Joyce Show is a Harvard/MIT trained physician and mother of seven children, including a son with severe autism. Here, she explains some of the different teaching strategies discussed in her new book, Teaching Your Child with Love and Skill, and why it is so important to tailor an intervention to the individual child.

How has your scientific and medical background helped you find solutions to help your son?

When your child is diagnosed with autism, your first impulse is of course to find out everything you can about it. I’m really grateful for every bit of scientific training I received at Harvard and MIT, as it helped me navigate my way through the autism literature and adopt a systematic approach to evaluating, selecting, and experimenting with combinations of various interventional methods. I would have never guessed that all those rigorous years of scientific and medical training would be used not only to help others, but my son as well.

In your book you adapt and modify popular educational interventions such as Applied Behavior Analysis and Floortime. Why is it important for parents to tailor the inventions that they use to their child’s specific needs?

Your educational interventions are treating a child, not a disorder. Just as in medicine, it’s no use to cure the disease if you’ve lost the patient in the process; it would not make sense to apply an educational intervention purely and dogmatically if it wasn’t helping that individual child to make meaningful developmental progress. I love something I once heard Dr. Stanley Greenspan say when asked what to do to get a child to interact. “Whatever it takes” was the gist of his answer. It would make it simpler if one method was enough to get through to a child. However, each one of our children faces his/her own unique profile of challenges of varying degrees in various parts of the brain, and that requires not just depth but breadth of skill from the teacher. The key is good observation and attunement. Try to understand your child. Then you’ll know which tool or combination of tools, meaning teaching methods and accommodations, would work best on the particular goal you’re working on in your child’s present situation at any particular moment. Effective teaching is flexible and dynamic.

I would like to emphasize that this book is not only for the parents who are able to spend a lot of time directly teaching their children. It’s equally critical for busy parents who must delegate more of that teaching time to others to understand their children’s needs so that they can better evaluate, select between, and balance educational options.

Can you tell us a bit structured teaching vs. incidental teaching?

There is a plethora of methods used to teach children with autism (ABA, DIR, PRT, etc… sounds like quite an alphabet soup!), but they generally fall into one of two types. In structured teaching, the child follows what is usually a planned lesson. In incidental teaching, the parent looks for natural opportunities to teach around the child’s present interests. It’s helpful to learn both kinds, as structured teaching can provide the necessary repetition and step-by-step presentation that learning often requires, whereas incidental teaching capitalizes on the child’s high motivation to learn during natural teachable moments. Different methods tend to work better on different areas of the brain, but they all rely upon principles common to all good teaching such as attuning to the child’s needs, interests, and abilities, eliciting frequent feedback from the child to make the learning process an active conversation, both working on and accommodating the child’s relative weaknesses while building upon his/her strengths, and providing the positive enthusiasm that makes interaction and relationships fun. I embrace a holistic educational strategy, using a full range of teaching tools and methods in a complementary way to enable each individual child to access learning, and working on the whole child, to remediate or accommodate each and every area of need. Children at all levels of ability from severe to high functioning (including ‘neurotypical’) learn best from such an approach.

What do you hope parents and other caregivers will take away from your book?

This is one of the few books available that comprehensively attempts to address the educational needs of children with moderate to severe autism. If you are a parent of one of these children, I want to encourage you not to give up. It may take a lot more repetition and patience, but if you support each area of challenge while carefully building up one area of the brain at a time as described in the book, you will eventually get all the parts to work together, and enable your child to express his personality and develop to his full potential. I hope parents of high functioning children will also read this book. The temptation when you have such a child is to lean too heavily upon the child’s strengths and fail to develop and remediate critical areas of weakness. Systematically working through all the parts of the brain through each developmental level as described will help your child lay a stronger and more complete foundation for further development. My hope is that both parents of high and low functioning children will find this to be their book of the missing steps.

What does it offer for teachers and therapists?

Resources are scarce all around. Not only for direct intervention for our children, but also for training the interventionists. Training is often given in only one teaching method, or in one area. Teachers and therapists who read this book will feel more secure in their ability to serve the whole child, and have an understanding of how to address his/her needs more comprehensively. I have a number of friends who are teachers who have enthusiastically endorsed the individualized, multimodal approach described in the book.

Each chapter in the book can be read as a stand alone as it is extensively cross referenced. Therefore, the teacher who has the child for just one class, but might be looking for ideas on how to handle stimming or wandering, can turn right to the chapter on challenging behaviors. The babysitter who has to get the child through his bedtime routine can turn directly to the chapter on self-help skills. If a grandparent, aunt, or uncle just wants to know how to get the child to play with him or her, the chapter on getting your child to engage would be helpful. This book is for everyone –  parents, teachers, therapists, and friends – who wants to interact effectively and make a difference in the life of child – particulary for a child with autism, but parents can apply the same developmental concepts and principles of good teaching to their neurotypical children.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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