The Importance Of Colors In The Life Of The Autistic Child...

The Pot Of Gold... At The End Of The Rainbow:

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I only recently came to understand the importance of colors in the life of the autistic child.   Yet, colors, too, are, in my opinion, 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 didn't 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 she taught for letter sounds make 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.  For those interested in reading the actual response and my reply to this person, I encourage you to join the enzymes and autism Yahoo discussion group and do a search on "The Missing Link".  This reply was one of the first I received (in very early August 2002).   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.  This is an excellent discussion group.  I encourage all parents to spend some time there - you'll learn a great deal on many issues: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/enzymesandautism/

There are many interesting things to note in terms of the response provided by an autistic adult.

1.    The reference to perceiving objects as "colors".

2.    The fact that this perception was "as a child"... and that it is now used "in the past tense"... meaning that it is no longer the case that this adult perceives objects as colors... or at least does 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" as this is where it best belongs!

5.    The idea of breaking everything into parts is also clearly expressed by this autistic adult... the whole idea of trying to "break the code" is there, however, so is another important aspect... the idea of creating one's own code in order to deal with issues of partiality.

We will now examine these issues in greater detail and as they relate specifically to the autistic child's need to understand all aspects of the "parts" before the "whole" can be understood.

The importance of colors is 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!

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 is provided below.

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 is the very video I speak about at the opening of the "Teaching Language Based On A Building Blocks Approach" section... and it absolutely amazes me that even after  2 years,  Zachary still absolutely loves that video on letters.   The letters pop up in different colors and spin around... so, if colors and spinning are coping mechanisms in the autistic child,  this could certainly explained why Zachary had been able to "pick up" on the concept of the alphabet so quickly.  This is a very very visual video... and an excellent one for any child... but, again, it absolutely amazes me how Zachary has never become "bored" with it... he simply loves it as much today as he did on day one and it has 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  They have excellent videos for letters, numbers, shapes, colors, phonics, etc,... and again, these were by far, by far, Zachary's favorite videos... and most of them involve a ton of color and a lot of spinning things.  

This video that has fascinated my son for over 2 years now has, in my opinion, all the critical parts to it:   1.  Colors for each letter,  2.  Spinning letters,  3. A Train (the video is about an "alphabet train"... and we all know autistic children love trains... why?   In my opinion, it is because they show so well how the parts (train cars) fit together to form a whole... a train.... and in this case, each "car" is loaded with a letter... and,  4.  The whole thing is set to the music of Mozart... another huge plus for autistic children!   It is the PERFECT way, in my opinion, to teach how the "parts" make up the whole.... how letters are 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 use the PEC system say that communication can occur through the use of  PEC (Picture Exchange Communication) or other means, even without understanding the alphabet.    Well, that is certainly true... as has been demonstrated by many autistic children who can communicate via pictures.  However, is that "communication" the optimal way to go?  I'm not sure that it is.   In my opinion, teaching the alphabet must come first, then, pictures can 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 can read "failed" to teach them the alphabet?   Here, I use the term  "failed" only in the sense that the children "failed to understand the concept - the symbols behind the letters"... I am 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 understand completely how much ALL parents go through... I understand 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 believe that more research is indeed needed in exactly HOW children are 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 will we truly be able to devise the tools that truly work for these children when it comes 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" does not mean that, as a child, he still was not constantly striving to "break the code".   This autistic adults statements truly indicate 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 make 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 didn't seem to "get it"... So I thought!

I couldn't 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 believe to understand about the importance and role of colors in the life of the autistic child, it is 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 own world.    I believe that when autistic children can not understand specific concepts (such as letters), when they can't "break the code", they simply "come up" with their "own code" - one that apparently involves the use of "colors as a coping mechanism"... "colors as a code to understanding their world".  This is in complete agreement with the autistic adult's statement at the opening of this section on the importance of colors... and it now all makes sense... it now explains why the concept of "colors" was so difficult for Zachary to grasp as I tried to teach it to him.  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" wasn't 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 look back, and think in terms of "order" and "partiality", I think that teaching "red, blue, orange, yellow", etc.,  is not the way to go.   If I had to do this over again, I'd start with just one color.   For example, I'd cover "blue", "navy blue", "royal blue", etc.,  before moving on to the next color.    The autistic mind is so accurate and so precise in its thinking, that I suspect 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 introduce "this crayon as 'red' " and then show this one as "green", and this one as "blue"... that is what I am teaching you...red, green and blue.   And so, that has order.   But, if I try and introduce "another blue", or "another red" then, I've introduced a confusing "variation" for my child... a variation he may already have 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 uses it", could indeed result in a lot of frustration.

So, I think if I had to do this again, I'd 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'd label as many hues within one color as possible before moving on to the next color.    If colors are indeed used as a coping mechanism by the autistic child, as I truly suspect they are, then providing as many colors as possible, in my opinion, should further enhance that coping mechanism.    Again, just a thought, based on "order", but, I'm 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 think back, there are so many times that color has 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 see if they were right.  Some were, some weren't - at least not in my mind - , some, I had no idea.  :o)  In calling out these equations, was Zachary revealing "his color code" to me?  I couldn't help but wonder! 

The composition of colors is indeed an interesting subject.   According to this link, http://acept.la.asu.edu/PiN/rdg/color/composition.shtml, how color is perceived depends on the light reflecting upon the object.   How interesting!   That indeed seems to imply that "colors" are perceived differently based on the light source.   If that is true, this could certainly also help explain why "changes in routine" may be so difficult for some autistic children.   As places change, so do their sources of light.  Could this be one of the reasons fluorescent lights are so troubling for so many autistic children.   Could their brightness have a serious impact on how colors are 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 meets the eye.  I know that although my car, to me, appears to be a "cream color", to Zachary, it is "yellow"... we keep "going over" the issue of the "right color", but perhaps there is no "right color"... perhaps we simply perceive them differently... and as such, we are both right!  :o)

For those of you, like me,  who have trouble thinking of more than one type of red, etc., my best suggestion is to buy the big box of  "CrayolaTM" crayons.   That would certainly provide a good starting point.   :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 are truly the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!!!

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 "beautiful 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 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 could provide a very powerful means of coding their world in order to better understand it!

Thinking of or understanding objects based on colors is an interesting subject for all parents of the autistic.    The ability to sense objects as "colors" is called "synesthesia"... as I only recently learned from another parent who provided a link on this topic.    This link, I provide as a starting point for parents who may want to learn more on this subject.

http://www.school-for-champions.com/senses/synesthesia.htm
 

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