Autism is incurable, right? People say it's a lifelong condition. An irreversible brain disorder. A tragedy. According to many, anyone who says otherwise is promoting "false hope." There's just one problem with this point of view: it's not true. Autism does not have to be a life sentence. And there is no such thing as "false hope."
How do I know? My entire life is the product of what many call "false hope." At 18 months old, I was diagnosed with autism. In fact, my case was considered severe, with no speech and a tested I.Q. of less than 30. I would spend my days endlessly engaged in repetitive behaviors such as spinning plates, rocking, and flapping my hands in front of my face. I never looked at others nor did I give the slightest response to the calls and requests of the people around me. I was "in my own world."
As I'm sure you can imagine, my parents were told many things about what my future would hold. No change was to be expected in my development. I would never speak, never have friends, never go to school, never learn to communicate with others in any meaningful way. The professionals recommended eventual institutionalization.
My parents, however, decided to make a complete departure from traditional methods of "treatment." They designed and implemented an innovative and groundbreaking program that was both home-based and child-centered: The Son-Rise Program®.
After working with me for over three years, my parents achieved what the experts had deemed "impossible": my complete recovery from autism with no trace of my former condition. After living a normal childhood, then earning a degree in Biomedical Ethics from Brown University, I went on to direct an educational center for school-aged children. I now lecture internationally, as well as being an author, teacher, and the Director of Global Outreach for the Autism Treatment Center of America™.
Unfortunately, many parents today are still not given full information about all of the options available to them. However, I would want parents to know that they do not have to face the lack of support that my parents faced, nor do they have to settle for a prognosis of hopelessness.
After my recovery, my father, Barry Neil Kaufman, wrote a book relating our story entitled Son-Rise: The Miracle Continues (later the subject of an NBC television movie). Then, in 1983, my parents founded what is now known as The Autism Treatment Center of America™, a division of The Option Institute, a non-profit, charitable organization, located in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Our center is dedicated to helping parents and professionals caring for children with autism, PDD, autism spectrum disorders, and other related developmental challenges. We teach a system of treatment and education designed to help families and caregivers enable their children to dramatically improve in all areas of learning, development, communication, and skill acquisition. Having worked with thousands of people worldwide, we continue to achieve results that have forever changed the face of autism and other developmental disorders.
Currently, we offer an introductory program called The Son-Rise Program® Start-Up, which provides parents and professionals with all of the tools they need to design, implement, and maintain a child-centered Son-Rise Program®. This training course is offered several times a year on our campus in Massachusetts, and we will also be sending a team of teachers to London from 13 to 17 January 2002, to teach the full Son-Rise Program® Start-Up at that time.
The foundation of the program rests upon this idea: the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out. In this way, we establish a mutual connection and relationship, which is the platform for all education and growth. Then, we can teach our children everything we want them to learn with exponentially greater success, speed, and ease.
One specific technique derived from this principle is joining. This means that when a child is doing a particular repetitive, exclusive behavior (i.e. stacking blocks, flapping hands, etc.), we do not try to stop the child from doing this. On the contrary, we do this activity with him! We find that children consistently look at and interact more with people when they are sincerely joined in their repetitive activities. This unlocks the door to the child's world.
Another key technique is to facilitate skill acquisition by capitalizing on each child's own motivation. Since, for these children, traditional learning modalities will rarely be appealing, we customize the presentation of curriculum to match the child's highest areas of motivation. This way, we use the particular skills and interests our child already has to maximize learning globally.
I could discuss other principles and strategies, but, instead, I will end where I began: with one all-important note. People have accused us of advocating "false hope," asserting that we cannot guarantee that all children will turn out like me. This is true. No one can guarantee that. But does this mean that parents should be discouraged from hoping for their children? Does that mean that all of these children should be given life sentences? Who decided that a life sentence was better than an open door and an outstretched hand?
The very idea of "false hope" means that there are times when hoping can be bad, wrong, or inappropriate. Because I have seen over and over again, in my life and in the lives of countless others, that hoping only helps and never hurts, I do not believe that hope can ever be "false." When I was diagnosed with severe autism, my parents decided to see possibilities where others saw none, and it was this perspective that enabled my complete recovery. Yes, it is true that we cannot know in advance what any given child will accomplish. But we must not decide in advance all of the things a child will never achieve. You should never have to apologize for giving your child a chance. Hope leads to action, and without action, none of these children can be helped.
For more information on The Son-Rise Program®, please call 1-877-SONRISE