How much can we learn when safely supervised?


I’ve got a long backlog of stuff I’m trying to blog, by the way, but this is what came out today.

I don’t in theory have a problem with making sure kids are safe. I want to say that up-front. But I’ve realized that a lot of the most important things I’ve learned in life, would not be possible for most autistic children in this day and age. I might have even not learned, or been much more delayed in learning, the connection between typing and communication, in today’s Internet-savvy world where parents protect and monitor their children online because of all the dangers involved. I’ve likewise heard Donna Williams describe running around totally unsupervised in ways that modern middle-class kids don’t get to do, and picking up a lot of important learning while in situations that are often considered quite dangerous.

When I was younger, there was a computer downstairs, and my brothers had it hooked up to a modem, that connected in turn to bulletin board systems. These were places you dialed up and could post on text-based message boards. On the fancier ones you could chat.

At this point in time, I was starting to get the mechanical act of typing down, as in pressing keys to make letters come out, and was becoming quite proficient at this. What BBSes allowed, though, was for typing words into a computer and getting responses back. Writing patterns of things into BBSes meant gradual recognition of what was meant by the patterns. I am sure I must have annoyed the crap out of a lot of people, but I learned some really important things that I still don’t know how I’d have otherwise learned.

These BBSes were not child-safe. If any parent saw what I was doing on there, they’d have shut down the computer. They included adult door games such as Fantasy Land, in which you gained points for having sexual encounters with other players and getting past their defenses. I encountered pedophiles who supposedly wanted to ask me questions about sexuality in children. My main shield against all of this was that I was too oblivious to what was going on, often, to respond in a way that satisfied anyone. I was still trying out the meaning and function of the written word as communication, so this stuff didn’t faze me or affect me.

A part of the freedom of this was that I was not being directly observed. If someone had plonked me into a writing program or something, and observed what I was doing, I would have stopped doing it. I would not have experimented as wildly as I did, and I would not have come to as wide an understanding of a lot of things as I did. I would also not have had the chance to learn a lot of things in context that I was able to learn in a BBS environment. There’s even a chance that the written word would have become as useless to me as the spoken word did. I had to have the privacy to discover these things on my own or I would not have wanted to discover them.

This is only one example of something I did that I “shouldn’t” have that probably benefited me a great deal. There are many more.

Safety is important, but I worry about how many autistic kids these days are being provided so much safety there’s no room to learn a lot of important stuff in a way that they can learn it. Certainly it was not safe for me to go all over the city on my own, certainly it was not safe to go on BBSes on my own, but both of these things, I am convinced, were important parts of my development of communication and understanding. It seems like there’s a big drive to regulate what we learn and what hazards we are and are not exposed to, and something vital might slip through the cracks of this safety. I’m not advocating sink-or-swim here — I’ve sunk too much to be that naive — but things happen in uncontrolled situations that are impossible in controlled ones.

If anyone else has experiences of learning important stuff in totally unsafe ways, I’m curious to hear it. It seems like the most important learning experiences of my life were also the least controlled and most dangerous. I’m not sure if I’d have figured out the function of back-and-forth written language until much later, if I’d been kept too safe.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

20 responses »

  1. I’d say the majority of my intensive periods of learning came from being outdoors a goodly amount of the time (we lived in a fairly rural area). It has occurred to me that often when I was young — four, five years old and up — I did quite a bit of staring closely at insects and snakes and toads and spiders, etc., as well as plant anatomy and rock anatomy and sky anatomy and dirt anatomy, and that during a lot of that time my parents didn’t seem to be around much . . . I’m sure they were in the house and peeked out at me from time to time, but I did a lot of wandering back to a creek with a skinny ladder-bridge about a half-mile beyond the cornfields and to a retention pond where toads and red-winged blackbirds bred like mad. I suppose it’s possible I could’ve fallen in and injured myself or drowned . . . and I suppose parents today would be highly frowned upon for letting their kid go traipsing willy-nilly about the countryside petting snakes and the like, but it seems kids don’t really go outside at all these days anyway . . . they’re cooped up inside and socially overstimulated to the point where outside is “boring” and too much work . . .

    This isn’t as sensational of a “learning in an unsafe way” story as I presume you were looking for, but I really do think those experiences contributed greatly to my learning to appreciate Creation and pay acute attention to detail . . .

