It’s Autism Awareness Month and I thought I’d address the question I get asked most frequently: “What is the most effective way to engage kids on the autism spectrum?”
While I have had the privilege of working with some of the greatest people in the field, how do I quantify what I've seen them do time and time again? It seems so difficult to put into words what these people do that others may not recognize. Can I explain it? Will others be able to understand and imitate it?
I try to explain it like this: I think a lot of people focus on what could be "wrong" with the brain of someone with ASD and this guides their decisions. I think eventually we will find the only thing "wrong" with the brain of someone with ASD is our understanding of it.
The best therapists forget about the brain and “start with the heart.” Dr. Darold Treffert calls this “islands of intactness.” Some of the best in the business have come through the Treffert Center and they all preach a similar message. Dr. Rosa Martinez, president of Strokes of Genius, Inc., Kristine Barnett, author of The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, Dr. Trevor Clark and our very own Vivian Hazell have taught me this invaluable lesson to help the children we serve.
The best therapists find what the child loves and they become “that.” They use “that.” They build a relationship based on “that” and grow it where relationships grow.... in the heart. It has been my experience that if you can guide a little heart, the brain will follow, joyfully. While this pathway seems fully intact, you won’t find it in the goals, tallies, data sheets or evidence-based practices. Those tools serve their purposes, but these are not the best ways to help a child.
This approach requires us to focus on the four “Cs,” like the chambers of a heart; connection, compassion, creativity and community.
Let’s begin with connection. Science has shown that when we don't feel threatened at all, we have a willingness to be vulnerable, to be open to new ideas and guidance from others - the ideal learning scenario! Compassion is our understanding of what an individual is going through and developing the strategies and techniques to be able to support and help that person. Creativity is used to find a person’s gift and a situation for that person to share it. Finally, community is where we feel accepted, develop self-esteem and find our value and worth in being part of something greater than ourselves.
People who have been most successful engaging those on the autism spectrum have implemented this approach. Coincidentally, I believe this is how all of us find our place in the world. Imagine that. So put aside the science, the brain and the behaviors when working with kids, and “start with the heart.” I promise it will be beautiful.