The purpose of this essay is to examine the various approaches to behaviour interventions for children with Autism. This essay will focus on approaches concerned with the fields of development and social-relations. During the course of the essay, I will discuss the Floor Time approach, Relationship Development Intervention, the Denver Model, Pivotal Response Treatment and SCERT. These approaches will be examined and critiqued with regard to their positive and negative points. In my conclusion, I will discuss the key points from the body of the essay whilst drawing my own overall conclusion about the main areas of importance whilst working with an Autistic child.
Development and Social-Relational Approaches to Students with Autism
Autism is defined as being a condition which severely affects the sufferers ability to be as social interactive as other children. In 1943, Kanner described Autism as an “inability to relate…in the ordinary way to people and situations.” (Stapleton, 2001, p 43) This means that autistic children find it extremely difficult to make friends, maintain relationships and to feel comfortable with certain situations. Autism is just one condition listed on the Autistic Spectrum which covers a wide range of conditions, all relating to an inability to function socially with ease, including Aspergers Syndrome, Rett’s Syndrome and Childhood degenerative disorder. Depending on the severity of their condition, autistic children sometimes attend specialist schools who are designed to best support them through their education; or they can sometimes attend mainstream schooling where educators are encouraged to make their education as autism-friendly as possible. Generally, schools will incorporate a number of strategies to ensure that autistic children are able to experience school at its fullest: one school has recent allowed a boy to bring his service dog in with him, to support his education. (TDN.com) There are a number of structured approaches to supporting the autistic child throughout their education and in the course of this essay, the developmental and social-relational approaches will be discussed and critically analysed.
Traditionally, developmental approaches prefer to take a structured approach by using a teaching model that utilises assessment, goal setting and teaching. (National Research Council, 2001, p 105) This model of development is one which is used throughout education and has been for centuries: it does not deviate from the ‘normal’ way of educating children based around their acquisition of new knowledge, the educator’s assessment of this and then giving them a target, based on an area of weakness. This process assesses a child’s development, however autistic children do not always develop in the same way or at the same speed as other children, and this approach must be careful to take this into account. Developmental psychology focuses on helping each child to achieve their next stage of development and theorists such as Vygotsky discuss the idea of children having a ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) (National Research Council, 2001, p 105) which allows the teacher to take account of the student’s current developmental position and their potential position, if given the support to achieve it. This approach allows for individualized education plans that incorporate the abilities of individual students, as opposed to whole classes.
Vygotsky’s theory of ZPD is particularly prevalent for autistic children, and indeed any child with a learning difficulty, as it enables them to develop at their own pace and in a scenario where their teacher is entirely aware of their goals.
A social-relational approach, as partly of the broader ‘developmental approach’, focuses on how the autistic child’s limited development affects their overall development by assessing their ability to behave within a social, interactive environment. One academic journal article refers to social-relational problems as being part of the development process; it discusses the problems experienced in terms of schooling:
“By elementary school, they have significant social-relational problems; the majority experience great difficulty in initiating and maintaining friendships with same-aged peers. By early adolescence, their lack of social skills can result in ridicule and rejection by their peer group.” (Beidel at al. 2007) Although these social skills do not directly relate to an individual’s intelligence level, a lack of social interaction will limit the individual’s development from child to adult; whilst their intelligence may well soar, their ability to convey their thoughts and adapt to social situations does now.
The Floor-Time model is an approach which endeavours to improve upon the processing delays experienced by autistic children. (Gabriels & Hill, 2002, p 98) The Floor-Time model is designed to enable parents and teachers to educate the autistic child in social situations that exist within that child’s interests. This is especially crucial as autistic children often become particularly obsessed with specific things, and to use that as a way of encouraging them to learn about social ability is an excellent way of engaging the child. Gabriels and Hill add: “The model recognizes the need for teaching a developmental sequence of new skills that build upon one another.” (Gabriels & Hills, 2002, p 98) It is vital that the educator also takes this into account: for the autistic child to fully understand the processes being taught, they must appear to happen in some sort of logical order. For example, the child must first learn when and how it is appropriate to speak to another person (for instance, when they are a relative, friend, acquaintance and so on) before learning how to read that person’s face: it is socially unacceptable to tell a stranger that they look ill, for instance and the autistic child must learn to understand this. Some of the techniques used within this method involve following the child’s lead which, again, is a vital aspect of adapting to the needs of the autistic child, much like Vygostsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory states.
Relationship Developmental Intervention (RDI) is where parents are encouraged to “enhance their use of responsive interactive strategies during routine interactions with their child.” (Mahoney & Perales, 2003) The idea would also to be to encourage teachers to do the same with educational routine interactions within school. The focus is on parents and teacher encouraging “Responsive Teaching” in the autistic child, which is designed to encourage a more automatic socio-emotional response with little and eventually no delay. Studies have concluded that when the mother increases her responsiveness, the child’s social interaction showed “significant improvements.” (Mahoney & Perales, 2003)
This approach is largely down to parental instigation although the educator also plays a vital role in proceedings: if the child, who spends 7 hours a day, 5 days a week at school, does not continue this method during that time, their education at home will be a fruitless task. It is important that a teacher/parent/student agreement is reached and upheld by all sides. This sort of method is designed to improve the quality of life that the autistic child experiences. Steven Gutstein states: “Even when individuals with [autism] do develop some social and emotional skills such as eye contact, emotion recognition, and turn-taking, these skills appear to contained within a limited domain.” (Gutstein, 2005)
The idea of Relationship Development Intervention is to encourage the autistic child to express these limited social skills in a broader sense: these are skills that are vital for nearly every aspect of human life, and are necessary for there to be healthy, happy relationships. These are skills that every autistic child must learn.
