I love solving complex problems. When it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the literature largely focuses on treating the symptoms because scientists still aren't sure of the cause. In 2009, I became the foster parent of "Mary Jane". When Mary Jane was 3 she only spoke two words, "Mama" and "Dat" which was associated with a corresponding point at whatever she was trying to communicate. Mary Jane wouldn't look straight at us. She always looked away and had severe attention span problems.
Mary Jane had several repetitive habits. While we were driving, there would be times when her mind seemed to cycle through lists. She would cycle through everyone in the family tree, just saying their names. Mary Jane also had physical symptoms such as clumsiness when she walked. Mary Jane was unable to stay in timeout. Unlike other children, she wouldn't calm down when placed in timeout. Instead, her behavior was more rambunctious.
When Mary Jane was two(2) years old, she was abused by her biological father who had a drug habit. He used to strap her into her car seat and place it in the living room floor while he did his drugs in the bathroom. Eventually, he was caught, convicted and served jail time. When Mary Jane experienced this trauma, it was at the same age when children develop their language skills.
Is she Intelligent?
I sat down at the kitchen table one day with a deck of cards. Each card contained a picture of an object. I began laying the cards out one by one and asked Mary Jane indirect questions such as which card makes a loud noise while pointing to a fire truck. Mary Jane answered by pointing to the correct card 100% of the time. Therefore, we determined that she had normal cognitive skills.
Is it a physical issue?
The doctors ruled out any neurological disease as a possible cause and the school district said that it was too early to tell if she was autistic. As parents, we were overwhelmed and exhausted having to take care of Mary Jane. However, we were determined not to give up.
Did the trauma stunt her language development?
Thinking more and more about Mary Jane's trauma at age two, I theorized that her language ability within the brain never fully developed as a result of the trauma. I decided to attempt to force her brain to learn language again. I believed that if we were able to force her to learn language all over again that the correct neuro maps would be created (neuroplasticity).
To get Mary Jane to re-learn language, I decided to try a two-pronged approach:
1) Mary Jane would be immersed in French books and videos.
2) Autism children were known to respond better to positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. We bought Mary Jane some art materials to make a poster to hang in her room. Then we bought a box of sparkly star stickers, something that every little girl loves, and rewarded Mary Jane with two stars for every new word spoken. However, if Mary Jane didn't behave, one star would come down from the board.
Mary Jane's Progress
After the first week, Mary Jane had 18 sparkly stars on her board. Within two weeks she was speaking fluently in French and within three weeks she was speaking nearly 400 words. Mary Jane read normally while in Kindergarten. She enjoyed school and was in the middle of her class and was quite well behaved.
The combination of stimulating her ability to re-learn language and by applying positive reinforcement appears to have corrected Mary Jane's circumstances.
In 2018, we have the ability to train machines to learn in very complex ways. The opportunity to leverage machine learning to stimulate neuroplasticity is something that needs to be explored. If it worked with Mary Jane, why couldn't it work for other children and why couldn't it stimulate other types of learning?
At Dynamics Intelligence, we intend on exploring these concepts by creating an artificially intelligent learning tool using the latest technology available on the market today to stimulate learning in ASD subjects.
Jenna Bourgeois is CEO of Dynamics Intelligence US/Canada and has a passion for using her technology skills to help people.