion, is related to language deficit.  I suspect that Robert learns concepts as they apply to  very narrowly defined situations.  For Robert, language concepts are extremely specific, just like math concepts are.  Maybe that is a reason why Robert’s math skills are higher than his reading skills. Maybe

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