It is estimated that there are 518,500 children and adults, or 1 in 110 people, affected by Autism and related disorders in the U.K. alone. Autism is the third most prevalent developmental disorder in the world. Unfortunately, most parents of children receiving such a diagnosis are told that their child's condition is an irreversible, lifelong affliction, leaving many parents devastated, with little or no hope for their children's future improvement or recovery. More than 25 years ago, my parents, too, had a child with this diagnosis: me.
At 18 months, I was diagnosed as severely autistic, with a tested I.Q. of less than 30. Completely mute and withdrawn from human contact, I would spend my days endlessly engaged in repetitive behaviors such as spinning plates, rocking back and forth, and flapping my hands in front of my face. I didn't want to be touched, I never looked at other people, and I did not give the slightest response to the calls and requests of the people around me. I was "in my own world."
My parents were told to expect no change in my development. It was explained that I would never speak, never have friends, never go to school, never learn to communicate with others in any meaningful way. My condition, it was said, was incurable, unchangeable, and "hopeless." The professionals recommended eventual institutionalization.
With no support or help, my parents 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. They called it The Son-Rise Program®.
After working with me for over three years, my parents achieved what the experts had deemed "impossible." Their Son-Rise Program® enabled me to recover completely from my autism without any trace of my former condition. I graduated with honors from high school, went on to earn a degree in Biomedical Ethics from an Ivy League university (Brown University), and then directed an educational center for school-aged children. I now lecture internationally at conferences, symposia, and universities, as well as being an author, teacher, and the Director of Global Outreach for The Son-Rise Program® at the Autism Treatment Center of America™.
Thankfully, parents today do not have to face the lack of help and 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). In 1983, my parents founded what is now known as the Autism Treatment Center of America™. This center is dedicated to helping parents and professionals caring for children with autism, PDD, autism spectrum disorders, and other related developmental challenges. At our center, located in Sheffield, Massachusetts, 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. We have worked with thousands of people from across the globe, and achieved results that have changed the face of autism and other developmental disorders worldwide.
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, but we will also be sending a team of teachers to London from 13 to 17 January 2002, to teach the full Start-Up program 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! What we have seen over and over again with thousands of children with autism spectrum disorders is that as a result of joining, children do their repetitive behaviors less and interact more. Moreover, we find that children consistently look at and interact more with people when they are sincerely joined in their repetitive activities.
The use of a non-judgmental and optimistic attitude is crucial to effective implementation of this principle. Therefore, we never label our children's repetitive and ritualistic behaviors as inappropriate, wrong, or bad. At the same time, we look for the possibilities, not the deficiencies, in the children we work with. By not putting limits on the future of any child, we open the door for limitless growth and progress.
A second technique is to facilitate skill acquisition by capitalizing on each child's own motivation. In the case of children with autism spectrum disorders, traditional learning modalities will rarely be motivating. . Therefore, we customize the presentation of curriculum to match the child's highest areas of motivation. This way, we use the learning skills and interests our child already has instead of trying to "run against the wind" by teaching in a way that doesn't work for our child.
I could discuss other aspects of our program, but I'll end on one final, all-important note. People have accused us of advocating "false hope." It is true we can't guarantee all children will have the same results as I had. But does that 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? Hope can never be bad or wrong or inappropriate. 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. 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