|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XXI NUMBER 1 Fall 2005|
Making Ideas Matter
Although we live in a society besieged by trends and crazes, there is something a little magical about a technology that allows a teenager with a developmental disability to broadcast her piano playing to the world – and receive messages from fans.
Larry Welkowitz, professor of psychology at Keene State College, helped 16-year-old Kachina set up her weblog, Musical Conversations (kla.typepad.com). Kachina's blog, developed earlier this year, hosts a number of digital files, or podcasts, of her piano songs, such as the contra dance piece "Kitchen Girl," "Song Without Words," "Springtime," and works by Mozart. Each month, she adds another song to her collection.
In her blog, Kachina offers this insight into her world: "I would like to share my music with other interested people. I enjoy playing the piano (mostly classical music); also, I play the bass xylophone in a contra dance band. I am a teenager with a developmental disability (including some autistic-like characteristics). Music is my special language. I welcome your comments and having a ‘conversation' with you."
"It's about making connections," says Welkowitz of his research and teaching interests and a pedagogy that include blogging and podcasting. Blogs, which are simply personal online journals, have become immensely popular, he says, because anyone can keep a blog, and anyone can read one and respond to the author. A podcast is an audio file posted to a web site, which can be downloaded and heard by anyone with an MP3 player (a digital audio player that stores and plays audio files).
Welkowitz is Keene State's most prolific faculty blogger. He speaks with enthusiasm about the potential for sharing ideas, starting discussions, and advocacy – especially regarding child developmental problems – through blogging.
"I really like the Glasnost aspect of it – you put everything on the table. It can change the whole culture – people become interested and more collaborative." Among recent postings on welkowitz.typepad.com are "Managing anger, politics and nuclear disaster," a muse about his experience organizing an information session the same day a Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant disaster drill was being held at the College; a chat with Molly Linn, a teacher at the Sullivan School, about the advantages of small schools versus big schools for children; and a discussion about the benefits and problems of sending children with autism-spectrum problems to residential programs, rather than mainstream schools.
Podcasts, a new addition to Welkowitz's blog, function a bit like radio broadcasts, he says, adding that podcasting is not as complicated as it sounds. Welkowitz plugs a headset/microphone into his computer, opens a computer program called Audacity, and starts recording a conversation. A few moments later, he drops the file into his blog. Done.
A podcast may be music or conversations or, in Welko-witz's case, interviews with experts in autism and Asperger's Syndrome – the major research interest of Welkowitz the clinical psychologist.
Welkowitz and his colleague Linda Baker, also a professor of psychology, are among the leading experts in the U.S. on Asperger's Syndrome, a neurological condition characterized by severe difficulties with social communication. In recent years, Welkowitz says, a growing number of children and adults have been diagnosed with Asperger's. While extremely talented in their areas of interest, many with the diagnosis also have problems with coordination and sensory processing.
His interest in Asperger's, explains Welkowitz, is personal. "I have a nephew with Asperger's who I watched grow up and struggle with social problems. He's now in college, where he faces even more complex challenges, but he's doing very well. I wanted to learn more so that I could help him and his family.
"I also knew that Asperger's was a neglected area of study. I had been seeing these kids in my clinical practice, but could not even find a name for it, let alone guidelines for how to help. I knew I had to get involved and study the problem, in order to inform my clinical practice."
In a bid to foster conversation on the topic, Baker and Welkowitz set up the Asperger's Study Group, which provides families and others with resources about the problems and a forum for discussion. It was the beginning of a decade of frenzied activity for the pair. First, they produced a video, "Understanding Asperger's," which includes interviews with children and young adults with Asperger's, and their families. Then, after several years of cajoling experts from around the world to contribute chapters, their book Asperger's Syndrome: Intervening in Schools, Clinics, and Communities was published.
Along the way, the Study Group received grants from the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism to support a range of research, including the use of podcasting technology to help people with autism and Asperger's learn social interaction skills. One such grant was used to help Kachina broadcast her music to the world. Welkowitz explains how the idea came about: "I was in a subway in New York listening to a musician, and I asked him if I could record his music onto my laptop. He said ‘sure' and I recorded him and uploaded the file and played it back to him, and it seemed very easy."
