Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Useless Readers

In Nazi Germany, people with disabilities often were described as useless eaters, as an intolerable financial burden to society. In recent years, similar dehumanizing propaganda has been used in describing the purported cost to society of autistic people. Sometimes it looks as if there's no attack too vicious, no bigotry too revolting, and no stereotype too absurd to be parroted by politicians and the mainstream media.

Even so, I was taken aback when I saw how autistic children were characterized in this Newsweek article about early diagnosis, in which Rebecca Landa of the Kennedy Krieger Institute was interviewed about behavioral treatment for infants. Would you believe... useless readers?


In a typically developing infant, everything is a learnable moment. In an infant or toddler with autism, their attention gets hyperfocused on things that aren't important--like for example, the letters on a wooden block.

How do you stop such behavior?
You redirect the child's attention, you engage them in other toys. You also teach them how to pay attention to really important social signals, like people's eyes, people's faces.


Once upon a time, in a simpler world, I was one of those infants who had a strong focus on "unimportant" letters. According to my mother, when I was about nine months old, I often crawled to the TV and touched the raised letters on the logo at its base. Because I was so interested in letters, my parents bought some Dr. Seuss stories and a set of illustrated children's encyclopedias, and they started reading to me regularly.

I'm not sure if I learned to read before I could talk, or if I developed speech at about the same time, but I could read fluently by the time I was two years old. Books were my constant friends, my loyal companions in adventure. After I started school, writing always came easily to me—all through my childhood, and then university, and graduate school and a professional career.

But now it seems that, as Rebecca Landa would have it, my parents raised me all wrong. If only they'd put me in a behavioral program and systematically deprived me of books and anything else I enjoyed, I might have been successfully transformed into a nice pleasant drone with a lovely smile and flawless eye contact, perfectly obedient to social expectations, a paragon of normality and mediocrity.

Before I go any farther, let me make myself completely clear on one point: I'm not writing this post to brag about my personal accomplishments. In fact, I don't give a rat's ass what anyone thinks about that. I'm writing it in white-hot outrage at what is being done to our children.

Sometimes I feel as if I've fallen through a time portal and landed in the middle of a long-ago witch hunt, among primitive, superstitious, pitchfork-wielding peasants who would happily burn at the stake any child or adult who had the audacity to open a book; after all, only a witch would show any interest in such a useless object.

To put it another way—the barbarian hordes are at the gate, trying to destroy everything that brings beauty and meaning to our world. Grab your children and your books, hide them away in a safe place, and get ready to fight for the survival of civilization.

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25 Comments:

  • I was surprised by this too. How is staring at alphabet blocks bad???

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 11:47 AM  

  • "their attention gets hyperfocused on things that aren't important--like for example, the letters on a wooden block."

    She must mean things that aren't important to her. In my experience, NTs are way too hyperfocused in things I find very unimportant.

    Man, I thought I was hyperlexic since I started reading at the age of 4. You were reading at the age of 2? Wow. I didn't even know that was possible.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 11:52 AM  

  • Absolutely terrifying! How long before behavioral "experts" start recommending that all books be removed from the home as an "intervention"? I'm predicting a sharp rise in the sales of blocks with cute animal pictures, accompanied by a decline in sales of alphabet blocks. I bet Norms R Us is reallocating the shelf space right now.

    By Blogger Bev, at 11:55 AM  

  • "But now it seems that, as Rebecca Landa would have it, my parents raised me all wrong."

    Sound to me like Rebecca Landa got it all wrong.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 12:14 PM  

  • I was surprised to read recently about a program to "recover" from hyperlexia. I had naively assumed that hyperlexia was one of those few traits that even the bigots grudgingly admitted was a positive trait (albeit only a "savant skill" with no bearing on overall abilities). I also learned recently that there are programs to "treat" children with exceptionally high IQ scores. This should really be a wake-up call to those who believe (as I ignorantly used to believe) that they are immune from the anti-autistic agenda because they are "high-functioning" or "gifted." It's about difference. Difference is bad. Anyone who is in any way different is targeted, even if the nature of the difference is something that, in a more typical person, would be encouraged (like early reading).

    By Blogger lily_in_revolt, at 12:35 PM  

  • ...I feel ill. Maybe it's because I'm 'sick' with hyperlexia, too...

    What the hell is WRONG with these people? Is there a behavioral program to systemically pull their heads out of their asses?

    By Blogger Kassiane, at 1:05 PM  

  • Off-topic, but have you seen this yet?

    http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/newspolitics/tm_headline=autistic-mum--8217-s-baby-taken-into-care&method=full&objectid=19418874&siteid=50082-name_page.html

    Woman had her baby taken away from her, basically because she's aspie and the baby was therefore defined as "at risk".

