For many years we thought that Ethan had poor memory. That is what we were told. I remember the ABA teachers spent 2 years trying to teach him the letters A, B and C and the numbers 1, 2 and 3. According to their data, if he couldn’t master those simple letters or numbers, why should they go forward and teach him other academic skills. They refused to teach him typing because he could not even remember the few letters that they had been trying to teach for 2 years. It was time to give up, to stop being in denial that he is unable to learn and teach him how to do functional skills. Obviously, we did not listen!
In most of the research relating to autism, the most common word are “memory deficit”, “impaired memory”, “memory disorder”, “poor memory” and “memory loss”. However, this is a description of the symptoms not the causes.
About 9 years ago when we first started homeschooling Ethan, to my surprise, I found out that Ethan has an amazing memory! To be honest, I was shocked! Two years later the School District convinced us to bring Ethan to middle school because it would be good for his socialization. We agreed to put him in school, but because they didn’t know how to teach him, they asked me to bring the curriculum that I made for him and teach his teachers what to do. The assigned teacher was very upset about that. She had a Master’s Degree in Special Education specializing in severe to moderate kids. She took the stance that memorization is bad and terrible thing for an autistic child and that as a student he should not be doing that. She tried to convince everyone that Ethan was memorizing everything but didn’t understand anything and that he couldn’t generalize what he had learned. She implied that he was not capable of learning and was merely parroting back. This was the beginning of a long battle with the “professionals” who believe they always know better. At some point, because she was the teacher and they took her word, we were forced to hire a psychologist to prove that Ethan was capable of learning. We won and she was forced to continue teaching him using my curriculum. It is unfortunate that these professionals waiver between memorization is required for learning and memorization is an indication that there is no learning.
English is not my first language. How do you think I learned the language? I memorized the words to begin with. This is also how I started teaching Ethan. I taught him English as a second language, the way I learned it. Yes, at the beginning he memorized the words by matching real pictures to words and then typing them because his handwriting was horrendous and unreadable. Typing the words enabled him to memorize the words. In the beginning he was learning 20 words a day with me at home while in his IEP (school plan) the plan was to teach him 5 words a year and according to the data he didn’t even master those 5 words.
At the beginning, for math, I taught Ethan to memorize the times table and addition while teaching him the value of numbers. I decided that if my other 2 neurotypical boys, who went to school in our neighborhood were expected to memorize material for tests and quizzes, so should Ethan. The other 2 had English-spelling tests every week (20 words minimum) and timed math tests to see how well they had memorized their times tables. Even when they reached high school, they were still required to memorize vocabulary in English, French and Spanish class. They were expected to memorize facts from History class, Biology, Chemistry and basically almost every subject.
So, if it the expectation is for neurotypical kids be able to memorize facts, why is it the opposite true for the autistic population? Why do the teachers expect them to perform without memorization? I say to these so-called “experts” that the world is not flat. Some autistic kids process information differently. Many autistic kids have great visual memory skills and that is their strength.
Why should we not leverage off those strengths and give those autistic kids an opportunity to excel? Ethan started by memorizing his times tables and his addition tables. He is now able to generalize and do algebra and solve complicated problems. Our philosophy has always been to focus on Ethan’s strengths and have him excel. It is a pity that there is a double standard regarding memorization for autistic kids because for some of them their memory is their greatest gift and it should be treated as such! I only hope that the professionals and educators remember that.
By Dalia Shkedy – Ethan’s Mom