Colors... And The Autistic Child - The Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Rainbow!!!
Shinning Light Where There Once Was Darkness!
I only recently came to understand the importance of colors in the life of the autistic child. Yet, colors, too, were a huge piece to the puzzle. I had posted some of my observations on autism on a discussion board and one of my list mates, an autistic adult on that board responded by explaining that he had learned to read without understanding the alphabet. He did not understand sound/symbol relationships until he was into his 30s. As a child, he perceived letters as colors. He could not spell until he learned to ignore what the teacher was saying because labels the teacher taught for letter sounds made no sense to him. He learned to "picture" text and use "referencing" to communicate... retrieving a mental picture of "how" that word had been used in the past. He would then "copy the word" from visual memory. He stated how he broke text into parts, yet, had never actually understood the label as it related to the symbol. This adult did not think my theory was correct, yet, when his comments themselves were examined in terms of partiality, it was clearly obvious that everything he had said was 100% in agreement with my theory.
There were many interesting things to note in terms of the response provided by this autistic adult.
1. The reference to perceiving objects as "colors".
2. The fact that this perception was "as a child"... and that it was now used "in the past tense"... meaning that it was no longer the case that this adult perceived objects as colors... or at least did so a lot less as an adult.
3. Sound/symbol relationships were not understood.
4. "Referencing" communication was used to understand words/ideas - this topic I will cover under my section on "Language".
5. The idea of breaking everything into parts was also clearly expressed by this autistic adult... the whole idea of trying to "break the code" was there, however, so was another important aspect... the idea of creating one's own code in order to deal with issues of partiality – in order to understand the parts to the whole!
The importance of colors was truly an area I, personally, had completely missed until this autistic adult made reference to colors in replying to one of my messages on a parent discussion board. This autistic adult's comments on color absolutely fascinated me... and the more I thought about it, the more it all made perfect sense. The importance of color had been there throughout Zachary's life... I simply had failed to recognize it for what it was!
Color… other than a mother’s voice, it was perhaps the first thing a child truly came to perceive in life. From the first few days of life… it was there, all about… something beautiful, something interesting to look at… something fascinating. Children, undoubtedly, perceived objects very much as colors when very young… certainly this could be true until they came to the realization that one object could actually appear in many colors. As such, what a perfect way to begin to understand one’s world… to color code it… much in the way adults used color coded files to keep their affairs in order, so too, did I believe a child, from the very start, color coded his world!
Given that boys were usually more often color-blind than were girls, I wondered how this, indeed, played into the equation in terms of the autistic child’s overall level of impact in terms of how he was affected by autism. For example, would a color-blind child be more severely impacted because a “coding method” was no longer available to him? I suspected this could actually be the case. The more I thought about colors, the more I truly came to see their importance in the life of my own son, Zachary!
It had been Zachary's Room Of Colors that had triggered his language, as clearly expressed in my first book, Saving Zachary: The Death And Rebirth Of A Family Coping With Autism. I thought Zachary simply thought "this was a cool room"... I had, however, completely missed the actual importance of "colors" in his life... colors as a means of coping with life! A picture of Zachary's Room of Colors was provided below- a color picture of this room was available in the Appendix to these materials!
This "Room of Colors" had come to me in a dream... a dream so vivid and so real for me that I truly felt it had been sent to me from God himself... that was how powerful the image of this room in my dreams had been. As such, upon waking in the morning, I immediately told my husband "I had to paint... to reproduce the room of colors in my dreams". It took me three days of constant painting to reproduce this room. Each wall had a specific color, the yellow alphabet wall, the red numbers wall, the green shapes wall, the purple wall with orange closet doors, the blue ceiling... and the pink carpet. :o) This had been my daughter's room... she and Zachary had always slept in the same bedroom... a bedroom that now became my room for working with Zachary. Each corner of this room provided its own unique color combination... it was truly like being in the middle of a "Rubik's cube". I would later buy a Rubik's cube for Zachary... understandably, it quickly became an object of fascination for him. :o)
As I thought more about the role of colors in Zachary's life, more pieces fell into place. Two of his favorite videos - even to this day, after 2 years of watching them - were The Alphabet Train and The Celebration of Colors videos, by BabyscapesTM.
The Alphabet Train was the very video I spoke about at the opening of the "Teaching Language Based On A Building Blocks Approach" section... and it absolutely amazed me that even after 2 years, Zachary still absolutely loved that video on letters. The letters popped up in different colors and spun around... so, if colors and spinning were coping mechanisms in the autistic child, this could certainly explain why Zachary had been able to "pick up" on the concept of the alphabet so quickly. This was a very, very visual video... and an excellent one for any child... but, again, it absolutely amazed me how Zachary had never become "bored" with it... he simply loved it as much today as he did on day one and it had been 2+ years!
For parents who would like to get that video, BabyscapesTM can be reached at 888-441-KIDS or you can visit their web site at: http://www.babyscapes.com/ourvideos.html . This company had excellent videos I had used for letters, numbers, shapes, and colors (they had one for phonics, too, but I had not used that one), etc,... and again, these were by far, by far, Zachary's favorite videos... and most of them involved a ton of color and a lot of spinning things.