  2. Tricky one. As an adult, I can relate to my ‘learning experiences’ as a child, but it is precisely because I’m a parent that I would want to shield my children from making the same errors. There is also the passage of time such that things like say ‘hitch-hiking’ was unwise in the 70’s, worse now. Maybe I was just lucky but it’s more than nail biting to think of the next generation repeating that kind of a thing.

  3. When I was about nine we’d had some snow in our village and because our garden was on a slope it was really good to go sledging down it. So, one afternoon, me and my younger sister trudged up to the top and I was going to go first. I wanted to try something just a bit different. I lay on my back, with my head at the bottom and shut my eyes. After what seemed ages, but which can only have been a few seconds I was suddenly aware of what I still remember as the most marvellous feeling of weightlessness that lasted just long enough for me to be aware of it. Then there was a thud and the sledge spun around a bit and I opened my eyes. I had gone off a wall and landed about a foot from a pair of glass french doors.
    Now, this doesn’t really sound like important learning, I know. But it was. It taught me that taking risks, even when you would think it could be dangerous – does not always end in anything other than the ride of your life :).

  4. This is a tricky one, all right. I believe that when Adam is left alone, (and if I happen to be peeking in on him), I see him doing some pretty interesting things. Last night, he decided to play with his teddy bears. He was saying “play with me, play with me” a few times (a line from Sesame Street). I could have never “made” him come up with that on his own. That’s just a very small example. I was an only child and I was left alone for hours at a time to play with myself. I would create imaginary games, talk to myself, probably preseverate in my own way. There are some ruby moments in time that is spent alone. I think with autism, we worry about our children being engaged all the time, we may have lost some of this. But now that we have “grown” into autism, so to speak, I feel the value of Adam’s alone-time.

    As for outdoors, I am afraid. I lived in a day and age when we played outside until it was dark. My mother would switch the lights on and off when it was time for me to come in. Or she would hollar my name. I would get stuck in the mud with no one to help me out, I would “discover” so many things outdoors…bugs, animals..things we as parents would freak out over. Further, there are no more kids that are out in the streets who play. My neighbourhood is playdate alley. Everyone drives a few doors away to visit another kid. I hate it, actually. I wish kids came by and played in the street.

    We have a big backyard, so Adam has freedom out there. We had to buy a cottage for some more outdoor fun. We live in the city, so it’s tough, in addition to society’s new paranoia, automobile society. Anyway, I do feel that Adam misses out on this opportunities and free moments. Camps, schools, programs, therapies, organized playgroups. Everything is so organized and choreographed and I often wonder how our kids will change as a result.

  5. I once walked about 15 blocks to save a dime in bus fare. I was 6 at the time. Running around unsupervised in a suburb of Boston like that wasn’t perceived as being as risky as it might be today. (My parents discussed this afterward, to figure out if it was OK for me to do it in the future; they figured the exercise didn’t hurt, anyway. I was allowed to keep the dime.)

    At the point at which it would have started getting riskier for some things, due to a variety of factors, we moved. About the worst risk by myself was wandering off from the house and getting hurt and not being able to get back. I got temporarily lost a couple of times, but figured out how to find my way back (keep walking until I hit a stone fence or a road, follow the road back to the house, follow the fence to a road back to the house. (I was bullied a little less in the new community, as well, which helped my psyche. It didn’t totally stop, but it was more manageable, it took longer for them to figure out the buttons that the kids I’d been with earlier had figured out and pushed on a regular basis.)

    Tree climbing — not a problem, encouraged. At least until the branch broke and I fell on my back (no permanent damage) and then there had to be tree inspections, and some were deemed unclimbable.

    Sledding into the creek — not a problem as long as we got warmed up fairly soon after actually breaking through ice and getting wet.

    I may come up with more later. Let me know how dangerous this stuff is on your danger-meter; if it’s too tame, I may not bother with much else. (Although the unaccompanied bus trip might be a good one to elaborate on.)

  6. Hitchhiking – many thousands of miles across Canada, south to California, many back and forth trips between Ontario and Atlantic Canada as well as many other shorter trips was a great place to practice my “social skills”, especially small talk. If I screwed up (in my attempts at conversation) it didn’t much matter as I’d likely never encounter this person again. I learned an awful lot I’d never have learned otherwise.

    It certainly wasn’t always the safest position to be in but no real harm ever came to me. I gave up hitchhiking when I took up motherhood.

