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Learning Center Experience
G. Donnellan, MEd, ABD, Faculty Member, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Years ago, I worked in my own practice seeing children and
teens diagnosed with AD/HD, dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety, behavioral
disorders, and autism. We had hired a behavior therapist to work with our
autistic clients, so I did not actually work with them at first. However, one
afternoon, the therapist brought me a young boy. She simply said, "I
cannot connect." I understood and quietly showed him the toy section of my
office. He sat down and stared at me.
his name a few times without response. I
requested his file and invited the therapist to leave him with me. After
reading the file, I simply sat on the floor near Matthew (name has been
changed). He looked at me but said nothing. I knew from the file that he was
diagnosed as having autism; however, his mother spoke only Spanish and said
that she had not understood much of what the doctors told her at the time of
diagnosis. I assumed that he had the typical symptoms of problems with social
interactions, delayed speech development, and intense interests/behaviors.
Hoping to find a connection to his world, I dumped out some toys on the floor
of the office and left him alone for a few moments. When I returned, he was going
through the toys. Finally, he looked up at me and yelled “Spiderman!” In a
proud voice he began to sing the theme song to Spiderman. I joined in much
to his delight. I was overjoyed; he had shared his "key" with me.
next two years, Matthew came to our center to work with the behavior therapist
and me to develop his social and language skills. Every Friday afternoon, we
festooned the office with Spiderman pictures, streamers, and action figures
awaiting Matthew's arrival. He loved to come in his Spiderman costume and we
all pretended that he was actually Spiderman when he came in. During his
treatment time, we stocked the office with Spiderman pencils, pens, crayons,
books, and anything else that we could find. We worked with his school to allow
him to bring some of those items with him to school. Why did we encourage this
intense obsession with Spiderman? We understood that it was not an obsession so
much as the key to his world.
Matthew was not our only client diagnosed with autism, he taught us about the
isolation and frustration that comes with the inability to speak or connect
with others. We learned his moods, hand gestures, utterances, and outbursts
were related to his trying to communicate with us. Together, we all used the
Spiderman key to pave a path into Matthew's world. So, how does one connect
with children who seem so disconnected?
One of the
best ways to make a connection with children diagnosed with autism is to find
the one stimulus that elicits a response. In Matthew's case, it was his intense
interest in Spiderman. Then, once the interest is identified, use it to
communicate with the child. This strategy is the same as the one used to
connect with people who are depressed or even suicidal: form connections. Once
the connection is made, the therapist has to use it. Together, the therapist
and child develop a special language and understanding. It is through this
understanding that the child begins to feel safe. The child will develop an
interest in language because of his interest in connecting with the therapist. With
increased interest in social interactions, the therapist has an opportunity to
use play therapy and behavior plans to train social skills.
help the child to take an interest in communication, which often prompts a path
to language development. Depending on other existing factors or co-occurring
disorders, the child will increase his or her vocabulary. A key point to
remember is that a diagnosis does not define the child. Everyone diagnosed with
autism will experience the symptoms differently. For this reason, therapists have
to continue to tweak treatment to match the individual needs of the child. Some
children interested in social interactions will still struggle to speak in
phrases. Some children will develop limited speech but will not be able to
understand written language. Focus on the individual child and try not to use the
same treatment with each child.
As with any
treatment setting, take the time to find the "key" to your client's
trust. It is easier to do with children who have developed normally, but can
take time and patience with those who experience asymmetrical development. Do
not assume that one autistic child will react to the same treatment advances as
another. Properly identifying each and forming individual treatments for them
is a more successful approach than assuming some standard treatment.
If you are
interested in working with this special population, the best education that you
can receive comes from the clients themselves. Contact Autism Speaks to see if
there are local chapters (Kaplan University has an online chapter). Then, look
for volunteer opportunities to help with Special Olympics or workwith a child in a school setting. There are even volunteer
programs available in some communities to work with autistic adults in job training. What is the key to
connecting with an autistic client? Have your clients teach you about how they
experience life through their symptoms. To this day, I silently thank Matthew
for teaching me about his world!
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