Watching your child grow up is exciting and wondrous. You marvel at what they pick up and how they develop.
For Kim Rackemann and her husband, the journey with their son Finn wasn’t quite so straightforward. Finn wasn’t really hitting the usual milestones. He was found to be on the Autism Spectrum, and the main indicator was his language delay.
Despite some scepticism, Finn started the Fast ForWord program, and in what seemed to be a short space of time, the improvements started. I spoke to Kim on The Learning Capacity Podcast where she shared Finn’s story.
Listen to the podcast.
- Language delay
- Fitting intensive therapy into a busy life
- Educational neuroscience
- Improving reading
People & organisations mentioned
- Dr Norman Doidge
- Peter Hutton, principal of Templestowe College
- Mimma Mason from Cogmed
- Professor John Hattie
- MS Read-a-thon
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 71 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Kim Rackemann shares how Fast ForWord helped Finn’s life with Autism
Colin Klupiec: Kim, thanks for joining us.
Kim Rackemann: Thank you for having me, Colin.
Colin: Your son, Finn, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which most of us will know simply as autism. How long ago did this become apparent to you, and how did you notice something wasn't quite right?
Kim: Yeah, it was quite tricky with Finn. Clearly I was very, being a medical professional, very interested in his milestones as we went along. And I noticed that he would just make his milestones from about 12 to 15 months on in the sort of recommended window. So I sort of had concerns there.
So he walked at about 15 months and he had some words, but it was just a bit slow. And there's always that re-assurance that he's a boy and they're always a bit slower at developing some of their milestones.
We sort of just progressed on because he was developing. But eventually, at around the age of three, I had him reviewed by one of the local pediatricians and she thought that Finn was developing normally at that point in time.
But then as time went on, really his language deficits became most pronounced to us, and his language seemed to develop much slower than other aspects. So I guess that was at around the age four to five when we started to notice some problems, and then we started some speech therapy at that point.
Colin: At lot of parents, myself included, keep a very close eye on language developments when we have young ones and I guess that there is a bit of talk around "oh well, my son was a little bit slower to start then suddenly everything sort of happened for us" or in your case, things didn't. When you say that there was a language deficit, what does that look like to someone who doesn't know what that looks like or sounds like? What kind of words are missing?
Kim: I guess it's just so difficult in some ways, and I always think that if I had my daughter first, who developed normally, I would have been much more concerned about Finn. But I guess the ability to move from single words into phrases and then into sentences, and that happened all a bit slower with Finn.
And even still now, he still struggles with sentences of greater length, to construct in his head. That's still tricky for him even now.But I guess the thing for us really was we were doing a lot of speech pathology work, but we weren't really getting much gain out of it.
Colin: I was going to ask you about the speech pathology, did you pursue with, sorry, did you persevere with that, I should say, for a fairly long amount of time before you realised that something still wasn't quite working?
Kim: Yeah, so we started speech pathology around the four and a half, five years. And we've probably been doing it now on and off because it's hard to motivate a child to continue to want to do similar things. So we'd give him a term on and then we'd have a term off and were doing that for a couple of years.
And we didn't really feel like we we're getting anywhere with it. So that was really tricky. So, and we had in the back of our minds that mostly with language issues that a short period of intervention will fix about 95 per cent of speech problems. I'm not a speech pathologist but that's sort of the number that people talk about.
Most children require a short intervention and then that fixes most problems. So we were starting to recognise that we were in a slightly different group and there were some other things going on. There were some sort of social anxieties that were developing, which really were all related to Finn's ability to communicate with the world. So that made us start thinking a bit more globally and then, I think, starting school really pronounced particularly Finn's difficulties with language.
Colin: So he did actually start school before the diagnosis of autism?
Kim: Well, Paul, my husband is a clinical psychologist. And we certainly had in our mind that he was definitely on the spectrum but we never really officially sought the diagnosis because we were just doing the therapy and the intervention that we thought he needed, without necessarily having the diagnosis.
And I guess everyone is slightly different about how they approach that. Some people feel they'd like to get a diagnosis that could go on and get the treatment. But we, in our minds, knew what the treatment was so we didn't feel like we needed a formal diagnosis. We were just doing the interventions, essentially.