  7. Yes, if I hadn’t been allowed to wander around and make discoveries on my own, I’d have missed a lot of moments of spontaneous learning, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been as confident in my ability to deal with life in general. Even if the wandering seemed pointless to the adults around me, it gave me the feeling that life was a great adventure and that I was in control.

    I just wrote a post on a related theme:

    The Freedom to Make Mistakes

  8. I’m afraid that my son has no way to escape the “safe parents”. My husband and I were raised in completely opposite manners and have very skewed senses of safety. He was impoverished, abused and neglected and is very fearful of 1)poor neighborhoods, 2)strangers 3)buses. I was middle class, had “normal parents”, lived in the country and small towns. I think city buses are liberating.
    But I do insist on a lot of things that might be considered “smothering” for a 7 year old. I still make him hold hands in sidewalks and parking lots. I supervise closely if we are in a public park.
    I’m more worried about the influence of public schools. They preach about “stranger danger” which isn’t really an accurate (or helpful) message. They also have double standards about violence, cursing. My son would get punished for going down the slide head first, which was ludricrous. Not to mention the old equipment they have removed (tether ball) and banned games (crack the whip and dodgeball).

  9. Hmm, important skills and benefits? The first thing that comes to mind was that being left alone, for us, wasn’t always as much a situation of learning things as of having our sanity saved by not having to be constantly in contact with other human beings.

    Navigational skills– yes, that’s probably an important one– we got a map when we were 8 and used it to navigate around our neighborhood on our bike, to figure out which streets connected to which other streets, to take different routes to get to the same places. I’m sure we would have been able to develop this skill later from doing other things, but it was good to have a head start on it. Understanding of nature and the cycles of the seasons, we got that from being able to explore in the woods; we liked that because it was a pattern and we could come to predict, say, what trees would grow leaves in spring and when.

    There were other things we did when left alone that weren’t necessarily skill-building experiences as such, but it was at least good that we had the freedom to do them. We came up with a story when we were 14 or 15 about “revenge” on classmates who had bullied us. If a majority of schools nowadays had seen a thing like that, they would probably have decided we were the next Columbine waiting to happen, even though it would have been completely impossible for any of the situations described in the story to happen. Frustrated kids (and adults) have had fantasies of revenge on bullies from time immemorial, but today it apparently can’t mean anything other than that you’re about to gun down all of your classmates, which at no point were we ever planning on doing. (Nor, apparently, from what I’ve heard, are you allowed to be a loner in many places any more– ostracized loners are now considered potentially dangerous killers in high school, and “helped” by forcing them into mandatory social activities such as pep rallies. There was some of this going on while we were in school too, but we’ve heard of more recent stuff that was much more extreme than anything we experienced.)

  10. I’m more worried about the influence of public schools. They preach about “stranger danger” which isn’t really an accurate (or helpful) message.

    Are they still doing ‘stranger danger’ in schools? Good grief. We were terrified after a policeman came into our kindergarten class in the early 1980s to preach about the danger of strangers, Halloween, and Halloween candy. We didn’t find out until years later that a lot of other kids of our generation had been likewise frightened to a completely unnecessary degree about strangers, poisoned Halloween candy, razor blades in apples and similar things. We thought they’d gotten rid of it because it was scaring so many of the children, but it seems not.

    Then again, my generation is now the one that’s having children of its own, and I suppose it’s possible that a good many of them never actually realized that ‘stranger danger’ was vastly exaggerated– certainly exaggerated by comparison with the far greater number of children who are kidnapped, murdered, molested, etc, by their own relatives– and are passing that paranoia on to their own children. The media’s “mean world” angle, in which the most sordid and brutal events are disproportionately played up, has led a lot of people into the belief that the world is somehow vastly more dangerous, particularly for children, than it once was. The fact is that it’s not. Murdered children turned up in ravines in the 1930s just as they do today; it’s just that such cases didn’t usually receive nationwide publicity until a few decades ago. Children, and people of all ages, have always been murdered, abused, and kidnapped; the presence of a few high-profile cases doesn’t change the actual prevalence of it. And keeping children locked up inside all day, under constant supervision, is not likely to have any effect in decreasing the actual rate of such incidents, as cases in which the perpetrator was another member of the family have always been more common, if less headline-grabbing.

