Michael’s Dad on the Wonders of Natural Learning

So much of Michael’s learning at the moment is achieved through hours of therapy. Repetition is important, and many things have to be retaught as he forgets them in a few days. But when he does learn something naturally, it is a gift that we never forget.

Autism comes with many sides – positive and negative. One of the hardest aspects though is how hard learning can be for children on the spectrum. Especially those deemed ‘low-functioning’ like our son, who would in many worlds and other decades be considered to be ‘unteachable’.

Parents of neurotypical children can take for granted the amazing amounts of learning these little beings do, every day, without even trying. Thinking back on our own learning, my husband and I marvel at the gift we were given by life. We could just learn things, often with very little effort, and if we did put in a lot of work we could learn just about anything! Now, as parents of a special needs child, will never take any amount of learning for granted ever again.

Naturally intelligence is not an achievement. No more than youth and beauty. It is good to have.. But without perseverance, patience and persistence it can mean very little. For our son, these skills, taught to him over all his innumerable hours of therapy, will be an even greater gift in life. And the best thing is to see the repetition and therapy pay off – when it kickstarts his own natural learning process!

Here is a guest post by my wonderful husband, who combines great natural gifts with an amazing amount of perseverance, persistence and patience. Lucky Michael and myself, that we get to benefit from it in our lives all the time!

Michael’s Dad: A little insight into my brain

While at school, I had a unique way of studying for exams. I’d firstly make sure I knew the content well by paying attention in class, and doing the practice questions. This was the easy part. My next step was to get myself “exam ready”. This was the hard part.

If I was studying for a three-hour exam, I would compile three hours worth of questions, and then I’d sit this practice exam. The first time, I’d normally get around 90%. Most of my errors wouldn’t come from not knowing how to do the question. Instead, they’d come from what they call “silly mistakes”. Things like rounding a number too early, or labeling a diagram incorrectly, or forgetting to refer back to the “introduction” when writing an essay. Getting “exam ready” meant eradicating these silly mistakes.

So, what I would do is sit the whole exam again (from start to finish). And I would keep doing this until I got 100%. So, that means, if I did the same three-hour exam five times in a row, and I got 119/120 because I added x instead of subtracting it, then I would sit the exam for the sixth time.

Learning from my mistakes

After a while, I found patterns in my mistakes. I would only make silly mistakes on certain types of questions. Once I identified this, I would make adjustments to minimise the chance of a future mistake. For example, if I realised that I often made a mistake on the question 8 x 12, I might just resign myself to using a calculator for that type of question rather than doing it in my head. It would be a couple of seconds slower, but it would reduce my chance of error.

Natural Learning vs Rote Learning

Until recently, I never gave much thought about how I learn. However, if I had to describe it, I’d call the first part (listening in class) “natural learning”. These are generally concepts you find easy to pick up and that you will remember them for a long time.

I’d call the second part “rote learning”. Meaning that I’d memorise specific examples of where I was likely to commit a silly error, and would prepare for it.

I always thought that “natural learning” was easy, and that “rote learning” was hard.

I was wrong.

Natural learning is the greatest thing. It is the holy grail of human development. It is what makes me go from 0% to 90% without trying. I always just took it for granted that I would start at 90%, and then work hard to get to 100%. However, not everyone starts at 90%, and not everyone gets to 100%.

A little insight into the brains of others

Some people seem to always start close to 100%. They are generally referred to as “gifted, clever, geniuses”. Other people start lower, but engage in a lot of difficult rote learning to move up towards 100%. They are generally referred to “hard-working, persistent, motivated”.

Some people start high, but never improve. Others start low and improve only up to a point that is comfortable for them. Some people can be very clever at math, but have to work hard at language. Some people can be gifted at sports, and are willing to work hard to get close to perfection, but have no natural ability or motivation to learn a musical instrument.

The diversity amongst people’s brains and development is almost as complex as the brain itself.

How I think Michael’s brain currently works

When Michael was two and a half years old, we took him to the local early childhood centre for an assessment. What they did was give Michael instructions and tasks to complete, with the aim of determining his skill in certain key developmental areas.

After the assessment finished, we walked into a room with a psychologist, pediatrician and a social worker (sounds like the start of a joke right?). My wife and I were quite bubbly, because we just witnessed Michael perform some impressive tasks.

He stacked some blocks that were really small. He completed some puzzles that he’d never seen before. And he located objects that were hidden away.

Michael still has a long way to go

There were also some things he didn’t get right. The psychologist asked him, “Michael, where is the green box?”. He doesn’t know that his name is Michael. He doesn’t know the command “Where is”. And of course he really doesn’t know that you can use an adjective (green) and noun (box) to describe the same thing (green box).
So it’s no surprise that he had no idea how to act on her request. However, I was really excited, because after looking at the psychologist, Michael then looked at me with a puzzled expression.

Why was I really excited? Because even though I was behind Michael and he couldn’t see me, he knew I was there (skill #1). He also knew that I could help him (skill #2). He also requested that help (skill #3). Most kids acquire these skills naturally. We had to teach these to Michael one at a time. Now he is using them, without any help, in an unfamiliar setting.

