Drexel University Online - March and May

Autism Paradox and the Broken (Special) Education System

YouTube and the Internet have provided a boost for my 14-year-old autistic son, where his public school has failed to educate him. Technology has empowered Fridrik to explore his curiosity, while expands his intelligence.

Using the 1990s cartoon series Dexter’s Laboratory and its 78 episodes as an audiographic template – knowing every line of dialogue from every episode – Fridrik taught himself Russian in a week. He compared the Russian dialogue of the characters with the English lines he knew from his mind’s database. Never once did he open the American version to compare (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dexter’s_Laboratory).

Fridrik took the mouse and broke down each Russian word into syllable and then into sounds bites. Over and again, he broke down the Russian sounds into a mathematical form that he understood. By the second week, he laughed at the Russian jokes and humor.

I asked, “Fridrik, do you understand Russian?”

He looked at me with a confident stare, and replied, “Jaaa.” For non-verbal Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children, ja is easier to say than yes.

Over the past couple of years using other cartoons he saw as a child, Fridrik taught himself Spanish – his mother tested him – and has a working knowledge of Japanese, German, and French. Russian and Japanese are about as far from Western languages as one can get. But when broken down into mathematical bits, they appear easy for him to handle. It also helps having a photographic memory to go with his audiographic database.

Rosetta Stone language program watch out. He and some of his peers don’t need you.

A Broken Special Education System

Unlike being force-fed the basics in math, speech, and behavior at a third grade level in his New York City public school program, where Fridrik is one of six ASD children in class, the curious boy has ventured on his own in terms of education. Technology, from the iPad and mobile apps to “tech talk” devices that help them communicate, has been a key enabler for parents and special educators to interact with autistic children today compared to the ASD kids in the 1990s, when the neurological disorder exploded into a full blown epidemic.

For school having an Individual Education Plan (IEP), designed from the top down by the U.S. Department of Education, hasn’t helped him or his teachers grasp his deficits or even know about his unique gifts. For the record, Fridrik has had five teachers the past four years in the same Manhattan special ed public school (http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/iep.index.htm).

With the IEP the only tool for new teachers to learn about Fridrik and his classmates, each fall semester his homework began with the same dumbed-down items: counting coins, reading elementary school books, matching shapes and sizes. Bored out of his mind, he silently protested, tuning out his teacher. No one at school knew how smart he was; nor did they realize he had taught himself to read. Today, his verbal comprehension is at high school level.

In math, he excels making mincemeat of complex, multi-step problems in seconds. Give him a new math theorem once, and unleash the savant in him. Rain Man can’t wear his size 11+ shoes. Fridrik has one advantage over kids with Asperger’s: he feels empathy and understands other human emotions.

Math at the Speed of Light

Today, Fridrik cranks through math problems that college graduates take for the GMAT exam, answering questions as fast as people watch the colors change on a traffic light.

Part of the problem with his IEP centers on information gleaned from test taking, and test taking only. They appear to be the only metric to measure intelligence in special ed kids. Yes, my son blows through math problems with all types of complexity, but he doesn’t test well. That’s because another part of his brain – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – prevents him from answering questions.

With the regiment of a drill sergeant, Fridrik needs a track runner’s starting gun. In his case, his mother sits next to him and taps his wrist to get him to glance at a problem – a paragraph of words, radical exponents, square roots of fractions squared by fractions, any kind of geometry. In less than a second, he looks up and away. It takes him longer to write the answer than for him to know it. That’s because autism impacts the regions of the brain (housed in the front) that produces speech and fine-motor skills.

My favorite math problem he solves: A horizontal line with a second line forming an angle, asking which angle to measure, acute or obtuse. The next normal step to is to take a compass and measure the angle. Not Fridrik. He looks at it and knows instantly to the exact degree the size of the angle: 40, 94, 61, 137, 12, or 154. He has been right every single time. Amazing.

Not knowing how intelligent Fridrik really is or the hidden talent he possesses has hampered his ability to grow within the U.S. education system. It’s not a knock on it or New York City’s public schools, or even their teachers. Special education simply hasn’t adopted for the new strange, counterintuitive world of children on the spectrum.

Communication Deficit
|of the School System

With the explosion of autism rates soaring the past two decades from 1-in-2,000 born with ASD to 1-in-68 in a recent CDC study, U.S. schools will continue to be overwhelmed by the epidemic, which has an environmental component (http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0327-autism-spectrum-disorder.html). “Better diagnosis” cannot explain away the sharp rise of autism incidence rates. That math doesn’t add up.

After treating the environmental impact of Fridrik’s diagnosis – Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) – with glutathione injections, an assortment of nutrients and vitamins, a year of chelation therapy, and other alternative medicine regiments, in 2009 a research study at Columbia University that uses transcranial Direct Current (tCDC) treatment to bridge signaling impairment accepted Fridrik as one of the patients in the study.

After undergoing a functional magnetic resonance, a 3-hour neuroimaging procedure under sedation, Dr. Harry Schneider (http://www.harrydschneidermd.com/html/autism.html) mapped Fridrik’s brain activity as it reacted to external stimuli: music with lyrics, favorite songs, the voice of his mother and father, their voices played backwards. The renderings of 40 MRI slides captured his brain’s reactions to each stimulus.

