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  Friday, March 27, 2015  Home > Education > Information > Autism collaboration: Interview with Michael Leventhal, autism educator and technology researcher
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Autism collaboration: Interview with Michael Leventhal, autism educator and technology researcher

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Kathleen Tehrani

Michael_Leventhal_Pic-recent_The_Omni_Intelligencer_250Thanks to educator, researcher and autism advocate, Michael Leventhal …..Video Modeling is garnering quite a bit of interest in the special education community. While this is not a new concept, per se, it has not been approached in a collaborative fashion where multiple approaches and applications to the Video Modeling premise will be linked together in one place so that a case specific program can be constructed based on each child’s learning strengths and abilities. This is a novel approach that Michael Leventhal is committed to putting into action through his Video Modeling project that can be viewed at his various web pages which all can be accessed through his giza page at: http://mleventhal.gizapage.com/.

The following is a conversation I recently had with Michael....

Kathleen: Thank you Michael for your time. Just to get us started I’d like to mention a little about your professional history which is not necessarily related to the field of education. Your past includes senior level project design, director of marketing, director of advertising and business analysis. What aspects of these past endeavors do you feel have been incorporated into your current teaching style…..and could you give some very brief examples?

Michael: I come from a long line of great talkers so teaching is in my blood.  That, more than experience, has shaped my teaching style.  My love of knowledge, and particularly science, has also been a major influence on what I choose to teach and how I go about it.  Back in 1994,  my classroom was festooned with a life-sized astronaut (made by the children) hanging like pinata, a huge model of the solar system , 2-foot butterflies and my first Pinky robot that scooted across the floor.  The kids loved it as much as I did.  Every teacher has a personal style. But each also incorporate personal experiences into their work.  Teaching is much more than lecturing the class.  Today, an educator must be a mentor, advocate, liaison, paper-pusher and classroom administrator.  On top of that, educators continue professional study.  Someone able to draw on their life experience is in a much better position to handle such a complex job. 

I can't overestimate the value of my business background.   It allowed me to rise above the traditionally provincial viewpoint of education and see the bigger picture which, I assure you, “ain't” about mounds of paperwork,  pointless assessments and reader-less reporting.  I don't consider education to a business or the personal domain of an administrator.  I see it as a framework to facilitate the learning process.  I care more about how children learn best than I do about grades.

While my background has made me a better educator, it has also been the source of great frustration, especially when attempting to get my ideas put into action.   In business, everyone shares the common goal of making things better and more efficient (hypothetically).  If something is not working properly, you are obligated to figure out a solution to present to the decision makers.  But education is like a battle ship that travels 5 miles to complete a maneuver.  Navigating the bureaucracy can be tedious.  Even after being approved new programs are subject to the financial and political whims of the system.  I hit this wall a few times in the business world as well.  But while a business may fold because of poor practices, an outdated educational system keeps chugging along, a cross between a rickety 1939 Ford with no crankcase oil and the Energizer bunny.

Kathleen: You have over 25 years invested in the field of special education. Please share why you have been motivated to work with the autism population as well as advances and impediments to best practices that you have experienced and/or observed.

Michael: I relate to people we describe as being autistic.  I experience many of the same problems they do.  To me, the Spectrum is a full spectrum.  I'm just towards the top and feel responsible for advocating on their behalf.  When I believe a new approach will help,  I feel compelled to do something about it.  Many new approaches to working with autism are being introduced.  I am thrilled that technology is finally being appreciated.   But I am equally concerned about what and how technology will be implemented.  Decisions are still being made by the same folks who got us into this mess.  A new paradigm is in order.  Decisions about technology integration really need input from new perspectives.  Instead of a "Them vs Us"  mentality, I like to see the establishment embrace parents as a source of valuable information.  I see a lot of fancy footwork but have yet to witness much that is constructive.

Kathleen: Video Modeling seems to be an extremely effective method for teaching students on the autism spectrum and an extremely effective motivator. Please give a few reasons why, in your estimation, that this is.

Michael: Sure. Apparently the visual (or combination of visual and auditory) stimulation is able to engage most students despite their intellectual and academic function. In my experience, student reaction to video is not dependent on age or functional level.   Usually I explore a variety of VBI alternatives (different programs, website, live video)  to see what resources will work with a particular group or individual.   Sometimes, I have to be quick on my feet.  Often, I settle into one approach for an extended period.  It all depends on the daily student mix, whether they're off meds that day or some other consideration.  Gaining their attention allows me to better  understand each child's style of communicating, learning style...preference for sound, color, movement, loud, soft, etc. and level of cognition.

You start to appreciate intellectual capacity that was not apparent during the course of an average day.  Learning to operate the mouse or keyboard can produce an "ah-ha" moment.  Suddenly they realize they are able to control something in their environment.  Now, they can be offered a choice, and someone gave them this wonderful new tool that permits them to make their own choice, without anyone speaking for them.  Some kids never had this option before.  That's why, when you watch some of the videos I made of and for the children, you'll see kids leaning on me or grabbing my hands, then placing them around their own necks.   As a parent and educator of 26 years, I find these moments to be the most rewarding moments of my career.

Higher functioning students finally have the opportunity to engage in activities never offered to them before.  Challenging activities.  Fun activities that the average person takes for granted, but which were never before customized to address the needs of autism.

Kathleen: Michael, you are also working on a vision plan for an online collaboration site for the purpose of sharing and disseminating a wide range of autism treatments, tools, software applications, educational methods, etc. Please share a little about that plan and take us out with your project’s ultimate destination.

Michael: Numbers signify strength.  The collaboration will have to reach a critical mass in order to prove that it adequately represents all stakeholder groups.  Because we represent ALL stakeholders, there are no secrets.   Collaboration lays all the cards on the table.  What does everyone want to know?  Who knows where to get it?  How do we go about getting this marvelous technology in use, at home and in school?  This is the first opportunity for "voiceless" stakeholders to join a choir that is practicing to sing harmoniously.   

Numbers also mean knowledge.  Part of the collaboration is the sharing of resources; more people means access to more information. There is a lot of that on the Internet.  Some good; some not so good.  But, most information on video modeling is merely a reiteration of the research. It can't help a parent decide when its worthwhile to shell out 50 bucks for commercial software instead of simply taking some home video at the playground.  Searching for practical information is a frustrating, labor intensive task that few have the time for.  By bringing all resources together, customized "road maps" could be generated to save people time and make their experience more productive.

Numbers encourage higher order thinking.  By formalizing our group intelligence, we not only help each other, we open the door to higher order thinking.  I know my issues and now I know yours as well.  But how do we work together as a team?  Only a collaboration can answer questions like that. 

Numbers give us credibility.   Video modeling is not yet acknowledged as an important topic of discussion.  No other site focuses on this technology.  Only a few address this technology because they operate under a different business model servicing their own membership needs.  Our needs are not adequately addressed on any one site.  Individually, we are flying below the radar.  Together, as members of hundreds of different professional and cause related networks, we become a force to be reckoned with.  

Eventually, all sites will link with us.  But, for now, we only need a handful of followers from many different places.  Our success in encouraging parents and schools to use this technology is based solely on letting the world know what we are doing.  If we build it, they will come.

For additional information about Michael's Video Modeling project and various other technology applications for autism advocacy, please visit Michael's giza page which routes to his various websites:

Michael Leventhal's GIZA page


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