Colin: And so did you end up receiving an official diagnosis from a pediatrician or someone similar?
Kim: Yeah, so he, Finn was eventually assessed by an educational psychologist and diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which is not otherwise specified, because he didn't describe some of the classic behaviors of autism spectrum disorder. And it's a thing that you can see over time and often in reflection.
You think, well yeah, there are certain things, and no child, , behaves exactly like as defined in diagnosis manuals, but he certainly has aspects there.
Colin: So he had already, well, started school by that point, had he not?
Kim: Yes, yeah definitely.
Colin: So at what age was he at school when you had the official diagnosis?
Kim: I think Finn was probably eight when we actually had the official diagnosis, although we clearly had in our heads that there was global delay, which as , that's autism. There's global delays across multiple areas.
Colin: At the age of eight, I would presume that Finn would be able to have a conversation about that, if you explain that to him. Did he actually know what was going on? Seeing different speech pathologists, and practitioners and then the psychologist, did he have any understanding as to what was happening?
Kim: Yeah, I mean, he certainly did, and he certainly has an understanding now. I mean obviously he can articulate it much clearer now, but it was always explained to him that, "You have some problems getting your words out and hearing people, and you have some problems talking to people." So it was sort of always put in developmentally appropriate terms.
Colin: So he seemed to cope okay with that?
Kim: Yeah. He clearly knew as well because he interacts with the world and could see, relative to his peers that he seems to struggle with language a lot more. But interestingly, Finn never really developed some of the behaviors that can go along with autism.
So behaviorally, he's very well behaved. He has some sensitivities to loud noises and sounds and cold, but otherwise, he sits and is a very well-behaved child.
Colin: Dr. Norman Doidge, in his book, "The Brain That Changes Itself" makes reference to autism as "a mind that cannot conceive of another mind." When you look at how Finn deals with his condition and his life, would you say that was a fair call on that explanation?
Kim: Yeah, I think so, but I mean it's really hard when you talk about individuals because it's never just completely one way. I think Finn's theory of mind is obviously very different to, say, my daughter's theory of mind, which is much more developed.
But at the moment, Finn is currently working with the psychologist to help him develop his theory of mind a bit better, his sense of self in the outside world. But he's certainly very connected to other people's feelings and he can see that other people are upset or frustrated. So it's sort of like this spectrum, I guess that's why they call it a spectrum.
Colin: Yeah, sure.
Kim: And his theory of mind is on a spectrum and it's not quite as clear as some people's, but he certainly has some theory of minds and minds outside his own.
Colin: Eventually this led you to interventions, and in this case, you started the Fast ForWord programs. How did you come to that point?
Fitting intensive therapy into a busy life
Kim: Well actually, it was Norman Doidge's book. I guess one of the speech pathologists we worked with was lovely, had sort of warned us, and obviously, both being medical professionals, we were very cautious of unproven therapies. And she had said "Look, the best evidence for therapy is intensiveness."
And so I knew that really it was intensive therapy that would work the best with Finn, but that's so hard to put into a very busy life.
And I just happened to be reading Norman Doidge's book and read all the stuff and he talked about Fast ForWord and I was like, "Wow, like this is really science driven." It's not someone's sort of idea or thought bubble that they then tried on a few kids and seems to be working well for them. There was a team of highly experienced researchers looking at these problems and coming up with solutions.
I mean, it's a pretty impressive thing that they've come up with. So I actually said to my husband "Maybe this is just something that might help, it's not incredibly proven but at least it's scientifically based.”
So that's where we came from. To be honest, I was a bit dubious, I was like, "nah”, at least there's some science in there and maybe sometimes when things reach popular media, it's kind of the science gets watered down a little. But we had no other things to try really, so we tried intensive therapy.
We tried home therapy and immersion therapy of just surrounding him with people who love him and talk to him and things like that. And we're just sort of out of options. We thought we've got nothing to lose.
Colin: I guess there'd be that natural enthusiasm from anyone who is trying to find that solution to any particular problem when suddenly you come across this thing that seems to be able to work and it seems within reach. I mean, it's a computer program, and you think, well that's something, that I can buy that, I can use it and hopefully there'll be a result.
Colin: Did you perhaps get a bit edgy when you were coming to that eureka moment and then thinking "Oh, maybe this won't work after all?"