This video that had fascinated my son for over 2 years now had all the critical parts to it: 1. Colors for each letter, 2. Spinning letters, 3. A Train (the video was about an "alphabet train"... and, generally, autistic children loved trains... why? In my opinion, it was because they showed so well how the parts (train cars) fit together to form a whole... a train.... and in this case, each "car" was loaded with a letter...the train ended when the alphabet ended and, 4. The whole thing was set to the music of Mozart... another huge plus for autistic children! It was the perfect way to teach how the "parts" made up the whole.... how letters were simply parts of ... the alphabet! - the perfect way to teach that all critical first building block for language.
While on a message discussion board, a parent mentioned that "PEC" (Picture Exchange Communication) had been an absolute life saver for their child... and another stated that try as they may to teach their child the alphabet, nothing seemed to work.
Those who used the PEC system will confirm that communication could occur through the use of PEC (Picture Exchange Communication) or other means, even without understanding the alphabet. Well, that was certainly true... as had been demonstrated by many autistic children who could communicate via pictures. However, was that "communication" the optimal way to go? I did not believe that it was! In my opinion, teaching the alphabet had to come first, then, pictures could be used to help with the labeling of specific things.
The statements by parents that their children somehow learn to read without understanding the alphabet brought up another thought... "how exactly had parents tried to teach their children the alphabet?" - How had parents who had children who could read "failed" to teach them the alphabet? Here, I used the term "failed" only in the sense that the children "failed to understand the concept - the symbols behind the letters"... I was in no way saying that parents "failed" their children in any way... only that the children, somehow "failed" to understand a "concept" but yet could master the task of reading. Being the parent of an autistic child myself, I understood completely how much all parents went through... I understood the stresses, the frustrations, the disappointments and the joys behind every small step in the life of an autistic child and his family. Yet, this was truly an amazing and intriguing thing for me... for the autistic child to be able to read without understanding the concepts so critical, the building blocks behind reading and overall communication! As a result, I now believed that more research was indeed needed in exactly how children were taught the alphabet... into how they succeed in learning it as well as in how they fail to master the concept of the alphabet. Only then would we truly be able to devise the tools that truly worked for these children when it came to teaching the basic building blocks of communication!
The parent statement in the opening comment to this section on "colors" stated that he had not understood the relationship between letter or "symbols" and sounds until he was almost 30... yet, he had figured out how to read on his own! How could that be? How could a child learn to read, yet fail to understand the alphabet, how could one read and cope with life and yet not understand the concept of "symbols" as "representations" of "other things"? This was all truly fascinating to me. Yet, as I thought about it some more, again, more pieces fell into place!
The fact that this autistic adult did not understand the "concept of letters" as "symbols representing something else" did not mean that, as a child, he still was not constantly striving to "break the code". This autistic adults statements truly indicated that this indeed was exactly what he was constantly trying to do...trying to "break the code"... to figure out the pieces or "parts" that made up "the whole".
My fascination with this concept of the autistic child thinking of things as "colors" consumed me for the next several days after receiving the comment from the autistic adult as it was provided in the opening of this section on the importance of colors in the life of the autistic child. I had been thinking a great deal about this whole issue of the autistic perceiving objects as "colors" and the thought then occurred to me that not only did I use Zachary's room of colors, colorful videos, etc., to teach him the alphabet, but I remembered that in actually trying to teach Zachary "colors" themselves, I had found the task extremely difficult as was explained in my first book, Saving Zachary: The Death And Rebirth Of A Family Coping With Autism.
Zachary had a very difficult time learning colors...at least in expressing them to me. I worked and worked with him on that... but, for the longest time, no matter what I did, Zachary just did not seem to "get it"... So I thought!
I could not understand why something that seemed like such an "easy thing" was so difficult to teach... after all... red was red, blue was blue, green was green, etc. What was so hard about that? Given what I now believed to understand about the importance and role of colors in the life of the autistic child, it was my opinion, that the concept of "colors" was difficult for Zachary to grasp because he himself had been making use of this concept as a coping mechanism... to make sense of his world – in his way!
I believed that when autistic children could not understand specific concepts (such as letters), when they could not "break the code", they simply "come up" with their "own code" - one that apparently involved the use of "colors as a coping mechanism"... "colors as a code to understanding their world". This was in complete agreement with the autistic adult's statement at the opening of this section on the importance of colors... it now explained why the concept of "colors" was so difficult for Zachary to grasp as I tried to teach it to him. I suspect he had been using this concept himself... in his own way... and perhaps "my way", "my colors" simply did not match his "code of colors - his code to his world".
As such, if "what I was teaching" was not in line with perhaps what he was thinking, with how he understood things, I could certainly see that this would create difficulty in how the "concept" of colors was understood!
