Children are not dogs

Yesterday I taught Kipper (Age 9 with a dx of ASD) to knit. Can dogs knit?

Kipper has been asking me to teach him for a long time, but I myself cannot knit.  He asked me to use the chicken-shaped dog clicker I purchased after a friend suggested it might help when I struggled to teach him cursive handwriting after deregistering him from a Special School (that also struggled and had informed me he would probably never write fluently and would need a computer or scribe).

The early Home Education days were hard. I spent a lot of time frustrated but trying to patiently explain how to hold the pencil, reminding him not to slip back into the thumb-wrap hold and form his letters with accuracy:

‘no, not like that, move your finger up, Daddy finger sits next to Mummy finger, not on top of her, keep your circles round, make sure your sticks come all the way to the line like I’ve told you, why is the bottom curve way below the line now, watch that thumb…….’

Way too much language for a child with ASD and most of it negative.

Introducing the clicker cut out language completely and gave very clear positive feedback of broken down steps that were built upon. At first Kipper worked for the extrinsic positive feedback of the clicker. In fact, as it had been such a negative experience up until then I had to provide further extrinsic motivation in the form of ipad minutes, just to get him to attempt handwriting again (let’s face it no-one is going to choose to write a page of ‘a’s for its intrinsic reward), but as steps were achieved and success became incremental, he worked hard for himself and the clicker became merely a guide. We then worked on fluency and accuracy together by charting, and ‘beating our time’ and now he is back in school he continues to produce beautiful fluent cursive writing simply to please himself and his teacher (intrinsically or extrinsically rewarding?). And yes, we have also taught him to type too.

So knitting. We watched several YouTube videos together. Kipper seemed to grasp how to do it, but simply could not replicate it himself. His solution was for me to do it, with him using the clicker to mark when I got it right. We did this for some time. Then we swapped and I clicked him, using 4 clicks for the basic moves, and refining and becoming more picky in what was clicked to establish better practice. He grasped it in less than 10 minutes. Neither his ASD or expressive language disorder proved to be a barrier to his learning in this way.

But here’s the thing. Clicker use for children with ASD, is generally frowned upon in education. In fact behavioural techniques are considered unethical, manipulative, normalising,  despite the fact that they are used routinely for typically developing children when reinforcing ‘wanted behaviour’ in school (stickers, HT awards, attendance assemblies, climbing/descending pegs).

And yet it was my son who requested the clicker was used, and it was he who wanted to learn how to knit (it absolutely wasn’t my idea, I hate all things crafty).  He was impatient to learn well and learn fast.

If I was ‘normalising him’ or training him to conform through dog training techniques, then you can be sure that knitting would not be the first thing that occurred to me to teach a 9yr old boy with ASD who cannot tie his shoelaces.

Ethical decisions in education are surely much more to do with ‘what?’ is taught and ‘why?’ (i.e. should valuable teaching hours be used teaching for the SPAG test? or should I have persisted with handwriting at all?) The ‘how?’ ought to simply be about efficiency and effectiveness (i.e. is the this the most effective use of a learners limited time, for them, and can they learn faster with improved techniques?). It appears to me that in the current education debate, the ‘what?/why?’ and the ‘how?’ are switched.