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What Temple Grandin's Mother Knew

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What Temple Grandin's Mother Knew

April 18, 2017, Marilyn Lord

Temple Grandin and Mother
The first book I read by Temple Grandin described her mother's insistence that her young daughter learn manners. Her mother never said "stop" or "don't"; she did not get upset, she simply stated what the correct behavior was and ensured Temple followed through. Recalling my own early days as a mother, I had the same focus, but not the formula. My children's manners seemed to be the public indicator of my success as a parent. When you are new at parenting, that is a clear mile marker and you want to get there fast.

When my daughter started her ABA program at age 3½ so many years ago, she did not know the difference between a ball or a shoe. She could not execute a simple command like "give" or "bring". She did; however, understand "eat that in the kitchen!". Why is that? I believe it is because I made that rule a priority and it was important enough to me that I did not waiver at the first (or hundredth) effort otherwise. I still remember my little girl pressing her tiny toes to the edge of the threshold testing my resolve. That was my first glimpse into her hidden intelligence.

The clear goals and repetition delivered by Temple Grandin's mother (with obvious success) point to a larger educational and neurological truth about how habits are formed. And just to clarify, habits are often called skills.

One day I randomly picked up a copy of the New York Times Bestseller, The Power of Habit, to occupy myself while my son and daughter studied the DVD section at the bookstore. The author, Charles Duhigg, describes individuals with memories altered by traumatic brain injury to the point that they could not hold a new, or previously known, concept in mind long enough to master it. Yet with a process that sounds a lot like the ABCs of ABA, the author spotlights the Cue -> Routine -> Reward cycle that is at work in all of us. Ultimately, control of this cycle helped patients master some important skills. With enough repetition and a reward as the motivator, the new skill was eventually adopted by the uninjured part of the brain -- the cruise control of our circuitry - the basal ganglia.

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Taking the car analogy a little further, remember the whole mind/body engagement you needed when first learning to drive? No one forgets that hyper awareness, yet today as an experienced driver you can drive blocks, even miles, without a conscious thought. That is the automatic brain at work.

Almost as soon as mastery happens, we forget the challenge involved in achieving it. That is a good thing unless you are charged with helping someone else master something and it is not going so well.

As a parent with two children who needed more practice than most, it is a comforting thought that all of our kids can get there or somewhere in the acceptable vicinity. Knowing this, parents won't have to ask "how many times do I have to tell you?" because they will know the answer: as long as it takes.

The bonus of learning a new habit or skill is it can create a domino effect that sparks the acquisition of others, says Duhigg. Temple's mother did not limit her lessons to manners. Like every other parent, she went beyond. In fact, research on autism found that "the single most important predictor of success is the mastery of self-care skills such as bathing, dressing, cleaning and cooking". That means requiring your child to take care of themselves, do chores, and learn essential living skills makes them more likely to be satisfied and successful in their career and later life no matter what the level of their disability. Parents are educators and their lessons are life changing. Temple Grandin's mother instinctively knew this and her daughter proves her right every day.