Kim: Yeah, I mean I was very dubious and that's probably the medical profession in me. It's that we're very dubious of things, so very skeptical.
Colin: Well, that's kind of good isn't it?
Delivering intensive therapy at home
Kim: Yeah, I mean that's being a scientist. But I knew that there was science for intensiveness and this offered, so I thought, even if the science doesn't quite stack up, and it did, but if it didn't, the intensiveness would at least help. And it was delivered in a format that we could deliver the intensiveness in our home.
Colin: You made mention before about trying to find time in what's already a very busy life, and I don't think that there is a person on this earth who doesn't have a busy life these days. What was it like for Finn to suddenly have a very heavy routine imposed upon him, which would have been very different to any other routine that he might have seen?
Kim: Yeah, I think we certainly had to align our work life balance up to start. I had sort of read about it, probably about three months beforehand, and then I had to pull back on a few things and adjust before we started. Just because I knew we needed some really dedicated period of supervision to implement the program.
But because I've already done quite a bit of home style-based education with Finn, just trying to catch him up with school work and things, I knew that I could implement the program. I knew I could get him to do it. And we started with the 50 minute intensive a day. So yeah, look, and at first I was like, "Oh, 50 minutes is pretty repetitive."
Colin: Yeah, that was for five days a week?
Kim: Five days a week, yeah. Just in terms of developing a routine we actually sort of tried to do it every day. So every day was the same. It's like brushing your teeth, you don't get Saturday and Sunday off. Just do it every day, and then that way if we missed a day, I think, well, we're still getting the five days.
Colin: Yeah, sure.
Kim: So I still try and do that now. We just do it every day. It's just part of "Have you done Fast ForWord today?" "Yes." "No." "Okay, off you go."
Colin: Does the school know about this?
Kim: Yes. Yeah, the school does know about it.
Colin: In terms of his use of the program, not his condition, I mean.
Improved ability to read music
Kim: Yeah. No, the school is aware of the program but I must admit they're really pretty naïve to its work. In fact, I was listening to your podcast about the founders of it and their frustrations. Because it's very successful in helping children to read and their frustrations in terms of getting it out there to the kids who need it.
And so I guess there is this sort of still reluctance in the community and crowding of other possibilities of what things could work.So yeah, the school didn't quite have the sense of the changes it made for him. That’s because Finn started it in transition where he's going from junior school to middle school.
Interesting, his piano teacher said to us "I don't know what you've done with Finn over the holidays because his ability to note read for piano, it's phenomenal. It's so different."
Colin: Isn't that incredible?
Kim: I know, we were like, "Well, yeah, he's been doing this program that helps his memory and his listening." And yeah, definitely, I think it helps when you have that big gap and then you come back, and then you see the difference.
Colin: Were you able to feed that experience back to the school? Is that something that you could tell them?
Phenomenal gains in reading and speaking confidence
Kim: Yeah, and look I've been sort of harping on about what a difference it's made for him. And people at his school have certainly noticed. But I guess for Finn, because we came in at so late his language and literacy skills are still struggling. But he's really making phenomenal gains over the last six months.
And I guess for the school, because of the nuance of him being in high school and having individual teachers, I guess, they are not really seeing it. They just see his deficit. You know, whereas, I'm seeing his gain, like his confidence in reading, his confidence in speaking, his confidence just to interact with others.
Colin: That's a real glass half full story right there, isn't it?
Kim: Yeah, I took him to golf the other day and he tried golf. I was like, "Do you want me to stay?" He said, "No!" And I'm like, "You sure? Because normally you'd be nervous and want me to stay." And he said, "No, I'll be fine." And I think that's part of his ability to communicate with the world.
Colin: That's a curious connection there for me because golf could be one of the most frustrating things he ever does in his entire life.
Kim: Yeah, well, for me too!
Colin: People have asked the question why grown adults, mature educated people chase a small white ball around a big park all day.
Kim: Yeah, yes!
Colin: I'm curious though, you mentioned before that school was perhaps not fully informed or even partially informed. I've often wondered about that myself because it is an emerging area of brain science. If you think about how we sometimes use the term brain science, we often use it as a, not really like a put down, but "Come on, why don't you get this? It's not brain science."
