Building a Bridge – Breakthrough Strategies for Reaching our Children
By Raun K. Kaufman
Printed as a special supplement for Good Autism Practice Journal October 2002
AutismAutism. 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? (See What is Autism?) 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.
“In My Own World”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 Completely mute and withdrawn from human contact, I would spend my days endlessly engaged in repetitive behaviors (often termed “stimming”) such as spinning plates, rocking back and forth,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.
Creating The Son-Rise ProgramAfter 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 Education 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.
Autism Treatment Center of AmericaTherefore, 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 week long 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.
Reaching Your Child By Building a Bridge: JoiningThe 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.
Understanding Behaviors & ConnectionThe 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.
- Our children pay more attention to us (which makes learning possible).
- 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.