    It doesn’t mean that it is acceptable or “innate” for these things to happen. It just means that such things have been with us (us being human society) for a very long time. I read a rather staggering article the other day about the number of young girls (young here would be around 11-13) who were sold into prostitution by their families in Victorian London (in some cases the families did not even realize what exactly it was they were agreeing to), because customers at brothels would pay higher prices for girls who were guaranteed to be virgins. (And yeah, they actually had doctors who gave them medical examinations to certify this.) And there are still a lot of places all over the world, today, where similar things continue.

    So the upshot of it is that claims that the world was safer for children in some nebulous “past” is simply wrong. I certainly am not against keeping children safe in ways that are actually reasonable and make sense, like Amanda said. Teaching children to see every stranger as a kidnapper or murderer, however, seems to me like a very counterproductive thing to do, in terms of teaching them skills which will actually help them to get along in the world.

  11. In recollection I had what basically amounted to a totally supervised childhood – accompanied by either parents or nanny everywhere, even if it was only to the playground up the road. Couple that with not going to the local school, but to one a distance away and you lose a lot. I was encouraged to read a lot, so I went a lot of places in my head. What I think I missed out on was socialisation; the difference between me and my ‘less supervised’ peers at school was sometimes striking. Beyond that, I don’t know – I could have missed out on other stuff as well that I’m not even aware of.

    So, yes, I agree with you totally, and that it’s not just children with autism who suffer.

  12. I grew up with extremely overprotective parents and wasn’t even allowed to cross the street unsupervised, in my own neighborhood, in my senior year of high school. I had many heated arguments with my mother about being allowed more freedom, particularly since I knew I was moving away to college. It made for an interesting time in college and my early 20s. Part of my strong desire to travel by myself is undoubtedly linked to my early experiences of being denied the opportunity to go places by myself. I also developed a strong liking for traveling on subways, which I never would have been allowed to go on as a kid by myself (and my mother was afraid of subways).

    In short, when I had the wherewithal to assert myself, I reacted against the restrictions that were placed upon me and saw the problems with them.

  13. My neighborhood growing up had farmland down the street, and a huge forest park behind our house. Because of my crutches, I wasn’t able to hold hands when crossing the street, so I was taught how to cross the street on my own early. Maybe four or five; I can’t remember. I do remember feeling tremendously grown up and cool when I was five and my big brother had to hold my mom’s hand when we crossed the street, but I didn’t. I did some wandering the neighborhood, the woods, and the farms, and learned a lot. Some of what I learned;

    – How to spot stinging nettles, and that the sting doesn’t hurt that bad
    – How to make it over an ordinary barb wire fence
    – When trying to cross an electric fence, don’t move the wire aside with your crutches; use a stick.
    – Almost any amount of dirt washes off.
    – If you’re alone, and something goes wrong, you can fix it, or go find help. You CAN whine, cry, pout, or lay there demanding help, but that doesn’t do anything, and you wind up back at fix it, or get help.
    – There are mud sinkholes that can suck a crutch down up to the handle, but if you pull hard enough, you can get it back out. The rubber tip will probably be lost, though.
    – It’s a lot easier to float downriver than up. If you can angle back to the shallows on the side, you can make it back up.
    – Most snakes are actually really mellow, and will just stare at you and slither off. Nearly all of the rest will run away. Same goes for spiders; they very rarely bite.
    – You can fall of some pretty tall stuff without anything worse than a few bruises.
    – If you’re lost in the woods, trails probably lead somewhere. That doesn’t always work, but if you remember which direction you started from, you can use the sun to find which way to go.
    – (Something I learned with my brothers.) It’s possible to be buried neck-deep in sand and still dig yourself out, if the sand’s not too packed down.

    So all in all, I think unsupervised time taught me a lot more about independence, problem-solving, not being afraid, self-reliance, and being able to shrug off minor hurts, in addition to the practical stuff. If I’d been watched more, I don’t think I’d have done half as well in the long run.

  14. I played door games like Falcon’s Eye and Barrent Realms Elite. (Daly Games). I ran a couple of BBS’s. I started off with the simple “Wildcat”… Anyhow, I too had some fortunate luck to be able to go out unsupervised and learn from it. At about 16, I biked across the city and back. It was a very surreal experience as were most of these kinds of experiences growing up. I was also in bad areas at very late times like 3am. I sometimes walked home from a school most kids had bussed or drove to for about 30 + blocks.