    (Well, not "taken away from her", but not under her control anymore - they're both in the system together.)

    ~Uly

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:09 PM  

  • That's scary. Since when did focusing on letters become a behavior that needs to be stopped? When did letters become something that aren't important?

    By Blogger an aspie, at 2:58 PM  

  • I was another "useless reader", it was terrible, it really was. I had to put up with having a reading age of 13 at the age of 7. I don't know how my parents coped with the sheer devastation of it all.
    Ok, sarcasm mode off.
    Both my older son and I (we're both on the spectrum) like to concentrate on things that others may not think of as interesting or important, but I don't care. I like what I'm interested in and my son likes what he's interested in and that's what matters.

    By Anonymous bullet, at 4:23 PM  

  • I then was not even a useless reader.

    I cannot claim that staring at blocks led to any skill except the desire to become an architect and challenge Corbusier with my babylonian conciets.

    Well I might not have made it into that world but fellow dyslexic Richard Rogers did

    http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,,1707733,00.html

    Unlike some in the succesful world out there who seek to hide there neurodiversity he does not hide his.

    "Nobody likes to be directly attacked. Ruthie tells me not to read bad press, but it's hard not to. Dyslexia, though, made me realise that people who say "but you can't do that" aren't actually very important. I don't take "no" too seriously."

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 4:33 PM  

  • Outrageous! How can my 6 year old (who we suspect is aspie) reading at a 6th grade level be a bad thing? My 3 year-old (who is on the spectrum) LOVES his alphabet blocks...not about to take those away from him. Sigh, like Kassiane, I feel ill.

    By Blogger Judi, at 5:44 PM  

  • lily: "hyperlexia" has a couple different meanings, one of which is a condition in which a kid develops the basic ability to read very early, but then gets stuck at that level and eventually falls well behind his/her peers. That might be what the article was about.

    By Blogger ebohlman, at 5:50 PM  

  • This is a pretty obvious and terrible example of the kind of bias that probably just slips past most people (while at the same time perpetuating myths like, "only the stimuli nonautistic people attend to is actually important.") Ugh. Not to mention the fact that literacy IS a very useful skill, and one that has a lot of potential to help people eventually gain an effective communication method. Why wouldn't a parent want to encourage a fascination with something like letters?

    I was definitely hyperlexic as a kid; my mom wrote in my baby book:

    "At 14 - 15 mos, you know all alphabet letters on sight and numbers from 1 - 12. Beginning to point out letters on food jars, packages, and books."

    Though there was enough overall worry about my development that I was evaluated more than once as a toddler, and ended up in a special-ed preschool, the fact that I learned letters early and displayed a fascination with food labels and such was generally considered to be evidence of good things!

    By Blogger AnneC, at 6:50 PM  

  • I need to develop a program in my workplace for NT employees. They have a terrible problem......they socialize too much. They don't understand that they need to shut up and get to work. When they are alone for more than 2 minutes they get the cell phone out and find someone else to gab to. A lot of people have been reprimanded and even terminated because of 'help I am NT and I am talking and cannot shut up' syndrome. Folks, this is serious.....NT people not being able to be alone, and quiet while working is costing my company and this great nation squillions of dollars. We need early intervention for NT's to increase concentration and comfort in being alone.

    This is a serious productivity issue. The amount of time socializing is directly related to quality of work. Show me shoddy performance and I will show you a staffer who needs to sit down and shut up....by themselves..... for 7 hours.

    Guess what part of my job is?

    Touring facilities and seeing how productive they are, and reporting what they can do to be more productive. Getting off the phone and stopping socializing unless on a break are two biggies. I get paid to ask....did you come here to work or hang out? I have also had to inform oblivious NT staffers that we are not a dating service and to save it for after work.

    ~Sarah

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:50 PM  

  • I think [guess] that she may be referring to when someoone perseverates on something [which is usually used in a negative way, whereas it can be very positive / preferable]
    I imagine that she means that when a child gets fixated on whatever it is, this is to the exclusion of everything else.[stating the obvious I know but it goes back to the perseverating bit]
    So it all [much of it] depends upon how your view whatever it is, that they're stuck on. Mine have always been fixated on letters and numbers. It's a 'plus' for them, and therefore for me too.
    I know I'm biased on this subject area, but if they want to count beans or anything else, I couldn't give a monkey's as long as they let me play too.[or at least sometimes let me play too!]
    cheers

    By Blogger mcewen, at 8:07 PM  

  • When Joey was very little, he liked to drop and throw his toys. Not like normal kids, who also play with the toys, or are experimenting lightly, or are seeing if Mom will pick it up. He watched the object with intensity. We called him "Our Little Scientist". Apparently, this is a big red flag for autism, but we had no idea. I certainly would not want to whip the intensity of observation out of him- it is a skill he has, a strength that can be a tool for teaching.

