Why Teach Age Appropriate Topics?

Someone asked me why would I teach my child age appropriate topics such as the American Indians, the arrival of Europeans to America, the Roman Empire and the difference between amphibians and reptiles, when tying her shoes, answering (whether verbally or by typing) a why question and riding a two-wheel bike has yet to be accomplished.

The short answer is – they are not mutually exclusive.  It is not that one thing gets taught and the other is left to languish.  I believe all these things are important for any child to learn; why shouldn’t my child have the opportunity to learn these things too?  But just to play devils advocate, let’s say that the questioner still asks, but why?  To them I say, because knowledge is freedom.   Knowledge gives us context, history provides us with choices, knowing how our government works gives us important information about leadership, honesty and conversely dishonesty.  Learning about geography gives us information about the physical world we inhabit.  Reading Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Susan Sontag, studying a painting by Rubens or Renoir or Basquiat, listening to music by Rachmaninov or  Ray Charles or, my daughter’s personal favorite, Gwen Stefani transports us, encourages us to think both analytically and creatively and enhances our lives.

Ralph Saverese, author of  Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption wrote a wonderful piece about a year ago, The Silver Trumpet of Freedom about his non-speaking, Autistic, son DJ who had just been accepted into Oberlin.  It’s a terrific piece and I encourage all of you to take a few minutes to read it.  I’ll wait.

Right here.



Read it.  

What many believe to be true about Autism is proving again and again to be incorrect.  What many believe to be true about those who are Autistic AND non-speaking is proving to be incorrect.  Our ideas about someone who has physical challenges AND is Autistic AND does not speak are proving to be incorrect.  Our incorrect beliefs are limiting how that segment of the population is taught and what information they are given access to.

This must change.

44 responses to “Why Teach Age Appropriate Topics?

  1. Yes, SO right. The model that we believe – that autistic persons are basically uncomprehending and incapable – is so entrenched that we believe it, too. It fosters the belief that we can only teach them basic living skills and only teach them with visual schedules. This belief is so limiting and so entrenched. You are an amazing teacher for all of us.

  2. You’re right why shouldn’t Emma have the same opportunities as everybody else different doesn’t mean less than.

    • ((((Nisha)))) Tying shoes shouldn’t be a prerequisite to other learning…

      • they invented elastic laces and Velcro for a reason. . . I have to explain that to a lot of people here when they realise that zack can’t tie shoe laces. There are more important things to learn right now…. We’ll get to things like that in time.

  3. I have compared this to trying to teach me to play the violin – or tennis – I am NEVER going to be able to do either, and luckily I can get by. But someone could sit at an IEP meeting and decide to address those deficiencies by working on one all morning and the other all afternoon. This would NOT make for a happy student. How much more exciting, rewarding and challenging to go with strengths and interests and letting me (or any student) learn about the world we live in!

    • Right, so my child may not be able to tie her shoes, though she also may one day, but to make that the prerequisite to any other learning is like asking you to play a Chopin prelude on the piano before you are allowed to learn about the Renaissance or given access to a poem by Ezra Pound.

  4. Good stuff. “Presume competence” should be our mantra, yet so often it is the opposite. All of us should be given tools to reach our full potential if we so desire, and, as you point out, there is no one path that works for everyone. Well said.

  5. To your brilliant words I’ll add this: it’s quite possible that given the opportunity, Emma might be more interested in learning about the Roman Empire or the difference between reptiles and amphibians (or some other seemingly “useless” subject) than learning to ride a bike or tie her shoes. 🙂

  6. For what it’s worth Ted still can’t tie his shoes (yeah, he prefers flip flops anyway) and I won’t even get started on the levels on which that young man can think….

  7. Wow.

    I think it gets to the heart of what a lot of people misunderstand about autism and developmental disability. We’re not going through the same general developmental trajectory as non-disabled people, only slower; and there’s not a pre-determined succession of accomplishments where one skill set has to be acquired before an unrelated one can or should be…like bike-riding before history and science? Those things *aren’t connected*, just because they usually occur at the same time in non-autistic children.

    This is why I tell people that asynchronous development is an important component of autism–that skills that usually develop at a predictable rate in non-disabled people can actually develop at wildly varying rates…so that someone really can wind up able to do high-level math, but not to speak or clean their house or walk without falling over their feet. People tend to get that.