    Some warning and understanding/direction and supervision is good but it can’t go on for ever. It might be a good few starters. On occasion, supervision can actually be more harmful because one is being trained in a way that won’t match what they should normally do. I strongly believe in good “instructions”, written down/expressed very specifically and ambiguously and then letting people do fully hands on or trial runs if need be in a “safe area” but no “hand holding” (like what has been so often done with me that it has in fact incapacitated me somewhat for life)

  15. If you’re alone, and something goes wrong, you can fix it, or go find help. You CAN whine, cry, pout, or lay there demanding help, but that doesn’t do anything, and you wind up back at fix it, or get help.

    This only works for some people in some situations, though. Remember what Amanda said here about how *needing* to do something doesn’t necessarily entail that you will be able to do it in a worst-case scenario, even when being able to do it might make the difference between life and death, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you don’t do it, you must really not have wanted to and were trying to harm yourself in some way.

  16. I wasn’t trying to suggest anything of the “if you really need to, you can do it” sort. Perhaps it came out that way since the problems I’ve had when I didn’t have anyone to fix it for me were always the ones I could deal with on some level. What I meant was that there’s only so many options if things go wrong, and having someone come along and help spontaneously isn’t anything to rely on. If you don’t have things arranged so there’s someone to help, the possibile outcomes are fixing it yourself, getting help, or (to get into things more fully) failing to find a solution to the problem at all.

    I think there’s a common assumption of “just world” thinking, where most people expect, or are supposed to expect life to be fair, and what’s needed to arrive. I don’t have any such expectation. There are plenty of people who don’t get what they need, and can’t do the one thing that would save them (look at the number of people trapped in floods that never learned how to breathe water), and bad things happen. This isn’t good, or right, and should be fixed as much as possible. But it is also important to know in a crisis that help doesn’t just happen, and to start look at the things that I can do to fix things, or get someone to help me, because I can’t rely on help just arriving the moment I need it.

  17. Was led here by Metafilter. That whole discussion is amazing!

    I wanted to recommend some books by Aldous Huxley. One is an essay called The Doors of Perception. It discusses perceptual filters as used by geniuses and people using LSD.

    The other is a novel called Island. It is a utopian novel that features a society that allows its youth to “unsafely” learn.

    Both books are extremely thought-provoking!

  18. I’m with you! I too believe that most children today typically are not afforded the same opportunity to learn through life experience. When we grew up there was less supervision. Children were allowed to roam freely throughout the neighborhoods, meet new people and develop their own senses of trust, belonging and ultimately gain independence through those experiences. Today, children rely on computers, tv and other activities to fill in those gaps of freedom. It is unfortunate that we need to shelter our children out of fear of violence and predators now when they existed all along. Drugs, violence and sex were always a part of society too. Kids need to be kids–it is part of the process of growing up. Today, parents must know where there children are at all times or they are charged with neglect. If my parents restricted me as much as parents are required to watch over their children today, I would not have any of the fond memories (good and bad) that have become a part of my life experience. I turned out fine and thankfully made all of the correct choices at crucial times of my development. Unfortunately, some children do not–maybe because they are so restricted that they act out as soon as they have their first opportunity for freedom to make a choice.

  19. I ran away from home once. I learned that not everyone who wants to buy you a hamburger just wants to buy you a hamburger.

    I have also been in situations where I need to act and could not, including when I ran away from home. (I do not recommend running away as a “place to learn”). Even recently I felt I was in the “wrong” place and could not tell anyone for several hours. I lost speech as a reaction to feeling unsafe, when I NEEDED speech to communicate that I needed to leave. I also do not think that I was easily able to generalize the “not everyone just wants to buy you a hamburger” to other situations, such as dating.

    My parents let us wander in the woods behind our house. Like many others who posted here I learned a lot of things about the woods, many of which do not translate to the world of work or other aspects of “adult life”, but maybe some do, in unusual ways. I teach my son about the smells of various kinds of wood, look at flowers with him, to see what they are like inside, whether pink or yellow pistils, etc.., to stop and listen to the birds, stuff like that. I still tend to freak out when he puts his hand under a rotten log down by the creek. We have copperheads. I put my hands on plenty of logs, though, and never met one copperhead as a child. I know many many parents who do not let their children get dirty, but my son is happiest when covered from head to foot with mud. So I let him unless we are going somewhere where he is supposed to be mud-free.

    I learned more by being left alone to my own devices than I did in the controlled environment of a school. Plus it was more visual, more tactile (in ways I like), many more sense impressions than one can get by sitting at a desk and eating one’s eraser…

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