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State Dependent Learning: A Teaching and Autism Aha Moment

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Sometimes I believe things and don't know why. I then use this mysterious belief to help others generalize their intended behavior rather than act out of habit. This is my job, I use many tools and I am good at it. Many people say it's because I know things others don't and they call it an intuitive understanding. I have pondered the word "intuitive' for this very reason and have come to the belief that, in fact, I just process behavioral observations faster than most people. So what looks "intuitive' or "mysterious' is just watching and understanding faster than any of us can notate.  

Regardless of what any of us believe about intuition, I have long acted upon the "understanding' that children should not be taught at desks unless they plan to live at one. In other words, the child destined for computer programming and office work will do well to stay in a formalized school setting, but the one with a leaning towards "surfing super star' may be more thwarted than assisted by the classroom scenario.  Seems obvious right? Well, it is until you start trying to change educational approaches and applying it to autism. I know because that's what I do. It's my job and I am good at it.  

Explaining why I don't think most Autism Spectrum Disordered kids should be taught at a desk was a challenge. It was hard to grasp the logic because in fact I knew it "intuitively' so--though the way I work with kids was getting wonderful results-- explaining "why' was a real obstacle to overcome. Each person is such a unique puzzle that I design the program differently child to child. And though I occasionally choose a desk scenario, finding a way to explain the inconsistent reasoning was like looking for the center piece to a 1000 piece puzzle that you dropped on a patterned carpet.  

But I stayed at it, explaining and learning how my explanations were received and re-explaining and learning until, there it was, the center puzzle piece answer to that "Why do so many autistic children have difficulty generalizing their skills when taught using the traditional ABA approach?" question. It fit so perfectly in place that the entire picture of how these children learn became clear and I was finally able to explain the confusion.  

It happened when -- ironically -- I was sitting in a desk. I was immersed in neuroanatomy and listening to a lecture on STATE DEPENDENT LEARNING as the AHA! Moment hit. It was so exciting I  couldn't  stay in my seat! So I skipped, jumped and danced my way to the bathroom. There I clamored into a stall so that I could rub my hands together in glee and privately sing to myself various renditions of My Fair Lady's "She's Got It! She's Got It! By George I think she's got it!"  

Let me explain: As both a mom and as an autism expert working hands-on with children worldwide, I had stumbled across a great deal of resistance to the idea that play can be an effective teaching tool. In fact it seemed that the minute I used the term "teach', people immediately imagined desks and discipline with recess breaks for fun. However, I contend that learning while motivated, as one is during play, can reduce the resistance to the lesson and generalize the skill because the child is in action -- an action related to the skill being acquired.  And there it was "STATE DEPENDENT LEARNING': a scientific term supported by studies that would give credence to my approach and help me more fully explain the phenomena I was observing. Fact is, a goodly number of ABA kids do well at the desk, learn to speak and behave but do not use those skills in any socially acceptable way once they leave the desk. In addition, many of these children become aggressive as they resist the controls being placed on them. In these cases the behavior is blamed on age or diagnosis but none of the non ABA influenced kids I worked with behaved this way at all, ever.  

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So, what is STATE DEPENDENT LEARNING and how does that relate to the autistic child being taught using ABA, the most accepted method of the day? In a nutshell STATE DEPENDENT LEARNING means we retrieve data better if we are in the same state when we go to retrieve the data, as we were when we learned it. So if you want to do better during an exam study for the exam in a similar state (quiet well light room, no breaks) as you will be in during the exam. If it is easier for you to stay focused with noise in the room go ahead and use it for the first pass on the material, but reduce your dependency on the second pass if you want to properly prepare for your exam.  

This is easy for people to understand until they are dealing with autism. At that point the child's difficulty with requested skills leads people to prioritize practice over state dependence. So in order to optimize the practice time, they have the child sit properly, hands still, feet on the floor, and look at cards which they identify to get a treat and a break, and then try again- on and on and on day upon day upon day. This approach basically teaches skills in a never naturally occurring state. So the strongly challenged child gets out of the chair and begins to flap their hands or bounce a ball and the learning gets lost. In addition to this challenge for generalizing - for many children sitting in this position is so uncomfortable that they are too absorbed with trying to comply to actually absorb what they are practicing. These are they children that often become aggressive.  

The best part about the discovery of this already scientifically known learning limiter, was that it helped me understand why when I started raising my four adopted autistic sons I had "intuitively' chosen to teach them through experience. In fact, in my opinion, autism is an experiential learning disorder. For children with so many perceptual and sensory learning challenges, adding extra steps seems cruel. If you are teaching "car' immerse them in every aspect of the word. Toy cars, rides in cars, pictures of cars, car lots, arcade simulated cars etc but a desk? Well, I guess it could be turned into a car that just ran out of gas!  

So if your child is learning well and generalizing, stay with what you are doing. But if you are seeing aggressive behavior or a lack of generalization rethink the choices being made for his/her education, with or without autism.

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Lynette Louise aka THE BRAIN BROAD is doubly board certified in Neurofeedback and has an MS. She is studying for her PhD in Clinical Psychology with a specialty in Psychophysiology at Saybrook University Global mental health expert Lynette (more...)

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For those who are interested in learning a bit abo... by Lynette Louise aka The Brain Broad on Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013 at 12:13:23 PM
Student notebooks are full of car sketches in the ... by Bob Stuart on Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013 at 3:50:22 PM
Exactly!... by Lynette Louise aka The Brain Broad on Saturday, Feb 9, 2013 at 11:08:43 PM
This is such a wonderful article for so many reaso... by Tsara Shelton on Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013 at 6:57:40 PM
Love you too.... by Lynette Louise aka The Brain Broad on Saturday, Feb 9, 2013 at 11:09:25 PM
I would love to have your play skills. My own Aut... by Jennifer St Jude on Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013 at 7:44:28 PM
They aren't mutually exclusive. Leave them in scho... by Lynette Louise aka The Brain Broad on Saturday, Feb 9, 2013 at 11:11:09 PM
Thank you for this.    I like to ca... by Ilene Flannery Wells on Thursday, Feb 7, 2013 at 1:11:37 PM
Yes it seems to go like that more often than folks... by Lynette Louise aka The Brain Broad on Saturday, Feb 9, 2013 at 11:14:14 PM