Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain

I've been on a temporary hiatus from anything work related.  I spend far more time than I care to admit during the school year, and have really enjoyed my first week off (as a side note, updates will probably occur over the summer, but may be inconsistent).  As I can't completely put everything down,  I have been working my way through a book about a radical new way to look at special education - The Woman Who Changed Her Brain by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young.  I first heard of this idea and program in the book The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (which isn't the topic but covers a lot more brain-issues than just learning disabilities, including strokes and other brain damage - also I reference it several times below).  Links are to Amazon.

Never have I read a book that makes me both so hopeful and so sad.  The author describes her experience as an individual with severe learning/cognitive disabilities and how she was able to not only overcome them, but actually retrain her brain to free herself.  She then applied these exercises to others and developed additional ones to focus on other cognitive deficits.  The basic premise is that these cognitive deficits are what is preventing children with a variety of learning disabilities and diagnoses cannot learn.  Once the deficit is addressed, through a series of exercises (think weightlifting with the brain) these children are able to learn and perform tasks that were once beyond them.  The book discusses many case studies of both children and adults who have found success going through the program in the The Arrowsmith Schools.  It describes individuals moving from the 4th to 80th percentile on various sub-tests of standardized intelligence tests.

It kind of boggles my mind that there is so much resistance to neural plasticity (most of which was described in the Norman Doidge book).  It fits patterns that have been long observed - the stair step pattern of improvements following a traumatic brain injury [building a neural pathway represents the flat/no progress part of the stairs, and the sudden jump to the next step once the pathway has been formed is an almost perfect illustration...].  I do recognize the difference between seeing changes in a damaged, and healing brain than from someone who was "born that way."

I don't want to mislead anything.  This book is both an autobiography and (almost) an extended advertisement for the Arrowsmith Program.  It doesn't cover any strategies for any remediation of the different cognitive deficits described in the book (there are 14 that can interact in any number and at various severity in individuals). I think actual candidacy for the program was discussed more in the Doidge book than in this one, but the program does not seem to be appropriate for all who apply and that seems to be sorted out in the assessment process.

Going back to my first sentence about the book.  I am hopeful that this is a start of a change in what we view as special education.  The long term outcomes for the kids and adults who completed the programs in the case studies is dramatically different from anything they would have otherwise achieved.  I hope that the kids I work with eventually do have access to this or something similar.  The word eventually makes me sad.   I work in a poor area for a district with no money. My heart breaks that my kids (not to mention all the other sped kids in the building....) will not have access to this kind of help. I see almost mirror reflections of some of my students in the case studies. I can almost label specific kids with some of the deficits described in the book.  The program is beyond the resources of my school district and of the families.

I wish there was some more information about specific things that those of us working with these kids could do now. As the research improves, I hope that these ideas will spread into the mainstream for special education. Unfortunately, my kids, and millions of others are suffering now. It's a stretch for many schools to be able to adopt an Arrowsmith program (all the ones in the US appear to be private schools) but I would love something to use with kids now.

If you know of any resources - please share!

1 comment:

  1. I think actual candidacy for the program was discussed more in the Doidge book than in this one, but the program does not seem to be appropriate for all who apply and that seems to be sorted out in the assessment process.speech recognition software