02 August 2008

On Regression and Skills

This started out as a forum post, but I started getting into a big meandering tangent, so I decided to make it a blog post.

I have experienced what's been called regression (actually, they called it "degrading", which is obviously even more inaccurate and offensive than "regressing").

For me, while there's been many times, most times I didn't know how to describe what was going on, when I would lose skills, and mostly believed it when I was told that I was being "unco-operative" or "playing games".

It is quite common for autistic people to have atypical acquisition and loss of skills, and it can also be triggered by overly stressful events, like change in environment or other physical or emotional distress.

I used to be really good with rote memory and arithmetic, and also pretty good with abstract math reasoning, though difficulty with understanding instructions and sequencing made me start out at each math lesson in elementary school as the slowest to learn, but once learned then I would be tutoring others on those same concepts.

I taught myself algebra and calculus when at 10, then I forgot most of it, then I learned it again at 13, along with physics, then forgot most of the calculus, and then learned it again between ages 16 and 17. At age 16, I picked up a textbook about number theory, as well as one about modern algebra.

This was in Algebra II/Trig, and I had for two weeks the ability to instantly solve logarithms problems, that would take an overhead sheet or two and half an hour for the class to solve. A few weeks later, and I couldn't remember any formulas for the next test, and got a C-.

In the two years following that, I've gotten especially good with conceptual math, and can understand the formulas so long as I don't have to remember them or to calculate arithmetic (advanced math is mostly proofs and theorems anyway, so that's no big deal).

I have had varying skills with speech. It varies more on a day-to-day or minute-to-minute basis, though, rather than between months. Though I can usually speak, I usually have to have a lot of time not speaking, not in crowds, stressful things like that. Otherwise, speech will shut down.

Since at school I am around lots of noisy kids, crowds, processing tons of speech, fluorescent lights, having to keep attention to tasks, socializing - it's a heck of a lot more stressful than a day at home with my at-home routine of court shows, I Love Lucy, Tetris, swimming, walking, writing, reading, and Internet. So speech shuts down a lot more often for me when going to school and other such busy places, which tend to put many more demands on me than the non-pressured summer-at-home environment.

More recently, in high school, while overall I was gaining a lot of skills (body awareness, identifying and articulating feelings and sensations, initiating things, socializing, riding the bus independently, etc.), the skills that I lost (reduction in how often speech is possible, arithmetic, increased rocking and other stims, generally being more visibly autistic) apparently caught their notice, even though things like stims enabled me to learn the other things and did not give me trouble.

They also said I was having more frequent meltdowns and shutdowns, but any consultation of my mother regarding driving me to school and picking me up four years earlier, would have roughly disabused them of this notion - my looking more visibly autistic clouded them to think I had increased meltdowns.

Such implication of skills or functioning as universally measurable as going forward or backward, particularly struck my recall, recently, as I read a report from the people who did testing on me.

According to my test-score on the KTEA, I have kindergarten-level math skills. Whereas, I got a B in AP Calculus (I got "A"s on the exams, but did not turn in two chapters worth of homework) last year, and still have roughly the same ability in calculus as I did then, though it is rusty a bit from lack of practice.

Two years ago, when I was about 16, and took the Woodcock-Johnson test, I scored as well above average in math skills for my age. The difference in those two years? From sophomore year to senior year, I have lost most arithmetic skills, other than the most basic (simpler ones like 2 + 2 and 5 - 1 I can still do without writing down or using a calculator).

The testing procedure obviously is what gave the misleading score here - they had to get me to write a certain amount of questions right (I think 4) to establish a basal, then after that however many I got wrong would determine where they stop the questions. If they had done the test from the more advanced questions to the arithmetic ones, instead of the opposite way (as one person administering the test suggested), then it would've been a more accurate score.

I really do not think that I am going on to pursue a physics degree in college when I have kindergarten math skills. Sure, a third grader could outperform me at times tables, but I could outperform a high schooler at physics.

When I was 7, and I was in a class that was mostly kindergarten students, but about 5 other 1st grade students, I remember being the only one who couldn't remember my home address, and being the oldest student in the class, I considered this an embarrassment. I soon got over that, though, taking my own advise about embarrassment.


Chaoticidealism said...

I got smart--I did all the math placement tests backwards! Really, multiplication is a lot harder for me than algebra. I still make mistakes on the times tables. Oh, and I got a 94% on my last college calculus test, despite making a mistake involving 8+6 adding up to 12 somehow.

I'm not a math specialist like you, though. I'm way better with words. I can't memorize a math formula until I understand it perfectly; otherwise it's meaningless information! I think I study twice as hard and learn twice as much as my classmates, who just cram the formulas and apply them.

Liz Ditz said...

Hi, I came over from...the Autism Hub, I think.

I'm not a person with autism, I'm the mother to a more-or-less neurotypical daughter with dyslexia, and a graduate student in education. I plan to be an educational therapist.

Reading your post, I wonder if the "math regression" you write about might have some roots in difficulties with rapid automatic naming (RAN) and/or working memory challenges.

My daughter, although well-remediated for her dyslexia, continues to have difficulties with RAN and working memory, which manifest in both expected and unexpected ways.

My daughter describes the way her brain works in a couple of ways "It's like my brain needs to be defragmented" (a simile she came up with after I defragmented her sloooooow laptop) and "Most people seem to have memories that are like filing cabinets at their fingertips. Mine is in the next room, and sometimes poorly labeled."

Our native language is English, and she's not-quite fluent in Spanish. When she's been speaking and hearing Spanish for a couple of hours a day, she says, "It's like going from the radio a little bit out of tune, to, ding!ding!ding! -- the signal's coming in clear. It's suddenly no work to understand what people are saying, and I don't have to hunt so hard for words."

I haven't read enough of the autism research to know if people have been looking at RAN and working memory as sources of difficulties in autism, the way they have in dyslexia.

Liz Ditz said...

I forgot to write two things -- one, I live in KPFA's broadcast area, so we are in a sense neighbors, and two, I really enjoyed reading your blog.

Suzanne said...

It is simple really. All we have to do is work out what the applicable values are for this formulae to remain a positive result (at any given moment):
((((1p + 1i + 1s + 1l + 1f + 1u + 1c + 1a +1r +1n + 1e + 1g + 1c +1t) <=> d) <=> m) = w) = r
p=plan; i=intent; s=sleep; l=light; f=food; u=fluid; c=tactile, a=air, r=temperature; n=noise; e=energy; g = language; c=concept; t=time; d=distress; m=meltdown; w=awareness; r=response

Marla said...

Very interesting and reminds me to go easy on M when she seemingly forgets things I thought she knew.