Compiled, the slides showed Fridrik’s reaction to words and music. They told Dr. Schneider that the boy not only comprehended receptive language, but that he had a very active brain. On the slides that showed him deciphering his parents’ voices played backwards, the colors of his brain lit up like a Christmas tree. Not all ASD children in the study showed Fridrik’s remarkable ability.

For the next five years, “Dr. Harry,” as he is called by children and parents, used tCDC treatment on Fridrik to help him read. When he wore the headband with the two sponges that delivered extremely low amperage from a 9-volt battery, Fridrik could read out loud full sentences, albeit speaking slow. When he wasn’t being treated during the week, his speech would regress. No doubt, tCDC improved his comprehension. Today he responds to people’s questions with one or two words. He also understands the nuances of grammar, such as the subtle difference in pronouns. And although the therapy hasn’t spurred Fridrik to speak fully – yet – it did set him on a journey of self-discovery.

For a child who at the age of five years old in 2005, who was totally mute for three years, too many of his early special education staff thought of him as kind of dumb; they continued to test him with the same boring stuff time and again, as special educators have not been able to reach him. What they learned the following year, silent Fridrik put full sentences together with words on a table, arrange them into a sentence to match an image or picture. He constructed the sentences backward; from the objects he saw coming first.

Unfortunately, that information got lost in files when he aged out and transitioned from one public school program to another. So the next special ed class started from scratch.

Music’s Autism Paradox

Dr. Harry, who is a linguist, neuroscientist, and speaks several languages, has taken tCDC stimulation therapy on the road to Indiana, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Israel, and parts of Europe. His research discovered something unique in all spectrum children: The region of the brain that receives music is not impacted by autism.

In a peer-reviewed paper Neural Systems for Speech and Song in Autism, co-written with Grace Lai, Spiro P. Pantazatos, and Dr. Joy Hirsh (http://www.readcube.com/articles/10.1093/brain/awr335), Dr. Schneider stated:

“To investigate this paradox between impaired language and preserved music functions in autism, we combined functional MRI, functional connectivity and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to evaluate functional and structural systems sensitive to language and music in low-functioning autistic patients and typically developing age – matched controls.”

What does that mean? One day, a mobile app could be developed that would allow a parent or teacher to speak into a smartphone, and on the other side their command would be sung in a lullaby. Instead of the autistic child ignoring the command, as it happens today everywhere, the child would get dressed, sit down for a meal, or go play. More research is needed, but the future looks bright for a new way to communicate with non-verbal children on the spectrum like my son.

Today, Dr. Joy Hirsch, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobiology, Yale School of Medicine, as head of Yale University’s new Brain Functioning Laboratory (http://fmri.org/team-2/) has taken Dr. Harry Schneider with her to Yale as a visiting professor, since “His research focuses on autism and the neural circuitry that underlies language disorders.”

Brain Signals and Communication Barrier

In the fall of 2012, I attended the annual Advances in Autism Conference at Mt. Sinai Hospital’s Seaver Autism Center. During the morning presentation, Dr. Timothy Roberts of the Children’s Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, said something that caught my attention: His 15 years of research analyzing the brain waves of children, he told the rapt audience that the signal processing in autistic children was “delayed by 50 milliseconds,” or a twentieth of a second.

That was the same 20th of a second delay that Infochimps’ CEO Jim Kaskade told me what’s called “near real time” in big data databases (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-grundvig/big-data_b_2068814.html). For autistic children that delay prevents them from spitting out words. Time and again, I have seen the frustration in Fridrik’s eyes as he tried hard to talk, but without a single word coming out.

The words of Timothy P.L. Roberts, PhD, (the Oberkircher Family Chairman in Pediatric Radiology, Vice-chairman, Research Dept. of Radiology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Professor of Radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania) compelled me to learn more about signaling delays.

The following January, I drove Fridrik down to Philadelphia to me with Dr. Roberts in his lab at Children’s Hospital. He showed Fridrik and I the radiology lab where he uses the Magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging machine to measure brain waves and signal processing of autistic children.

In a paper he co-wrote as the lead researcher, Auditor Magnetic Mismatch Field Latency: A Biomarker for Language Impairment in Autism (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21392733), it reads:

“Mounting electrophysiological evidence suggests that deficits in discriminating rapid changes in sound may be associated with impaired speech processing in children suffering from developmental disorders.”

From Dr. Harry’s transcranial direct current to Dr. Roberts’ research on brain wave processing, I see my son’s speech deficits in a new light with his super fast ability to compute the most complex math problems.

With one part of Fridrik’s brain delayed by 50 milliseconds at a very early age, other parts of his brain developed with incredible results. Like a blind person, whose other senses are heightened due to the lost sight, Fridrik has a gift that Pythagoras of Pythagorean theorem fame might have appreciated.

If Fridrik is the Michael Jordan of math, then he will have to overcome his OCD as much as the broken U.S. education system will have to change. When that happens, I suspect many other bright children, with their inability to talk, will be discovered and set on a course for a brighter future.

It’s time for normal people to remove their biases and misunderstandings of autism and learn to listen and communicate in new ways.

 

James O. Grundvig is the father of an autistic son and is a freelance journalist with Huffington Post, Financial Times Foreign Direct Investor Magazine and Epoch Times, covering subjects from energy to technology. James also has 25 years in the engineering-construction industry and lives and works in New York City. You may contact him at james.4base@gmail.com.

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