Easy enough, he says, that he will soon require all his students to create and maintain their own blogs – in much the same way that other classes may require students to keep lab notebooks. He also hopes his KSC colleagues begin keeping their own blogs. "Blogging at Keene State could be a form of teaching, rather than just publishing opinions," he explains. "It's an opportunity for faculty to put their ideas out there and be juried by fellow professors and the public."
His motivation for spreading the use of blogs and podcasts comes back to creating connections among and between communities, says Welkowitz. He points to his latest research interest – to find ways for people with Asperger's or autism to get beyond discomfort in social situations.
There's a difference between how people with autism-spectrum problems and "typical" people speak, says Welkowitz. "When typical people talk to each other, within a short period of time their speech patterns start to match – how long they speak, how little they pause." This serves to create a comfortable environment for social interactions. On the other hand, says Welkowitz, "people with autism and Asperger's don't do this at all."
Or to put it another way, "From an autistic person's point of view, it's what you say rather than how you say it. From a typical person's perspective, how you say it is everything."
Welkowitz is interested in developing systems and interventions to help people with these disorders learn to tune into non-content aspects of speech. (Related to this, he says, is another study to help Asperger's sufferers learn to read the emotion on the faces of others.)
The intervention he is currently pursuing, with the help of Keene State students with Asperger's, is using podcasting technology to help the students learn to match speech patterns of others.
In a conference room, Welkowitz uses the Audacity program to record a conversation between a student with Asperger's and a person without the disorder. He then uploads the file onto his computer, and Audacity enables him to separate the conversation into its two parts. Within seconds, he plays the conversations back, complete with graphics that reveal – in the manner of a heart monitor-type effect -– the speech patterns of each person in the conversation.
"So what we get is visual, real-time feedback of each person's role in the conversation," he explains. "This lets the student [with Asperger's] see his pauses, see the length of his vocalization, compared with the other person's."
Welkowitz then instructs the student to make a few changes to his speech. "I want you to work on making the length of time you talk equal to Dave's. I want you to be conscious that if you've spoken for 30 seconds [the graphic indicates time] then you should be thinking of wrapping it up."
The underlying issue that Welkowitz wants to address is the sense of discomfort that people with Asperger's and autism feel in everyday life. "These people feel terribly discomforted in the social world, and they want to run away and hide. What I'm saying is quite the opposite – that they have to get back up on the board and ride that wave of discomfort out."
Earlier this year, Welkowitz received the Keene State College Award for Faculty Distinction in Research and Scholarship for his contribution to knowledge in the area of child developmental problems, especially Asperger's. Among his other research interests are the prevalence of anxiety problems in communities (he is co-author of the book The Hidden Face of Shyness) and developing more effective treatments for those disorders. Revisiting his ties to radio – he learned as an undergraduate at Middlebury College that he "could make his ideas matter" by broadcasting them over student radio – he's begun advising Keene State's WKNH radio. And there's always his nine-year-old daughter and fellow blogger and dedicated Yankees fan, Annika, to hang out with.
"She's been blogging and podcasting for a while, mainly publishing her poems," says Welkowitz. In fact, he says, it will be Annika who gives the instructions on how to go about setting up a blog – via an online videocast – to Keene State students taking her father's courses next semester.
Annika's also learned the hard way, he says, that expressing oneself publicly can result in adverse reactions. "She recently had the experience of being booed by her classmates during a reading of her poem about Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter." In a podcast on her blog, Annika reads: "You can go to the ball,/or the City Hall./But it really is neater/to watch Derek Jeter."
"I explained to her," recalls Welkowitz, "that this would be the only year in her lifetime that Red Sox fans would be able to get away with that kind of behavior."
Dave Orsman is senior writer of Keene State Today and KSC media coordinator.
Larry's blog: welkowitz.typepad.com