    • I was just thinking about this! When Em was 18 months old she taught herself how to pump her legs and swing by herself. I remember the first day she did that, all these caregivers and parents came around and several asked me how old she was. They were dismayed when I told them she was just 18 months old. So yeah. Uneven. Not the same. It’s a different trajectory than those who are not Autistic. We have to stop comparing the two neurologies… it isn’t helping anyone.
      I really love how you’ve described it – “so that someone really can wind up able to do high-level math, but not to speak or clean their house or walk without falling over their feet. People tend to get that.”

      • Ha ha ha–I didn’t learn to pump my legs to swing by myself until I was 6 or 7? I think? And my mother was dismayed that I couldn’t do it. And I was doing calculus before I figured out blowing my nose. I’m starting to think that Emma might be a little Kassiane-like in terms of physical/spacial intelligence?

  8. I read the Silver Trumpet of Freedom.
    Very powerful. Very moving. Everyone who reads your blog, like me, should read it, and especially the non-autistics should read it.
    I read your blog every day, and love it.

  9. For me, one of the confusing aspects of this issue is how much Emma still enjoys her children’s books that are geared to a much younger age, like the Miss Spider books. It seems to me that her enjoyment of these stories is not entirely perseverative or OCD related, but that she enjoys them the same way she enjoys particular songs that she’s loved for a long time. So how do we balance these preferences most successfully when we are orchestrating lessons or interfacing with her leisure activities? It’s not so simple to always know what’s “right”.

    • “but that she enjoys them the same way she enjoys particular songs that she’s loved for a long time.”

      I think that’s a really good way to think about it. And she can still love those things and spend leisure time on them and also be capable of higher-level material, too, as far as school or planned lessons go. (There are still children’s books that I love, and re-read once in a while. I’m working through a children’s series now, geared for 10-12 year-olds. And also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new book.)

      In my experience, obsessions like that usually just have to burn themselves out, or eventually serve as gateways to other things.

    • Richard, I’m glad you’ve written this, because a great many parents have said similar things to me. But think about how you and your son can enjoy a certain kind of humor or silliness and yet you can read some pretty dense stuff regarding string theory. It’s not so different. Em loved Miss Spider, she may always enjoy Miss Spider. I admit to still loving Snoopy and Charlie Brown and the Little Colonel stories. But it isn’t at the exclusion of all else. It’s just another thing on the ever lengthening menu.

      • I agree Ariane and Chavisory. I’m visualizing a beautiful photo I’ve seen of two children holding hands that are framed by a tunnel of trees/bushes. It looks like they are entering a magical world. I know that I still love watching “children’s” animated films and I’ve been spending a lot of time in a fantasy world writing YA. These are not incompatible desires. Great quote by C.S. Lewis: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” http://cslewiswisdom.blogspot.com/2011/07/in-defense-of-childishness.html

    • I hear you on that one! Mackie still adores Elmo, Barney, and Dora at the age of 11. I mean *looooooves* them. I couldn’t get a password set up for a movie feature on our bluray player in time, and he ordered 6 Elmo shows before I caught up with it!

  10. This is exactly why the concept of “functioning levels” is meaningless! I’ve asked people, what if we had “functioning levels” for neurotypical kids? If there were a kid who struggled in math class but was a champion swimmer, would we say “How can you let him in the pool unsupervised? He can’t possibly swim! He’s low-functioning! Look, he can’t even do algebra!”? Or would we say “Look how well he swims! He’s obviously high-functioning. He can’t possibly need a math tutor!”?

    I include MiddleDaughter in her brother’s lessons in most areas, despite her difficulty understanding spoken language. If she understands well enough to grasp the concept, wonderful! If she understands half, that’s half more than she would’ve gotten if I hadn’t bothered to include her at all. If she doesn’t understand any of it (unlikely), at least she’s hearing some words that may stick in her memory when we discuss them later.

    • I really appreciated what you wrote here about functioning labels. Right. In a group of hedge fund investors I would be seen as extremely low functioning, put me in a group of designers I’m thought of as high functioning, put me in a group of physical laborers or athletes I’m moderate to low and on it goes. These functioning labels are unhelpful, but boy it took me awhile to understand that…

  11. I think it’s great that you’re teaching her about these things. Learning to tie your shoes is an important skill, but even if she doesn’t learn it, she can wear snow boots in winter and sandals in summer. It’s a nice skill to have but there are plenty of shoes that don’t have laces in adult sizes. I can tie my shoes, but I haven’t needed to all winter because my snow boots are nice and warm and don’t have laces. Why skip learning about really interesting things like history and science until you’ve learned a skill than you can get by without? If she’s interested in history, then learning more about it will be pleasureable for her and her memories of learning it may be some of the favourite memories she carries into adulthood.

