Autism. Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD). As the prevalence of these disorders continues to rise, our questions become ever more urgent. What causes autism, and what can we do to help our children who are already diagnosed? As we look with increasing determination for the answer to the first question, we never forget the importance of the second question. We want so much to help our children, and yet it is easy to feel a bit lost as to how best to accomplish this. How do we help children who often don’t appear to want the help we offer?
I would like to discuss here an interlocking network of specific strategies and techniques which addresses exactly this issue. These strategies, when utilized properly, can have a profound impact on the development, communication, and skill acquisition of children diagnosed with autism or PDD. They are, in fact, the principles of The Son-Rise Program®, the autism treatment modality taught at the Autism Treatment Center of America™. To understand the context of these principles, though, one must first have an awareness of the history of The Son-Rise Program – a history, incidentally, that is also my own.
At 18 months, I was diagnosed with severe autism, along 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 Completely mute and withdrawn from human contact, I would spend my days endlessly engaged in repetitive behaviors (often termed “stimming”) such as spinning plates, rocking back and forth,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 every way, “in my own world.”
My parents were told to expect no change in my development (or non-development, as the case was). 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 prognosis was stark: I would have autism for the rest of my life. The professionals recommended eventual institutionalization.
After being confronted with this prognosis, my parents designed and implemented a home-based, child-centered program in an attempt to reach me and facilitate my development. They worked with me for over three years, using the method they developed, now called The Son-Rise Program. Their Son-Rise Program enabled me to recover completely from my autism without any trace whatsoever 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.
After my recovery, my father, Barry Neil Kaufman, wrote a book relating our story in detail. The book, entitled Son-Rise: The Miracle Continues, was later recounted in an NBC television movie. In the avalanche of press and attention that followed the publication of the book and subsequent airing of the television movie, my parents were flooded with requests for help.
Therefore, in 1983, they founded what is now known as the Autism Treatment Center of America (a division of The Option Institute, a non-profit, charitable organization), which is dedicated to helping parents and professionals caring for children with autism, autism spectrum disorders, PDD, and other related developmental challenges. At our center, located in Sheffield, Massachusetts, USA, we run a series of weeklong training courses. In these programs, 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. In our work with thousands of people from across the globe, we have consistently seen results far outstrip prognoses.
The foundation of the program rests upon this idea: the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out. This means that, rather than forcing children to conform to a world that they don’t understand, we begin by joining them in their own world first – before asking them to join us in our world. In this way, we establish a mutual connection and relationship – a critical prerequisite to productively teaching our children. Keep in mind that interaction is the #1 challenge for this group of children as well as the deficit most often cited by parents as to where they would like to see their child progress. Our primary focus, therefore, centers around helping these children to interact with, connect with, and form relationships with others. Furthermore, we want these children to want interaction, as well as to act spontaneously rather than by rote training. The key is to have our children “on our side” and interested in what we are trying to convey to them. Then, we can teach our children everything we want them to learn with exponentially greater success, speed, and ease.
So, where do we start? We know that we want to meet our children in their own world, and we know that we want to do this in a way that is tangible and visible to our children. Certainly, one of the major aspects of the world of so many of these special children is self-stimulating, repetitious behaviors, such as spinning objects, lining up blocks, rocking back and forth, watching the same short segment of a video over and over again, etc. This is where The Son-Rise Program® begins. Instead of stopping a child’s repetitive behaviors, we join in with these behaviors. These children are performing their behaviors for reasons that are important to them (and, as research is beginning to show, these behaviors often serve a physiological purpose, as well). We show our acceptance of – and even interest in – what they are doing, establishing a critical bond around this common interest. This is so important, because we find repeatedly that children begin to display an interest in us when we have an abiding interest in them. What’s more, this interest is spontaneous, not forced. These children interact because they want to.
Some who are unfamiliar with this joining technique have raised concerns that joining children in their repetitive, exclusive behaviors will only reinforce these behaviors. However, in practice, the exact opposite is true. Joining establishes, often for the very first time, a real connection between a child and his or her parent or facilitator. We see time and time again with the thousands of families with whom we work that when children with autism or PDD are joined, they begin to look at us more, pay more attention to us, and even initiate interaction with us. And as these children move toward deeper and deeper engagement, they perform their repetitive behaviors less.