The Denver Model aims to help autistic children from as young as three to five years old. The focus of this method is on intervention being developed through the child’s play. (McGee, 2008) It bears a resemblance to Floor Time and works on improving the child’s responsiveness using a wide range of interventions with some speech therapy included (Dawson, 2010), presumably to encourage their ability to express themselves eloquently and to improve their ability to converse freely with others. As an eclectic intervention, it has been deemed as being “ineffective” by a number of studies and, Michelle Dawson, in her blog about Autism, was overly critical of the method: “[it] is premised on autism being “at its heart a social disorder” and stating that “failures in proper interpersonal relationships and proper social motivation produce a cascade of purely negative effects disrupting all areas of proper development and learning.” (Dawson, 2010) The basis for the
Denver Model suggests that autism only ever creates negative effects; there is no discussion of the positive aspects of autism and how these can sometimes benefit the child. This implies that the method may cause the child to think negatively of their condition and as such, they may think negatively of themself. Dawson goes on to add: “Autistics’ tendency to learn in atypical ways is treated as though disordered and harmful.” These negative connotations are an unhealthy way for an Autistic child, or indeed any child, to be thinking. This method is one which is designed to begin at a very early age and for the child to grow up with the idea that the way they think is ‘wrong’, is, arguably, an unhealthy way for them to grow. Autism, with all its faults, also has a number of positive lights and these should be actively encouraged in the child, rather than supressed. Dawson also states that at the beginning of the presentation she attended, a video was shown where an adult picked up two bricks and banged them together: the non-autistic child picked the bricks up and copied the adult, whereas the autistic child picked the bricks up and examined them, finding them interesting. Dawson says that the first child was treated with praise but the autistic child was class as being wrong. Some may argue that actually, the autistic child was able to think for themselves and choose to interact with the bricks on their own terms and that the non-autistic child was simply copying the adult. Who has the right to say which reaction is right and which is wrong?
Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) is a naturalistic approach which, instead of simply targeting individual behaviours, attempts to target whole areas of the child’s development: motivation, self-management, responsivity to multiple cues and social initiations. (Sherman, 2007, p 33) This method involves a lot of child-driven interventions that incorporate the choices of the child, reward schemes, task variation and natural reinforcements such as “if the child attempts a request for a stuffed animal, the child receives the animal, not a piece of candy or other unrelated reinforce”. (Sherman, 2007, p 33) PRT seems like a very child friendly form of intervention that encourages the autistic child to be more socially able whilst still positively encouraging them: there is no ‘wrong behaviour’, only positive encouragement to adapt their social behaviour. PRT allows the child to still experience a natural development process in a less contrived environment, meaning that they are able to experience things similarly to a non-autistic child’s experiences.
SCERTS (The Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support model) attempts to use any approach or resource available which best suits the child’s needs and interests and is “more of a philosophy than an intervention.” (Grandin et al. 2006, p 173) This approach recognizes that each child, autistic or not, is an individual and that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is ineffectual; this approach attempts to mould to the child’s fit each and every time. Following an assessment of the child’s needs, SCERTS utilises pre-existing interventions to approach the child’s re-education. Again, this method incorporates the child’s needs whilst also encouraging them to be involved in the learning process: “The child is seen as an active participant in his learning rather than a bucket you need to fill with knowledge and skills, in a rote manner.” (Grandin et al. 2006, p 173) Thus, it is a hugely effective approach to the developmental process of an autistic child.
Autism does not need to be the first and final word in a child’s education; there are more and more recognition in place for theories and methodologies that help to bring the autistic child out of their shell and learn how to adapt to their surroundings. For most children with autism, education is as easy as it is for other children: their academic intelligence is usually above average and whilst they may sometimes struggle with creative tasks (because of the need for imagination), there is evidence that, if a child applies themselves to the task, autistic children can produce some beautifully creative pieces of work. It is clear from our discussion of the above theories that Autism intervention is best approached from the angle of the child: allowing them to make their own decision and to be an active part of their education allows them to take responsibility for their development but is still actively encouraging their social and learning skills as they a bi-product. The theories discussed in this essay are demonstrative of the ways in which educators can encourage autistic children to be involved, and also to be happy in their day to day lives. The common theme that runs through all of these theories is the need to recognize the child’s need to go at their own pace: their development suffers from a number of delays and as such, these theories must follow the child’s pace and not the educator’s or their parents’. Any negative connotations are unhealthy for a child of perfect or imperfect health, and so theories that reinforce the negativity of behaviours are, arguably, not recommended although if the child is particularly stubborn, they may be of use. These theories are becoming more and more prevalent as Autism’s status becomes less stigma-attached: more autistic children are winning the right to attend the school of their choice (BBC News, 2011), as they should: Autism does not equate to stupidity. As with any child, the priority must be their contentment and by using these methods, their parents and teachers are enabling the child to live a full, busy and active life involving friends, socializing and key relationships.
1. TDN.com. (2011). Autistic ore. boy can bring service dog to school. Retrieved from http://tdn.com/news/state-and-regional/oregon/article_e069925b-ff42-52c4-81fd-7c294078a860.html
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6. Gutstein, S. E. (2005, Winter). Relationships Development Intervention. Autism Spectrum Quarterly. pp 8-12.
7. McGee, G. (2008). What is the Denver Model? Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AutismTreatment/story?id=5974440
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9. Sherman, D. A. (2007). Autism: asserting your child’s right to a special education. Autism Special Education Law 2007.
10. Grandin, T. et al. (2006). Understanding Autism for Dummies. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing Ltd.
11. BBC News. (2011, Feb. 18). Mother wins school battle for autistic son. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-12509923