Sunday, March 28, 2010

Connecting the Dots

The other night we sat talking over dinner with our friends Randy and Jenny. Iris spends time in the playroom almost every day with their son Quinn. Iris remarked that just the other day, Quinn had spontaneously shouted, "Aimee, A-I-M-E-E!"

Randy and Jenny were amazed as Quinn doesn't spell nor could they recall how or when he would have learned to spell Aimee.

So what changed?

Jaycees Can't Sing
As we considered what had transpired with Quinn, I recalled having worked with a group of Jaycees in Glen Ellyn, Illinois when I was about 22. As a fundraiser, the Jaycees had decided to produce a musical written by Jaycees and performed by Jaycees. I was hired as the music director.

I sat at the piano one night facing four young business men whose main performance involved a quartet with four-part harmony. Each of them had sheet music in front of them which they had practiced and learned. So, we jumped right into the song.

As we began rehearsing, it was immediately clear that the harmonies weren't all they were intended to be. We started, stopped, started, stopped and then finally I decided it might be best to practice the song first in unison. "Hey guys, let's take it once through with everyone singing the melody."

So, we launched into a rousing chorus of the song singing just the basic melody and... well, what they sang wasn't exactly the melody. In fact, it wasn't exactly any melody.

From all I could discern, every one of these guys was tone-deaf. As I paused the song, pondering how to proceed, out of the corner of my eye at the edge of the Glenbard West, high school stage, I could see the musical's director bent over laughing. Turns out, he knew full well that none of the guys in front of me could 'carry a tune in a bucket' and our current exercise was meant as a bit of a practical joke (on me).

Joke's on Me
I suddenly felt inspired to teach these guys who can't sing, to sing. We tried taking one line at a time over and over. We tried simply humming the song without the lyrics. We tried pretty much anything that I could think of, but still nothing that was sung in any way represented the tune: not for want of trying.

Finally, I pointed to the man directly in front of me and said, "I'm going to play a note on the piano. When I play the note, I'd like you to listen to it and then to hum the same note. Everyone else, I want you to listen to what I play and then listen to what he sings."

I played a G below middle C and waited. The man hummed an Eb just below. I played the G again and waited. The man hummed a Bb just above. I played the G a third time and... E. Then I stopped, scanned the group catching each man's eyes and asked, "OK, I want you to think about this. Is what I played, what he hummed?"

I could almost hear the gears turning as each man pondered the question, eyes glancing back and forth. Finally, one man looked me in the eye, a big 'ahh hah!' spreading across his face, and said, "No!"

One by one, we proceeded with the exercise until each of the guys could here when a hummed note was the same pitch as that being played and when it wasn't. Turned out that none of the guys had ever associated pitch with music. They'd always considered music to be words and rhythm. About an hour later, everyone of them could sing the song, some of them actually singing harmony. They'd simply never connected the dots.

Under-connected Brains
As I learn more about the neurological basis for autism, a common thread is that of brain synchronization. Different parts of our brains are responsible for different activities. When we undertake complex tasks, multiple regions of our brains work together to accomplish them. To do this effectively requires connectivity and timing.

For people with autism, it appears that the timing and coordination of certain parts of the brain doesn't work or doesn't work well. This makes processing of some complex tasks impossible or difficult.

Imagine racing down an entrance ramp onto a highway of fast moving traffic. Let's say that drivers on the ramp pay attention only to other drivers on the ramp, and those on the highway only to others on the highway. Both the ramp and the highway work fine, but when you bring them together, the merging of traffic doesn't work. Not only that, but because the merging doesn't work, both the highway and the ramp stop working as traffic begins to pile up at point of intersection. To work effectively, activity on the ramp and on the highway must be coordinated an synchronized.

Similarly, people with neurological challenges that limit or preclude the synchronization and coordination of various regions of the brain have difficulties with complex tasks. Each processing center works fine. However, crudely speaking, when you bring together multiple centers, the merging of information doesn't work and the resulting pile up causes each independent region to overload.

It appears that the solution to this is simple (albeit perhaps not always easy to implement). The key is to conduct activities that help to improve the coordination of the various parts of the brain. Since the individual parts of the brain are working just fine, once the connections are established, amazing things happen including apparently miraculous strides in learning.

Connecting the Dots
I've often used the illustration:
If all you have is a hammer,
then every problem looks like a nail.
Oftentimes, when teaching others new skills and capabilities, we use repetition. If someone is slow to 'get it', we repeat and repeat and repeat until they either understand or we determine that they aren't going to understand.

However, if a person simply isn't making the connection between two or more critical elements, you can repeat until we have an efficient and effective public health care plan, and they still won't 'get it'. Repetition without connection doesn't work.

What is likely more useful is to ferret out the places where the connections are not being made, and then to work on connecting the dots.

OK, so that's the simple part. The trickier part is figuring out what connections are missing and how to build the bridges. Depending on the situation, there may be formal evaluations that can help you with that. In other cases, it might be as simple as dialoguing with someone until you find the missing bridge. If you're coaching someone, it may involve simply dropping what's not working and starting to pay close attention to where the connection breaks down. Once you find it, work on bridging the disconnected pieces.

The cool thing is that once the connection is made, all sorts of wonderful things happen and progress can seem miraculous.

If you've struggled all your life with math, it could be that your cognitive abilities are just fine, there are just a few things that don't quite connect yet. If you're a slave to the sheet music never having been able to 'play by ear', it could be that there are just a couple of connections that need to be made and you'll be playing anything you hear. In many cases, there may be a solitary, basic connection or association that's simply missing. Track it down, bridge the connection and voila!

Happy connecting!

Teflon

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