Language Translation

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cognitive Age Not Physical Age

I was in New York again this last weekend.  I spent quite a lot of time on the subway going from place to place, talking with families, visiting with friends, making new contacts, etc.  It was a wonderful weekend and I learned something while I was out.

I found myself lost on Saturday afternoon.  Well, not really lost, really just temporarily misplaced.  Once I realized my error, it was rather easy to get going in the right direction again.  I arrived at the subway stop that would return me to the home of my friend, where I stay when I come to New York.  I stood there and waited, and waited.  A young man asked me a question and, feeling rather surprised and proud that I could answer him, I did so.  I felt like a real New Yorker.  I know the subway system well enough to help another traveler find his way.  I thought to myself how very impressed I was with me in that moment.

The impressiveness of me gave way quickly to the feeling of needing to plant my palm on my forehead.  I realized it was Saturday.  That meant the A train was running on the local C and E tracks, not on the express A track.  Dang!  No wonder I had been waiting there for so long.  So, sheepishly, I walked down the stairs, crossed over and climbed up to the local side of the tracks.  As I stood there, I had a healthy dose of humor come over me, thinking of how great I thought I was at navigating the subway system.

I am still chuckling to myself at the pompousness in my air for those few moments before I realized how far I still had to go to learn the system really.  But I am also thinking about a few other things that this experience illustrates so well.  There is one thing in particular I wanted to share with each of you.

This experience was very symbolic for me.  Let us imagine for a moment that the subway system represents the mind and it's wonderful, useful networks.  With special needs people, it's not that the train doesn't run.  It's that we are waiting on the express track when we should be on the local track.  I found myself thinking about how many times I have done this to myself.  I have thought I should be just like everyone else; that I should learn the way they learn, communicate the way they communicate, and function the way they function.  When I don't I always think of myself as somehow inferior.

That is pointless.  That is like standing on the express track, thinking that if I stand here long enough, the train will come.  Well, the train will come but not for 48 hours or so.  By then I will be so hungry, thirsty, and sleep deprived that I probably won't be able to comprehend that it is my train and I should get on it.  Is what I'm trying to say making sense?

It's like you have to approach every part of life from a different perspective.  You will still reach the same destination.  You will still arrive.  Your child is able to learn all of the functions of life - they just need to be taught to him from his perspective so that he can understand them.  He needs you to come to the local side of the tracks instead of standing on the express side, waiting for a train that is not going to come.

Every train represents a skill or a bit of knowledge that I need to acquire.  There are many which are on the express track.  And many that can only function on the local track.  My little Mr. D. is a whiz at some things.  His express track is functioning well within those topics.  So well, in fact, that sometimes the rest of us are not sure what he is speaking of and it takes a minute for us to understand.  Because his language skills are still on the local track.  Both trains are moving, in the direction we want them to move, but one is so much faster than the other that it feels incongruous and off-kilter.

What if we were able to take a step back?  What if you were able to take the cognitive functioning level of each individual thing and work from that place?  I have watched children grow at miraculous rates by incorporating this one idea.  Treat them as a neurotypically functioning child of their cognitive age, rather than a delayed child of their biological age.  Does that make sense?

So if he is 6 years old, but cognitively is only 35 months old, your expectations should be based on the actions of a 3 year old rather than a 6 year old.  Treat him like a neurotypically developing 3 year old.  If you will look at his actions and behaviors, you will see that he is very much a NT 3 yr old.  When you get into your mind that he is only expected to progress to the cognitive level he is on, then all of the stress and the pressure is off.  You aren't frustrated and angry at the 6 yr old who is testing every boundary and throwing every hard thing in sight to hear how it sounds and saying words that he doesn't know just to test out the sound and try on the meaning.  Instead you see the learning that is taking place as he tests bounds.  You see that he is beginning to have reasoning abilities.  You see that he is developing his language skills and understanding.  And you see growth and development.  See him as he is, and he will become as he should be.  If you only see what he should be, he will never become that because he has no one to help him understand where he is.

If there were one piece of advice I could give to parents, this would be it.  Treat him like a NT child of his cognitive age rather than a delayed child of his physical age.  Once you do, the growth really begins.

If you don't know his cognitive functioning age, just think about the behaviors you see.  If he were NT, at what age would he be doing those things?  If you have no experience in NT childhood development, go to your local library and check out a book.  It is not hard to get a few general behaviors together and pinpoint a cognitive age-range.

Once you do that, shift your thinking and remind yourself he is xx months old rather than xx years old.  Or whatever.  The stress levels will drop, the pressure will be lifted, and you will begin to understand your child who has been a complete mystery to you until now.


  1. Hi! Excellently expressed n explain! That is precisely wot I m advocating to parents in my country (Singapore). Oftentimes, in desperation they turn to brain programs n neurological therapies. To me, it is like giving ADHDs their pill. I often feel that a part of d autie's personality becomes blighted. I feel a certain emptiness when I interact with them. Like d brain interventions have obliterated their unique Neuro typical essence. I'm write poems bout ASD n dyslexia :-D visit my blog at cheers!

  2. Tara, that was an excellent analogy and it is so true. I think it applies to all children. So many parents try to push their children forward at a much faster pace than they are capable of. Especially in Fairfax County were "everyone's children are above average." I saw this when I was working in a pre- school in Springfield. Even in our own family each child learned at their own level. We held our youngest son back a year because he was not ready for Kindergarten at age five. The teacher was so relieved when we agreed with her. She had expected us to do the usual parental defense thing to move our son at everyone else's rate but was pleased that we were willing to let him grow at his own pace.

  3. I agree whole is not a race and who made up the "rules" of development anyway? Perhaps those that develop later in terms of cognitive functioning have superior heart and soul functioning...feeling their way through life...and isn't that much more important in the great scope of things?