  12. Access to age appropriate topics is often correlated with cognitive ability. So if a person has limited literacy skills then they should only be given primary books with content appropriate for a young child. All kinds of visual and auditory supports, e.g. , photos, graphics, and videos to support text comprehension can be used so you don’t have to be able to “read” Shakespeare to appreciate plays. To Richard’s point, I found a “Cat in the Hat” interactive story book app for the iPad the other day. Having the app read the story back to me made me realize that I still get a lot of enjoyment from it. And then I can turn around and read the NY Times too. I have a diversity of things I enjoy reading and that’s what should happen for all people regardless of what your perceived cognitive abilities are.

  13. All my life whenever I do something extremely well someone sooner or later labels it as a splinter skill. I have never seen this happen to any NT when s/he does something extremely well! I am more of a person than most people thought along the way of my growing up. In fact, I am 100% a human being. So is Em. Please do not ever let anyone refer to anything she is good at as a splinter skill! Thank you so much ❤

  14. Please Ariane, look now, today, at the IEP Emma has. Look to see what path she is on…diploma wise. Keep her options available for higher education.

  15. You are doing the completely right thing! Don’t ever stop!

  16. Pingback: S.R. Salas | MEDICAL MIRACLE?! Nope, just plain ‘ol faith in our fellow man.

  17. I’m going to admit that our 7 year-old also doesn’t have shoe-tying or bike riding down. He’s “NT”, but has had no big desire to learn either skill. Having Mackie first had at least taught me that things tend to come in their own time, and so I have not pushed the issue, but other…people (I’m trying not to be rude) make comments.
    That said, I’ve dipped my toe into the same waters. We started reading Cheaper By The Dozen yesterday. I’d forgotten that this might be more of a YA book, and stumbled over mild cursing…oops…but I think the story is a good start – a non-traditional family who made the most of their love for one another – and probably we’ll continue with Matilda afterwards.
    I feel like we’re rounding the Cape of Good Hope…the stormiest, most uncertain part is nearly behind us.

    • “I feel like we’re rounding the Cape of Good Hope…the stormiest, most uncertain part is nearly behind us.” I can really relate to this feeling. Thanks so much for sharing this comment… all of it.

  18. What she enjoys is always right. I commented before how much it drove me crazy when as a policy the people who make the decisions about what’s “right” for a kid get so hung up on age appropriate that enjoyment is taken away. No reason why she can’t have access to both. I was not read to as a kid but from the kids I worked with I could see that a very familar book was very comforting to them for many years past they had moved on to other things. The story is not just the story but the remembrance of every happy moment spent hearing it I guess.

    I never was allowed to play with Lego as a kid and went through a phase of collecting it and playing with it in my 20s,. Didn’t prevent me from graduation with a close to perfect GPA so… access to a range of things and to heck with appropriate would be my model.

    • Part of what I love about reading to both kids, well my eldest isn’t interested as much in being read to (though I just realized as I wrote that that I haven’t asked him) but reading to Em is so wonderful because I love and really enjoy being able to read these old stories that I loved as a girl and haven’t read since. Next up after The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women!
      The more I look at all of this stuff I don’t know what “appropriate” even means. Appropriate for whom?!

  19. Hello. This is my first time responding on your blog. Thank you for this piece. It has reassured me and inspired me. I homeschool my 5 year old and I’ve decided to introduce more of the academic information to her as well (I’ve increased the level after reading your blog). I’ve seen her blossom by the challenge of learning new things (as opposed to feeling incapable when only focusing on the things she finds difficult). Although the new learning is difficult, she is excited and feels challenged, and I ensure that at each step she feels accomplishment. I was a teacher and find that teaching her, with the right accommodations for response methods, is no different from the researched best practices of the classroom. I firmly believe in teaching and not training our children.

    By the way, when my little one was four, I showed her a picture of your Emma and we read a bit of what you said about Emma and the beautiful girl she is. We don’t have a lot of exposure to children with language difficulties or who are autistic; it is isolating where we are. My little girl was beaming, positively beaming to see someone like her, another little girl like her. So thank you, and thank Emma. She has been and continues to be an inspiration. You are so appreciated.


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