Embrace the positive

by Dr. Anthony C. Hollander

A good friend of mine sent me an idea for a column based on the article “Tap The Power of Praise,” in the November issue of Better Homes and Gardens. The basic premise was to encourage and support people. It got me thinking about our children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

I have always felt that every child I work with has at least one special talent; most of them have more than one hidden talent. I have always attempted to identify and then develop that talent. One child developed a fascination with road maps.We turned this into memorizing Nassau and Suffolk county maps (eventually even Westchester county). This enabled a great deal of language development, and an opportunity to fit into different types of conversations, not only as a participant, but as a leader/authority. He would have been the best emergency dispatcher for the fire and police departments. Another child, the son of a professional musician, began to play drums, piano, and guitar without standard rudiments/scales as lessons. Another, considered to have no cognitive capabilities at all is a savant with numbers and memorization and gave a formal presentation on familial dysautonomia at the New York University medical center. How about a kid like B.J. who knows everything about cars (makes, models, engines, prices)? Or a kid like M. who knows everything about horror films, and every episode of cartoons, and sitcoms. These children are walking encyclopedias.

For at least the past decade, there has been a young man on the spectrum who has memorized the entire New York City subway system: all the lines, the stops, the uniforms, equipment, and even the catwalks and tunnels between stations. He is so fascinated that he even learned how to operate the subway, and has gone so far as to purchase the official clothing, badges, and equipment bags so that he looks just like a real transit worker. I know about this because I read about him in the New York Times when he gets arrested for impersonating a subway worker.

Every time he does something syndromatic, or to imitate an authentic transit worker, he gets arrested. He is told to never do this again, and is released to the family. Well, the family, in an attempt to totally control this fascination moved south to a state without subways. This, obviously, put our person into a tremendous state of deprivation. Subsequently, he ran away from home and traveled back to New York City. He again obtained the necessary outfits, badges, etc., and resumed trying to be a New York City transit worker. And-tada!-got arrested again.

This whole thing got me thinking about some basic questions. For example: if this person were to be praised, encouraged, and supported, and trained to perform some real life job with the transit authority, what would be the outcome? What attendance record would he have? Would he ever be late for work? What kind of job performance evaluation would he get? Would he ever get arrested again?

It strikes me that the word “function” pertains to the actual performance of behaviors that fit into some predetermined set of skills. Once you perform these skills, such performance then determines your ability for independence/autonomy. This independence/autonomy then determines your ability to “fit in” within society. Some would argue that social skills are the most important functional behavior. Others might argue that paying taxes is the most important part of function. We need people to perform all different types of jobs. Some people like to work in open spaces, while others like cubicles. Some like lots of people around them, while others like to be left alone. We now have more people on the spectrum finishing college, even graduate school.

One thing is certain. The more you can do something considered functional, and the more you interact with others (especially from outside the family), the more likely you will get feedback/consequences based upon that skill. This feedback can be thought of as naturalistic positive reinforcement consequences.

Let us be totally clear here. I am not suggesting that we abandon the basic day-to-day functional skills in favor of only working on the special skills. After all, who wants to work with someone who has poor hygiene skills? However, what would the educational experience be like for the child with ASD if we interspersed learning new skills, with the opportunity to work on the special skills? What if we sought to make a fit for this person with the special skills and society? This is exactly what Wolf Wolfensberger suggested in his theory of normalization. It is also exactly what Maria Montessori had in mind when she began her work with the mentally challenged, leading to her Montessori Method.

Before someone accuses me of being unrealistic or trying to give parents false hope about the future based upon little to no “functional skills,” I need to restate my purpose here. Has the educational process of trying to teach science skills, or how to analyze the words within a sentence been working? Are these children really being prepared for their own future? Let us keep the academic component going, but let us also look for opportunities to praise, encourage, and support these special skills. Yes, let us do so in a realistic manner. Somewhere, embedded in your daily academic or home routine, have the child learn a new concept or functional skill as a means of being permitted to engage in their special skills: For example, a social skill of how to introduce their special skill to others without alienating the other person.

Courtesy of Spectrum Publications