The reasons for this are by no means mysterious. Typically, children with autism and PDD are continually asked to stop doing what they want (their repetitive or unusual behaviors) and start doing what someone else wants (sit down at a table, play a specific game, use the toilet, write their name, etc.). We are then baffled when it appears to be such a struggle to engage these children. But really, are we any different? The key to real, genuine social interaction is a back and forth between people – a mutual interest in one another’s wants and motivations. We do not befriend those who only focus on their own wants and display no interests in ours. We form relationships with those people who both expose us to their interests and focus on our interests. And, yet, when teaching children with autism and PDD, the very children who have a challenge with social interaction, we may find ourselves employing tactics that are diametrically opposed to the most basic principles of human interaction and connection.
When deciding to join, we look for behaviors that are both repetitive (occurring over and over again or with sameness) and exclusive (non-interactive, being performed as a way to tune others out). Then we simply engage in this behavior with our child, displaying a genuine interest but not trying to change the behavior. At this point, we wait for the child to initiate connection by looking at us, stopping their activity, speaking to us, taking our hand, etc.
The bottom line is, if we want to build a rapport and connection – the platform for all education and growth – with our children, then we must begin by entering their world, following their interests, connecting on their terms. Only then does ongoing teaching and social interaction become possible.
Some benefits of joining are as follows: our children will look at us more, pay more attention to us (which makes learning possible), and aggressive and self-destructive behaviors may decrease. Also, joining delivers the key to unlocking the mystery of these behaviors as well as facilitating eye contact, social development, and inclusion of others in play.
The next key principle is facilitating skill acquisition by capitalizing on your child’s own motivation. Rather than pushing one particular mode of learning on every child, we use each child’s own motivation as a conduit to help that child learn and interact. Traditionally, we might look at what we want our children to learn first. Then we might think about how to teach them. In The Son-Rise Program®, we reverse this process. We focus on locating children’s primary areas of interests before deciding what and how to teach them. This way, we use the learning skills and interests our child already has instead of trying to teach “against the grain” by using a medium that doesn’t work for our child.
Critical to the effective utilization of this principle is the recognition that learning is the single largest factor for growth. This concept is well understood, seen throughout every area of learning, and is not disputed. We know that children and adults, regardless of ability level, learn more and learn it faster when they are motivated by and interested in what they are learning. Yet, we seldom see this principle utilized – especially when it comes to children with special needs. Often, the mode of learning and the children’s interests are not matched. For example, let’s take a child counting oranges on a piece of paper. Maybe this child is more interested in cars or dinosaurs. The question is: would this child learn faster if he/she were asked to count dinosaurs?
In the case of children with autism and PDD, traditional learning modalities will rarely be motivating. Therefore, we must customize the presentation of curriculum to match the child’s highest areas of motivation.
If we match our goals to each child’s area of motivation, the result is a highly effective symbiotic marriage between skill acquisition (social interaction, toilet-training, language development, etc.) and a particular child’s natural areas of interest. Thus, learning is exponentially increased - with a unique and startling benefit: we have the child’s willing cooperation.
So many parents tell us that their child, after being repeatedly taught a particular skill, may perform some rudimentary skill-based behaviors. However, they also explain that, when they do perform the behavior, their child appears “robotic,” exhibiting a “programmed response.” They frequently report that their child doesn’t spontaneously (let alone joyously) respond in new ways without a prompt or reward. In our approach, we are interested in helping children to actually learn what they’re missing. When a child has learned something – not memorized it, but learned it – it becomes a generalized skill they can use spontaneously.
Again, let’s look at some benefits of this approach: our children’s rate of learning can increase exponentially – with their willing cooperation. Our children are enabled to acquire critical skills (social interaction, toilet-training, language development) with ease instead of strain. Moreover, our children can build the studentship necessary to be successful in traditional learning environments, such as school and social situations. Also, this approach enables our children to respond spontaneously, without requiring prompt or reward, and without seeming “robotic” or exhibiting a “programmed response.”
The next principle to discuss is teaching socialization through interactive play. There are two prerequisites for implementing this principle effectively: specific skills or concepts that we want our children to learn (toilet-training, dressing oneself, reading, having a conversation, etc.) and the belief that our children are capable of learning them. Without this belief, the effectiveness of any teaching efforts is severely compromised.