Colin: That kind of thing, I mean, you could use rocket science as another example. "Come on mate, it's not that hard, it's not rocket science."
Colin: But in this case, it really is brain science.
Colin: So in one sense it's not really that surprising that schools don't spend a lot of time trying to investigate these things. How would you explain or how would you describe your relationship with the school now in terms of continuing down this path with Fast ForWord?
Kim: It was really trying to incorporate it in your life. The demands of the school day, and by the time they get there, do their school day and come home. Then adding this additional 30 minutes on top of the homework that already has to happen. I'm a very outcome-focused sort of person, but in schools, there's a lot of, yeah, there's a lot of opportunity, and that's when children are operating at their best, not at 7:00 at night after a long day.
That there's a real opportunity in the day to do this 30 minutes of work. Listening to some of the schools who have incorporated it, it just sounds fantastic. So I'm sort of trying to gently say, "Well, maybe we could just do this at this part of the day." But they're, although they're sort of interested and supportive of me doing it, they've really shown zero interest.
Colin: Perhaps you could have been less gentle?
Kim: Well my husband would probably disagree that I'm being gentle. But I guess for them I think their theory of learning and education is different from what's presented from these neuroscientists. I think it's a big leap in a busy school. They've got other programs and models. So yeah, it's difficult.
Colin: I think there's some positive news or reason for hope in that part of the educational world because there are principals around who are quite aware, or increasingly aware of educational neuroscience, if I can put it that way. And are actually trying to actively consider those things in how they develop their curriculum.
I had Peter Hutton, who's the principal of Templestowe College on the podcast a few episodes ago and he's very interested in the area of educational neuroscience, and also quite aware of what he would call a "false neuroscience". And so he's already aware of some of the pitfalls that are coming out.
Colin: And similarly, I asked Mimma Mason, who's the Cogmed representative for Pearson, "Is education in neuroscience for real or is it just pop science or armchair psychology" and she said "No, it's quite real. It is an emerging field. Yes I'll grant you that, but the emerging evidence is quite compelling." So I would say that there's hope.
Kim: Yeah, I definitely agree, and I love hearing those stories. They really give me hope, and I think the educational landscape just from a parental perspective, is changing and it's changing fast, and it really needs to. But unfortunately, I couldn't change it for my son. I even wrote to Professor Hattie saying "How can I get my school on board?"
Colin: Is that right? What was his response to that?
Kim: He was like, "Look," he wrote a very gentle, academic, "I don't know much about your situation." So he wrote a professional response that I'd expect, but he was saying, , "Look, there's things about student performance and then there's things about teacher performance, and , it's about developing a very clear plan and working with the school about what that the plan is."
But I think it's difficult in the environment and trying to get people on board in terms of change and moving, just based on one parent's experience.
Colin: I don't want to get too side-tracked on John Hattie but I think it is worth noticing that he did write you a very professional response but having spoken with him on the program, I think he's very genuine in his attempts to try and find out what actually really works in the classroom.
Colin: And I know that many people are at odds with some of his research and they disagree with it, but I think there's lot to like about some of the things that he's found out. So I'm not surprised about the response that you got, but having said that, I think the future landscape looks pretty good.
Looking further then at glass half full, if we can put it that way, when did you start to notice the results, really? As in, was it three months, four months, or was it only after he had gone back to his piano practice? Can you put a time limit on it?
Kim: It's really difficult now, but I guess we started noticing things after the first month. And I mean, even my daughter was saying, "Do you think Finn's talking a lot now?"
Colin: Is that right? After one month?
Kim: Yeah, and then because in terms of compliance with the therapy, there was quite a bit of supervision that was required. And even now. I still need to check in to see that he's actually doing it, but what I noticed is, because there's some elements of it, they're actually very difficult. I find them difficult, and so he even got better at the tasks than I could, just as an outsider coming in and having a bit of go. And I think that gave him a really great sense of achievement.
Colin: Yes, I'm better at this than you are.
He can now follow multi-step instructions
Kim: Yes, and I was like, "I can't even distinguish those sounds, Finn, how are you doing that?" So certainly his willingness to communicate, and probably it took about three months that I really noticed because I used to have to give Finn single-step instructions, face to face. Or else if it wasn't face to face, I'd end up having to repeat myself. After three months that completely disappeared.
