Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Windows

This summer I have read two memoirs written by mothers of children with autism, which I always find interesting as I compare notes. Both of these books discussed the concept of “windows of opportunity,” the critical stages of brain development, and the race to have their children master skills by certain ages. This windows theory from the 1970’s has haunted parents of children with developmental delays who are frantically trying to help their children reach milestones before those windows close. I’m reminded of the scene from the movie Titanic where the workers in the bowels of the sinking ship must hurry before the doors to the watertight compartments closed tightly, trapping them from ever escaping. Like the workers helping each other as they scramble through the doors that seal their fate, parents push their children toward those developmental windows, not wanting them to be left behind their peers. Of course, this windows theory drives the need for early intervention, making certain that children with developmental delays, such as autism, get the help they need as soon as they are diagnosed.

Despite our best efforts and concerns, Alex wasn’t officially diagnosed with autism until shortly after he turned four years old. At that time, the prevailing thought was that the main window of child development closed at age five, giving us only about a year to push Alex as far as he could go. As if dealing with a child with autism weren’t stressful enough, the thought of having a rather brief time limit to “fix” him only added to the worries. His special education preschool teacher (the same one who made him hold a sign that said, “IGNORE ME!”) apparently bought into this windows theory because she would repeatedly express concerns about Alex’s thumb sucking and trouble with toilet training. Basically, she seemed to believe that if he didn’t master toileting and stop sucking his thumb by his fifth birthday, he would never break his thumb sucking habit, nor would he ever toilet independently. Since I had sucked my thumb until I was nearly six years old, I knew her beliefs were wrong. Nonetheless, my own reading and research about child development indicated that many people believed the windows theory to be true, and I felt pressure to help Alex develop as many skills as possible before that dreaded window was supposed to close at age five.

As a middle school teacher, I was taught in education classes that students cannot learn much during adolescence because hormonal changes affect their brains and distract them from learning new skills. Like the windows concept, this adolescent learning plateau hypothesis may be true in theory, but I have found both ideas to be false in practice. I know that my seventh graders learn new skills in the year that they spend with me, and I have the data to prove it. Similarly, children continue learning after that alleged window closes at age five; I have observed that Alex has gained a great deal of knowledge and skills after he turned five. Despite his preschool teacher’s dire predictions, he did stop sucking his thumb and started using the toilet on his own—in his own good time, when he was ready to master these tasks. Ironically, once Alex turned five and we got past that dreaded window that nagged me, even if I didn’t totally buy into the theory, I felt a rush of fresh air come into our lives. No longer racing against an arbitrary clock, we continued working with Alex and celebrated each milestone, knowing that learning is not something to be rushed, but rather to be enjoyed as a lifelong pursuit with each person mastering skills on his or her own timetable. Thankfully, we have found this to be true with Alex, who continues to learn and develop, long after his fifth birthday has past.

“So she helped him climb out through a window, and he fled and escaped.” I Samuel 19:12

7 comments:

farmwifetwo said...

The windows theory is a bunch of lies IMO set up by people trying to sell a product using fear mongering.

People never stop learning. People learn at different rates. People learn different skills easier than other people do.

It's one of my soapboxes :)

K. C. said...

The developmental milestones can be so frustrating. On one hand, it's good to know where our kids stand, but on the other hand, they promote "mompetition." I used to worry all the time that Lottie wasn't crawling or rolling or walking soon enough. But, like you, when I let go, it was easier and fun to watch her grow and learn.

Pam Byrne said...

Farmwifetwo, I completely agree with you that learning is an ongoing and individual process--I see that all the time with Alex, my students, and myself. I hope that someday the windows theory will be considered as ridiculous as the refrigerator mother theory of autism. In the meantime, I'll stand on the soapbox with you. :)
Take care,
Pam

Pam Byrne said...

Hi K.C.,
When Alex was a baby, I religiously consulted _What to Expect the First Year_ to make sure that he was right on track, and for most things, he was. As long as kids master skills eventually, whether at 2 or at 12, I suppose it really doesn't matter. Waiting patiently isn't always easy, but taking the pressure off does help. :)
Take care,
Pam

farmwifetwo said...

Pam it's frustrating when you know it isn't true. In the TO Star over the weekend there was a large article about one of our soldiers who was visiting with Afghan elders 5yrs ago when a young man split his head open with an ax.

A man who was suppose to have significant issues and given up on.

A man who 5yrs later isn't perfect, still in a wheelchair, but doing amazing for the level of his injury. Yet, as noted in the article the system claims that after 2yrs he shouldn't be able to improve yet he does improve daily.

They wrote a book about the first 5yrs - hence the article - and in the article they mentioned "The brain that changes itself" http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/570172.The_Brain_That_Changes_Itself I've read this book. Not all if it applies to all of us but I believe we always learn, given the chance and the means to do so. In our own time.

Hence the REALLY BIG soapbox on this topic :)

Pam Byrne said...

Farmwifetwo, you've given good examples of how things can improve with time. I think of stroke or accident victims who make significant progress with time and therapy. One of the things that bothered me when Alex was little was that our insurance wouldn't pay for speech therapy for him, despite letters from our pediatrician and his speech therapist. Had he been an elderly stroke victim, they would have paid for speech therapy. Never made sense to me...
Take care,
Pam

farmwifetwo said...

We could get preschool speech unless we went into ABA. ABA doesn't believe in speech nor OT. So we lost both. The school system barely does either.

Which is why when the Harold's of the world lobby for full funding of ABA in Canada - it's coming back up again - I lobby for individual parent choices to use that funding for.

My children are proof that ABA isn't necessary to have good outcomes when you have autism. I'm still waiting for the "evidence" that ABA works and the peer reviewed documents to back it up.

But, I'm not convinced the individual funding nor the "proof" of ABA success will ever become available. We'll just keep muddling along. We got into the ACS (augmentative communication service) officially last week. The Teacher came as well to the meeting at our house. Here's to hoping it helps.