    Joseph: I didn't know that reading by four was that unusual. I was fully reading by then, and kids are certainly expected to have some sight words by teh time they enter kindergarden now.

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 11:14 PM  

  • Historically, too much reading was considered a major cause of physical and mental ill health in women and girls. Our brains were thought too small and vulnerable to overloading. This seems particularly curious given that these days, we have more trouble getting boys to read. However, there does seem an echo of the same ideas here; social activity good, intellectual activity bad. At least that's the implication of these few lines; I'd like to think that wasn't quite what the lady meant.

    By Blogger The Goldfish, at 7:56 AM  

  • My son (he's 6) has always fixated on letters and numbers as well. And call me crazy, but anything that is important to my son is important to me.

    karen in ca

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:42 PM  

  • Holy SH**! What was that chick smoking when she wrote the article? If she *was* referring to hyperlexia as ebohlman pointed out might be possible, you'd think a responsible writer would note the specific differences or context. Sheesh.

    I'm NT but sure as hell don't think I need to intervene to change my son. Like Joeymom, I want to find the things Nik does focus on and use them to help teach him.

    A timely reminder as we prepare for an IEP soon...

    By Blogger Niksmom, at 10:03 PM  

  • ebohlman said...

    lily: "hyperlexia" has a couple different meanings, one of which is a condition in which a kid develops the basic ability to read very early, but then gets stuck at that level and eventually falls well behind his/her peers. That might be what the article was about


    I'm pretty sure this was about classic hyperlexia. Because hyperlixic kids "can't be kids."

    By Blogger lily_in_revolt, at 7:22 PM  

  • I think what Rebecca Landa is saying is that autistic kids are focusing on single letters on blocks and not learning other things. I don't think she mentions reading in the section shown here. So I don't think she is saying kids shouldn't read. However as an autistic I think she is misunderstanding the fact that we can learn things in different orders and at different speeds than NTs do. But it cannot be escaped, eye contact and social skills are important, crucial when it comes to things like job interviews and the younger these things are learned the better. NTs just don't get it and if you do not make eye contact and perform all the other social tricks, they think you are rude and will not employ you.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:20 AM  

  • if you do not make eye contact and perform all the other social tricks, they think you are rude and will not employ you.

    Yes... and that ought to be just as illegal as not hiring you because they think you act too black or too gay.

    By Blogger abfh, at 3:41 PM  

  • Hey There,
    I'd just like to thank you for your post. My child was just diagnosed with hyperlexia. We've been reading to her everyday, since she was born. She LOVES to read, and we encourage it.
    I just found your post, as my child was just diagnosed with hyperlexia two weeks ago. I decided to go further back in the search to see if I could find any additional information.
    If you still are around, I was wondering if you could answer some questions for me regarding hyperlexia.

    1. How was your educational experience?

    2. Did you have speech delays? Comprehension problems?

    3. Could you give me any information that you feel would be helpful for our family.

    Thanks in advance for your assistance. Please keep writing because you are a gifted writer. Take care and may God bless you!

    By Anonymous Gin, at 12:46 AM  

  • Hi Gin. Yes, I'm still here, and thanks for the compliments on my site. :)

    As for my educational experience, it took me several years to develop anything that came close to proper behavior in school. I wanted to run around and climb trees and go on adventures, rather than sitting obediently at a desk. Sometimes my teachers just put me in a corner with a book so that I wouldn't disrupt the class.

    After I got older and settled down, though, I generally did well in my high school and college classes. All of my imaginary adventures as a young child helped to build a mindset that I could go forth and conquer the world. My parents always had a positive attitude toward my differences, and I didn't become aware until many years later that my childhood was significantly out of the ordinary.

    I could speak as a young child; however, I do have a mild speech disability in that I lack the usual range of vocal inflection, cannot modulate my volume effectively, and have some trouble understanding speech in a noisy environment.

    As far as I know, I didn't have any comprehension problems with children's books, but sometimes I read books that were way above my age level and contained material I didn't understand.

    Every child is different, of course, and your daughter probably will have a much easier time adjusting to the school environment. Most teachers these days have a better grasp of how to include autistic kids in classroom activities.

    As for things that might be helpful, I wrote a post last year on that topic; here's a link to it.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:14 AM  

  • Dr. Landa is not referring to the actual letters on the block as being bad or something that the child should not be exposed to. She is referring to the fact that becoming fixated on an aspect of an object that typical children may not find interesting can be a repetitive and stereotyped behavior that is a characteristic of some children with autism. Instead of becoming fixated and staring at the letters, you would hope that the child uses the blocks to develop gross motor skills, such as stacking the blocks, knocking them over, or banging them together.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:00 PM  

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