Now that I looked back, and thought in terms of the failure to properly process sensory information, in terms of "order" and "partiality", I thought that teaching "red, blue, orange, yellow", etc., was not the way to go when it came to teaching colors. If I had to do this over again, I would start with just one color. For example, I would cover "blue", "navy blue", "royal blue", etc., before moving on to the next color. The autistic mind was so accurate and so precise in its thinking, that I suspected Zachary may have "coded" hues of colors himself... and if I then introduced these "hues" of blue as something different than what he knew them to be in his own "coding system", then I was potentially, introducing an unknown... potentially interfering with "his code" and "his understanding of the world based on that code".
You see, if I introduced "this crayon as 'red' " and then showed this one as "green", and this one as "blue"... that was what I was teaching you...red, green and blue. And so, that had order… a code to it. But, if I tried to introduce "another blue", or "another red" then, I had introduced a confusing "variation" for my child... a variation he may already had used in "his own" coding system... perhaps in a "different way" and as such, for me to "label this" as something other than the way "his code used it", could indeed result in a lot of frustration.
So, I think if I had to do this again, I would start with variations within a single color, labeling each one (i.e., "royal blue", "navy blue", "light blue", "dark blue") before introducing another color... and I would label as many hues within one color as possible before moving on to the next color. If colors were indeed used as a coping mechanism by the autistic child, as I truly suspected they were, then providing as many colors as possible should further enhance that coping mechanism. Again, just a thought, based on "order" and the need to “decode” one’s world, but, I was fairly sure this would make teaching this concept much simpler and may have the added benefit of helping the child further cope with his environment. :o)
When I thought back, there were so many times that color had played a role in Zachary's life and I simply did not see it. Whenever I worked on anything, on the computer, on paper - anything - if it involved colors, Zachary always seemed to be "right there", looking over my shoulder to see what I was doing. He particularly loved seeing me edit font colors by using the "color wheel" provided under the "font, colors" option in most computer programs. He loved to see me "make my own colors" as I used the mouse to scroll around a color palette that allowed me to change "how much of each color" I wanted - moving from reds to oranges in the color hues provided, from blues to greens, etc., ... thus changing the color "composition" and creating a new color by myself. That was absolutely fascinating to Zachary.
He was also fascinated by videos that showed how "red + blue = purple", how "blue + yellow = green". He wanted to know the "equation" for all colors... calling some out to me... to see if confirmed they were right. Some were, some were not - at least not in my mind - , most, obviously, I had no idea. :o) In calling out these equations, was Zachary revealing "his color code" to me? I could not help but wonder!
The composition of colors was indeed an interesting subject. According to this link, http://acept.la.asu.edu/PiN/rdg/color/composition.shtml, how color was perceived depended on the light reflecting upon the object. How interesting! That indeed seems to imply that "colors" were perceived differently based on the light source.
If that were true, this could certainly also help explain why "changes in routine" could also be so difficult for some autistic children. As places changed, so did their sources and intensities of light. Could this be one of the reasons fluorescent lights were so troubling for so many autistic children? Could their brightness have a serious impact on how colors were perceived by the autistic child? I used to think it was possibly their "flickering" and their "humming" that was the issue... but perhaps, again, here too, there may be more than met the eye. I knew that although my car, to me, appeared to be a "cream color", to Zachary, it was "yellow"... we kept "going over" the issue of the "right color", but perhaps there was no "right color"... perhaps we simply perceived the car’s color differently... and as such, we were both right! :o)
For those of you, like me, who had trouble thinking of more than one type of red, etc., my best suggestion was to buy the big box of "CrayolaTM" crayons. That would certainly provide a good starting point in helping to color your world and that of your child. :o)
R O Y B G I V
The colors of a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo, violet.
Colors... for the autistic child... these were truly the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – the key to understanding so much in their world!!!
There was no doubt in my mind that colors were important to children. I had so often seen this in my normal daughter Anika - now 10 years of age. When Anika participated in her numerous swim meets, I noticed that often, it really did not matter to her "how she placed". She was, however, very interested in obtaining the best possible assortment of "beautifully colored ribbons". She usually did not care about the "placement" as indicated on the ribbon... she was more concerned with their beautiful colors... as were so many of the other children in these meets! As I thought of this, I truly saw just how important colors were to all children - but, now, I believed that was especially true for the autistic! In my opinion, for the autistic, colors provided a very powerful means of coding their world in order to better understand it!
Thinking of or understanding objects based on colors was an interesting subject for all parents of the autistic. The ability to sense objects as "colors" was called "synesthesia"... as I only recently learned from another parent who provided a link on this topic. This link, I provided as a starting point for parents who wanted to learn more on this subject.
In closing this section on colors, there was an important point I wanted to make. If my suspicions were correct and the autistic child “coded his world” via colors, I wondered… once that world was coded in his mind, would that child stop wanting to actually “decode” life as it truly should be understood… thereby further slipping into his own world.
Although I firmly believed colors could be used to one’s advantage in teaching the autistic child to decode life, I also believed that if a child was left alone to decode life for himself, that perhaps, this “code to life” created by the child himself, indeed could lead to the child withdrawing further and further into his own world and leaving the “real world” behind. :o(