I can now give him multi-step instructions, still face to face, mind you, it works much better. But what I find, if I gave him multi-step instructions in the past, he'd maybe do one and then forget and then be distracted by something else. Now I can say, "Go and do these three things, and then come back."
And then sometimes he still might forget the last thing, but he'll come back to me and say, "Oh, I know there's something else, but I've just forgotten. What was it?" Whereas, before, he wouldn't even remember that there was something else.
Colin: So in less than a year, you're dealing with a radical change. It's a radically different situation isn't it?
Kim: Yes. I mean confidence wise and his willingness to try things, also completely different. And it's difficult to know, but that probably took the three months as well. We started noticing just increasing confidence in social situations.
Improved receptive language and expressive language
Colin: Part of the underlying diagnosis was expressive and receptive language delays and this is basically what we've been talking about for the last 10 or 15 minutes, I suppose, and that was explained to you as a form of auditory processing disorder.
So given the fact that you've seen significant changes in his ability to communicate, would you say that his expressive and receptive language, if I can try to just pin it down to those two technical terms, has significantly improved? Is that how you would describe the improvement?
His literacy has improved remarkably
Kim: Yeah. So I think particularly his receptive language and his expressive language has improved, and I still think we still have a little bit more work to do there. And his literacy has improved, in terms of his ability to read, has improved remarkably.
Colin: I was going to ask you about that, because he started the Fast ForWord reading programs, and was that because that just seemed like a natural thing to progress onto or was there a deficit in reading as well that you thought, now we need to address this as well.
Kim: Yeah. No, definitely, I mean that was where his major issue, in terms of how his receptive language delay, presented itself at school. His literacy was probably like a six-year-old to seven-year-old mark at the end of last year. So he's assessed by the school at reading sort of about a seven-year-old level in comprehension. So he certainly needed lots of work there. We've developed the habit and there was a reading program.
And I thought, let's just keep going and let's just see how far we can go with it. So, yes, he's now on the Fast ForWord reading program three, which is like year six level of reading. So his reading has improved, and even his confidence to attempt words. Whereas, before he'd just say, "I don't know" and look at me, not sure. Now he is hearing the phonemes in the words much better.
Colin: I was reading some academic commentary the other day that suggested the only reason why we teach people to read is so that they can read. Now I know on the surface that sounds kind of simple, yeah, okay, but so that they can read signs or read a form or fill in a form or something like that.
But the commentary then went on to say, "Well, shouldn't we really be educating children to read so that they can enjoy reading and explore reading, and that they can research on their own and that they can enjoy literature and stories and fiction and so forth." Do you see any development in Finn's enjoyment of reading or is it just at this point a mechanical sense of, "Yes I can read."
Kim: Yes, well I think both, my husband and I enjoy reading and read a lot. So we understand those joys and pleasures. We've always read to the kids, and we still read to Finn. He loves being read to. He loves stories. We are currently reading the "Hunger Games." He loves it. I wouldn't say he's enjoying reading yet, it's still hard, hard work.
And even I think for my daughter, probably has a reading age of about 11 or 12, so it's slightly ahead of Finn's, she still finds it taxing. So she doesn't quite have the joy of it yet. But I keep saying to them, "You've just got to keep doing it. It gets easier. Just keep doing it! I felt like you, I felt reading was very taxing and very hard when I was growing up. But eventually, as an adult, you can read like you practice."
For some children it becomes easier for them early, and then they get that love of reading. Unfortunately my love of reading really didn't develop until I was about 15 or 16. So not until I was a bit older.
Colin: Well, you've got ten years on me because for me it started at 25. Very late, in fact, well, I've confessed this a few times on the show. I used to cheat in the the MS Read-a-thon. I used to collect money for books I'd never read.
What does the future look like, do you think now?
Kim: I think the future is exciting. We've found something that has made an incredible change in Finn's life. And at least, we feel like he's got the confidence to go out and try things now. And hopefully he will develop the joy of reading, like my husband and I, and have a full and meaningful life. That's really important.
Colin: Kim, it's a wonderful story and it's been wonderful to speak with you this afternoon, thanks so much for your time.
Kim: Well, thanks for having me.