A strengths-based approach to autism

father and son playing games on tablets

At our son’s 18-month checkup five years ago, our pediatrician expressed concern. Gio wasn’t using any words, and would become so frustrated he would bang his head on the ground. Still, my husband and I were in denial. We dragged our feet. Meanwhile, our son grunted and screamed; people said things. Finally we started therapy with early intervention services.

A few months later, after hundreds of pages of behavior questionnaires for us and hours of testing for Gio, we heard the words: “Your son meets criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder…”

Our journey has taken us through several behavioral approaches with many different providers. Today, Gio is doing very well, in an integrated first grade in public school. He can speak, read, write, and play. His speech and syntax can be hard to understand, but we are thrilled that we can communicate with him.

The difference between typical and functional

Longtime autism researcher Laurent Mottron wrote a recent scientific editorial in which he points out that the current approach to treating a child with autism is based on changing them, making them conform, suppressing repetitive behaviors, intervening with any “obsessive” interests. Our family experienced this firsthand. Some of our early behavioral therapists would see Gio lie on the ground to play, his face level with the cars and trucks he was rolling into long rows, and they would tell us, “Make him sit up. No lying down. Let’s rearrange the cars. Tell him, they don’t always have to be in a straight line, Gio!”

To me, this approach seemed rigid. We don’t all have to act in the exact same way. These kids need to function, not robotically imitate “normal.”

Why not leverage difference rather than extinguish it?

We naturally gravitated towards Stanley Greenspan’s “DIR/Floortime” approach, in which therapists and parents follow the child’s lead, using the child’s interests to engage them, and then helping the child to progress and develop.

Mottron’s research supports Greenspan’s approach: study the child to identify his or her areas of interest. The more intense the interest the better, because that’s what the child will find stimulating. Let them fully explore that object or theme (shiny things? purple things? wheels?) because these interests help the developing brain to figure out the world.

Then, use that interest as a means to engage with the child, and help them make more connections. Mottron suggests that parents and teachers get on the same level with the child and engage in a similar activity — be it rolling cars and trucks, or lining them up. When the child is comfortable, add in something more. Maybe, make the cars and trucks talk to each other.

But, don’t pressure the child to join the conversation. Let them be exposed to words, conversations, and songs, without forced social interaction. This is how early language skills can be taught in a non-stressful way, acknowledging and aligning with the autistic brain. The ongoing relationship and engagement will foster communication.

Basically, what both Greenspan and Mottron are advocating are methods of teaching autistic children to relate, adapt, and function in the world, without “forcing the autism out of them.”

The concept of accepting autistic kids as they are, and incorporating the natural ways they think into educational and therapeutic techniques, feels right to me. Gio is different from most kids, and really, he’s not interested in most kids. Our attempts to push him to participate in “fun” group activities like soccer, Easter egg hunts, and birthday parties have all been spectacular failures. Maybe the real failure was ours: by pushing him to “fit in,” we deny his true nature. Yes, the way he thinks is sometimes mysterious to us, but he clearly has great strengths: a remarkable ability to focus and persevere, to experiment with his ideas, and to follow his vision.

World-renowned autism expert and animal rights activist Temple Grandin (who is herself autistic, and very open about her preference for animal rather than human companionship!) sums up Mottron’s approach perfectly: “The focus should be on teaching people with autism to adapt to the social world around them while still retaining the essence of who they are, including their autism.”

Sources

generallymedicine blog post: Screaming Frustration: Our Two-Year-Old Won’t Talk

generallymedicine blog post: They Dropped the A-Bomb On Us

generallymedicine blog post: So Our Son Is Autistic… and It’s Going to Be Okay

generallymedicine blog post: Should we let our kid hang out by himself most of the time?

generallymedicine blog post: Autism Awareness… and Coolness

Greenspan, Stanley (2006). Engaging Autism. Da Capo Press. www.stanleygreenspan.com

Mottron, L. Should we change targets and methods of early intervention in autism, in favor of a strengths-based education? European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, February 2017, e-pub ahead of print.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Luke 8:14-15 “The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. “But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.

Matthew 13:22-23 “And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. “And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

Mark 4:19-20 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. “And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”

2 Corinthians 9:10 Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness;

2 Corinthians 13:9 For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.

Colossians 1:28 We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.

Colossians 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God.

2 Corinthians 10:15-16 not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another.

 Recommended contacts for prayer request and Bible study

www.agapetemplesda.com

https://www.hopetv.org

www.adventistontario.org

https://breathoflife.tv/

http://www.nadadventist.org/article/15/contact-us

http://3abn.org/all-streams/3abn.html

https://www.adventist.org/en/utility/contact/

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