Why we appreciate every little gain

Anyway, back to the room with the psychologist, pediatrician and a social worker. Like I said, Julia and I were happy and excited. But they didn’t share our excitement. Their faces were grim. They looked worried and concerned. They pulled out a graph (I love graphs).

“… as you can see, Michael is currently 30-months-old, but he has the average development of a 14-month-old…”

Me: “Wow! 14 months?! That’s incredible!”

They were very confused, and couldn’t figure how why we were happy. Little did they know that we had a similar assessment done with a different organisation nine months ago. The results of that one? I still remember them clearly:

Cognitive skills: 0%
Receptive language: 0%
Expressive language: 0%
Fine motor skills: 0%
Gross motor skills: 14% (yay?)

So we were excited because Michael moved up about 12 months of typical development in just 9 months. That means he is starting to close the gap. All these gains were made through good old-fashioned “hard work”. (My aside: I have a post about the gains Michael made in the first year of therapy. See it here)

Hard Work is Hard and Other Insights

However, the tough thing about hard work is that the work is hard. And it keeps getting harder. Think about the 100m Olympic Sprint. It might take a year of training to get from 15 seconds to 13 seconds. It might take another year to get from 13 to 12. Two years from 12 to 11. Four years from 11 to 10. Several more years to get from 10 to 9.75.

For most athletes, assuming that they are born with the physical/genetic potential of achieving these feats, just won’t have the time/resources/motivation to keep training.

The plateaus are the hardest

In the same way, Michael has to work at things for years. Some things we have had to teach him over six months. Others he gets in a few days. And we never now how long a new concept will take. We only know that we have to persevere because we don’t have a choice. And of course if we leave something alone, even for a few days, he might forget it completely and we will have to start from scratch. Yet without therapy, he is learning nothing at all. And with therapy, he is continually progressing.

We are in a bit of a plateau in his therapy at the moment. It is harder to keep going during a plateau than in a ‘quick learning period’ for obvious reasons – neither we nor Michael see any immediate results to what we are doing. We keep going through sheer faith and hope. And holidays help. But we do keep going and passing those milestones, and that is the miracle.

Michael’s learning will always be different to that of others

Things like imitation, gesturing and shared attention are basic learning concepts that typically developing kids will acquire naturally. Once these skills are mastered, it will be relatively easy for the child to learn how to speak, draw, read, write, and socialise. Then the child can go to school, university, work, raise a family. And so on and so on …

I very much doubt that Michael will be able to “rote learn” his way through all these milestones. The best thing we can do for him is to “rote learn” basic natural learning concepts. Through a lot of hard work, we’ve been able to teach him most of these. This will hopefully make it easier to learn the more advanced concepts more “naturally”. And the great thing is that we have seen that once a concept becomes entrenched, even if it’s through repetition and rote learning, it starts to progress naturally. Our child is learning to learn.

We Get To Witness the Miracle of Natural Learning

Michael loves the park, probably more than any person who has ever lived. Normally, Michael will run for the swing, and just wait there until somebody lifts him onto the chair.

However, one day, I decided to take him off the swing so that he could explore some of the other equipment. I put him on the slide, and he enjoyed that. After he slid to the bottom, he reached his arms up for me to carry him, and then, once I was carrying him, he pivoted his torso towards the swing and thrust his arm in the direction of the swing (about 5m away).

Michael then wasn’t entirely satisfied with the speed at which I was taking him there, so he retracted his arm, and then thrust it more intensely towards the swing. But this time, he was making a clear pointing gesture.

We had previously taught Michael how to point to objects within arms reach. It took us about six months to do this, of painstaking, repetitive, really hard work. Nevertheless, to my surprise, I just realised that Michael had naturally learned the (more difficult) concept of distal pointing. We naturally threw a party. Actually, we still throw one every time he does it. It is one of the best things we have ever experienced.

What the Future Might Bring For Us

In the near future at least, I predict that most of Michael’s progress will still be achieved by “hard work”. However, every now and then, Michael will give us a wonderful glimpse into phenomenon of natural learning… and it’s the most amazing thing.

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  1. Great work you both and Michael’s lucky to have you as parents. Michael’s going to do great. I am on a similar journey with my son but alone and worried that I am not doing enough. Do you have tips to teach shared attention?

    1. Usually with shared attention it’s a matter of finding things Michael enjoys and inserting myself into them. We practise reading books every day – and we notice he prefers some over others but we’re always expanding his repertoire. We also practise ‘referencing’. To do that we will put on a cartoon (on a phone) and I will hold it out at arm’s length. Then I pause it, and he has to look at me, then back at the cartoon. If he doesn’t do it himself, I pass the cartoon behind my head and back out again. So he’s following the cartoon, but he’s ‘referencing’ me and then back again. Eventually he started doing that naturally with a lot of activities. Also he loves songs so we use those for joint attention as well! And we had to practise teaching him to follow a point. So I would point to something and say ‘look’ and he got a reward if he followed my point and looked. There’s so much that goes into joint attention that it’s hard to analyse everything that goes into it! Our therapists have been invaluable to give us lots of programs for joint attention.


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