The butterfly effect is a mathematical concept that is used to describe a system in which a very small change in the initial state can cause a very large change in a later state. By co-incidence the butterfly effect is also true for some autistic students where a small change in the way they are taught can lead to a very large change in the way they learn.
Last year, we started working with a 21-year-old nonverbal male with autism. He has been through all the traditional approaches and is still unable to type or communicate effectively. The first day, it took him over 2 hours to get into the car to come to the center. He is now at the point where he jumps out of bed on the days he comes in to learn. The small change for him, was allowing him to watch YouTube during his lessons. This change goes counter to everything we have been taught about attending in class, but in this case it actually helps his concentration and he soon forgets about the video as he knows it is always there if he needs it – his security blanket. Just 2 weeks ago, we started working with another 24 year old nonverbal male, and he too responded when he was allowed to watch trains on YouTube during his lessons.
We had another child that could not attend to his lessons unless he was listening to music at the same time. We allowed him to listen to his iPhone while he was attending to his lessons. Once again a small change but a huge outcome.
For Ethan, the small change was allowing him to flap and stem whenever he feels like it. He still flaps during some of his lessons, but is helps him self-regulate and keep going. Ethan can sit and study for 2 -3 hours at a time while still absorbing all the information. This small change for him has allowed him to make huge strides in his learning.
Whenever mathematicians are faced with a problem that is subject to the butterfly effect, they usually keep altering the initial conditions to study the final effects before reaching a conclusion. Autism is a complex nonlinear system that is also subject to the butterfly effect. Those of us who deal with autism on a day to day basis, should learn from the other disciplines and should keep altering the initial conditions to see what effects they produce. You never know, you may just go from the Butterfly Effect to the Pygmalion Effect.
By Dalia Shkedy – Ethan’s Mom