There are a number of specifics to this principle, some of which we will briefly touch upon here. The first is something we call the three E’s: energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. Getting sincerely excited about any activity we are doing with our children maximizes their engagement. A corollary of this is celebration. Celebrating children with animation whenever they accomplish something (no matter how seemingly small) is the key to getting children to “come back for more.” We also want to encourage children – especially our children – to be “good tryers.” This means not only celebrating our children when they successfully complete a task or say a word, but also celebrating their attempts - “That was so close! Nice try! Let’s try again.” Finally, we want to prioritize the interaction over the goal. No matter how important we think a particular goal is, interaction and connection will always get us and our children further in the long run. For a given child to accomplish a particular goal on a Thursday instead of Friday is much less significant than for that child to continue to build a bridge of interaction between his/her world and ours. Therefore, we vigorously pursue specific goals, but never at the expense of overall interaction and rapport.
Benefits of this principle include: we are focusing learning on the area where our children need the most help, we stimulate in our children a self-perpetuating desire to learn, we promote increases in our children’s attention span, and we expand our children’s learning capabilities and at the same time enable our children to retain what they’ve learned. What’s more, we take the pressure and stress out of teaching.
Another principle – often very much appreciated by many who come to the Autism Treatment Center of America™ – is to help children “unlearn” their challenging behaviors. Many parents and professionals tell us about having serious difficulties with their children’s tantrums and other challenging behaviors. Ironically, they often unwittingly react to these behaviors in ways that reinforce them. Think about what we normally do when our children do something we don’t want them to do: “Oh my gosh! Look what happened! Sally, no! I told you not to touch that! It’s very dangerous! Honey, look what Sally did!” We run around frantically, making a big Hollywood production out of whatever just happened. Of course, we’re doing our best to take care of the situation, but is this really getting us what we want? More importantly, are we teaching our children to behave and communicate effectively? This is a question worth asking, because it lies at the heart of our children’s progress (and, at times, our own well-being).
And what happens when our children are playing sweetly and quietly (maybe even with their siblings)? Well, then we are very careful. Especially if such behavior is rare, we think my child (or children) is actually playing quietly – the last thing on earth I want to do is rock the boat. So we tiptoe around and stay out of the way, hoping the moment will last. And, again, we unwittingly teach the opposite of what we really want.
It is important to understand that our children do not necessarily know how to communicate the way we do. They do the best they can to communicate what they want, and they use our reactions as gauges to see whether their communication is effective. Thus, our reactions become, in and of themselves, a form of communication. Whatever we give big reactions to (whether the reactions are of a happy or unhappy nature), we promote. When we yell and scream, we promote what we’re screaming about. When we clap and cheer, we also promote what we’re cheering about. On the other side, the less we react to something, the less we promote it. We would do well to always ask ourselves: what am I teaching or promoting with my reaction, and what is the best way for me to react, given what I want to teach my child?
We can, if we choose, use our everyday reactions to teach our children sweet, easy ways to communicate – rather than the more aggressive or tantrum-oriented behaviors they may be using now. In fact, The Son-Rise Program is the fastest tantrum reduction and elimination program we’ve ever seen. The crucial beginning point for this is to remain calm and relaxed when our children do things that we don’t want. We might read the previous sentence and think: easier said than done. However, that is only because we have been taught to believe that the way our children behave is a comment on us as parents or teachers (remember when autism was thought to be caused by cold “refrigerator mothers”?). And yet, this is simply not true. Our children are just trying to communicate (or trying not to, as the case may be). What they do means nothing – absolutely nothing – about us. It just means they are trying to take care of themselves the best way they know how (just like we are). When we really believe this, then there is nothing to get worked up about, even when our children behave in a challenging manner. Again, we can always come back to our question: what is the best way for me to react, given what I want to teach my child?
Simply by slowing down and toning down our reactions to challenging behaviors and stepping up our reaction to the behaviors we want (the opposite of how we often react in day-to-day situations), we enable swift, dramatic change. By then clearly showing our children, in a caring, supportive manner, which forms of communication (i.e. pointing or speaking rather than yelling or throwing things) we understand (and then really celebrating them when they communicate with us in this manner), we can help our children to communicate effectively without using challenging behaviors.
