The Son-Rise Program, which forms the basis of the work carried out at the Option Institute in Sheffield, Massachusetts, was developed by Barry Neil Kaufman and Samahria Lyte Kaufman following the birth of their son Raun. A year after his birth Raun began to display increased audio insensitivity and aloofness. In the following months a happy, engaging child became more and more detached from his parents preferring solitary play to their physical contact.
Like many parents the Kaufmans sought professional advice but were alarmed by the pessimistic predictions of the professionals and their reluctance to intervene to help their son there and then. 'Come back in a year,' they said, and they would have another look at him. We were disappointed, even angry. We wanted help, not an abstract diagnosis'.
Instead of despondency, however, the Kaufmans resolved to defy the predictions of the professionals. Armed with their own philosophical approach they set about developing a programme for Raun. The Kaufmans saw the 'isms' or behaviour patterns in an entirely different way: 'The child does not know how to deal successfully with his surroundings, and well-intentioned family members and friends do not know how to cope with this little person's bizarre and enigmatic behaviours. Therefore after a few years of being functionally autistic, the child intermixes a good deal of frustration, anger, and pain with his fantastic array of special behaviour patterns in response to anxious and even disapproving people around him. The child's display of discomfort, once interpreted as a causal factor of autism, represents the possible explosive and painful results of two worlds colliding.' Their approach was to embrace the 'isms' by:
Today, after a vast expenditure of energy and time, Raun Kaufman displays 'no traces of his former condition' and the Option Process has become the basis of a programme now being used with children with a range of conditions including cerebral palsy, epilepsy, Rett syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, autism, pervasive developmental delay, Down's syndrome, anterior horn cell disease and attention deficit disorder. Hundreds of families have taken their children to the Option Institute seeking to learn something of the Kaufmans' approach.
Tributes from parents adorn their literature and the sleeves of Barry Neil Kaufman's books. Despite their successes the Institute, which is a charitable organisation, currently receives no federal funding, relying on donations to cover the shortfall between programme income and its operation costs.
Nevertheless it still offers a choice of programmes to parents, as Samahria Lyte Kaufman, co-founder of the Option Institute and Executive Director of the Son-Rise Program explains:
'We work with two families a week in our program where the parents bring their children.
This program requires 12-15 staff members who work with the children for 40 hours during the week and 38 hours are spent teaching the parents how to guide their children.
The Institute views parents as the most powerful, dedicated and loving resource in a child's world.
'We also have another program where parents can come without their children. This usually attracts about 50 participants. We hold this workshop four times per year. So we are able to reach another 200 parents in this way.
'It is the emphasis on the role of parents alongside the philosophy of acceptance that distinguishes The Son-Rise Program from those administered by professionals. Parents run the program recruiting volunteers and deciding just how intense the effort will be.'
As Samahria Lyte Kaufman explains: 'Each family decides how the Son-Rise Program will work best for them. We train the parents on how to recruit volunteers so they can run a full-time program if they wish. We never suggest that a family "should" do the program in a certain way. Even a few hours a day doing this program can be incredibly effective. The schools cannot provide the intensive one-on-one interaction that a parent or Son-Rise volunteer can. Parents can feel proud of any time that they give to their child. Each individual program is built around the child's interests. It is not a question of imitating the actions of the autistic child but of joining in with them so that slowly but surely the child begins to trust the adult and leads him or her into their world. In this sense each program is truly child centered, building on the child's own interests whatever they might be. Volunteers and parents repeatedly convey to us the joy they feel in working with a child with special needs. These programs are not just helping the child but the adults involved are deeply touched by the experience.'