The beauty of this approach is that it plays to our children’s intelligence. What we have seen to be true is that when a mode of communication (a tantrum, for example) ceases to be effective both at getting a child what he/she wants and at generating a flamboyant reaction, that child will stop using that mode of communication. By the same token, when a child notices that he/she is getting what he/she wants more quickly and is getting big, fun reactions through the use of a particular mode of communication or behavior (attempting words, pointing, or even playing sweetly, for instance), that child becomes increasingly motivated to continue utilizing that form of communication or to repeat that particular behavior.
The benefits of utilizing this principle are many. We quickly reduce or eliminate tantrums while at the same time helping our children to communicate more effectively. We maximize the types of behaviors we want and minimize those we don’t. Furthermore, we remove adversarial interactions. Another huge benefit to this approach is that is has a ripple effect: it teaches and promotes sweet, easy communication with any typical children we may have, as well.
Also of critical importance is our child’s work/play environment. By creating an environment free from distractions and control battles, we can optimize learning and interaction. We construct a one-to-one work/playroom where the focus in upon interaction above all else. By removing TVs and electronic toys, colorful wallpaper, loud noises, etc., we clear away many of the obstacles that specifically hinder the learning and attention of children with autism and PDD, who are often highly overstimulated by their environment. In this special playroom, we give the child a great deal of control. It is precisely this control which enables our children to begin to feel free to step beyond the boundaries of their world. This experience of control of their environment goes a long way toward building trust and interaction. The more control these children experience, the more they will feel comfortable reaching out and connecting with others.
The benefits here are, in brief: we stop the cycle of overstimulation, increase our children’s focus and attention span, make person-to-person interaction central to the teaching process, and we drastically reduce control battles which hinder growth and interaction. All of this occurs in an environment in which we can feel comfortable in the assurance that our children are safe and secure. It is also very important that we discuss the two overarching principles which form the foundation of the first five described above. The first is that the parent is the child’s best resource. Having worked with parents and professionals from all corners of the globe, we’ve had the opportunity to speak with so many people who deeply love and care about their children. We have met professionals whose caring and dedication far outstripped the confines of their job, who’ve made their career their calling. However, we have seen nothing thus far to match the motivation, love, dedication, and lifelong commitment possessed by parents for their special children. Furthermore, no one has the kind of long-term, day-to-day experience with their own particular child that parents possess. Without question, professionals and other family members can be critically important. At the same time, because of their unique position in their child’s world, parents can positively affect their child’s life in a way no one else can. Therefore, not only do we acknowledge parents as the child’s most important resource, but we seek to empower them to the child’s advantage. This is why we teach them how to design, implement, and take a central role in their children’s programs.
The last principle to discuss focuses on an area often overlooked when it comes to the treatment of children with autism (or any other special needs, for that matter): attitude. A non-judgmental and optimistic attitude is crucial to effective implementation of any of the previous principles. What does this mean? First, it means that we don’t label our children’s repetitive and ritualistic behaviors as inappropriate, wrong, or bad. Like the idea of remaining calm in the face of an aggressive, challenging behavior, we may at first be tempted to see this attitudinal shift as difficult, if not impossible. And, again, it comes back to the issue of what we believe will ultimately be the most helpful for us and for our children. For this principle is every bit as practical and pragmatic as it is idealistic. We see time and again that children with autism tend to move away from people they perceive as uncomfortable or judging and toward people they see as comfortable, easy, fun, safe, and non-judgmental. Thus, we can use our attitude to become an interaction magnet.
We can, indeed, go farther than that. By combining this non-judgmental attitude with an attitude of optimism and hope, we can lift our children to new heights. When I was diagnosed with autism, my parents decided to see possibilities where others saw none, and it was this perspective that enabled my complete recovery. In order to accomplish anything, we must first believe that it can be done. Let us believe in our children. When we don’t put limits on our children’s future, we open the door for limitless growth and progress.
Hope is the vital ingredient. Why? Because hope leads to action. Without hope, there is no action. Every practical strategy of The Son-Rise Program® outlined here is based upon action. Every child with autism in the world that is helped by anyone is helped through action. Although we cannot know what any particular child will accomplish, we need not decide in advance what any child will not accomplish. Let’s give our children a chance. If we do only that, we will have given our children the greatest gift we could possibly give them.