Training kids on the spectrum

Debora - posted on 03/14/2011 ( 9 moms have responded )

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My Aspie son is 10, (diagnosed over 5 years ago), so I've had a lttle time to study prevailing theories on how to teach our kids, symptoms, medications, diets, and so on. One thing that I have noticed about the Sunday Schoool teachers, Cub Scouts and public school teachers (in my community, at least), is a heavy emphasis on demanding that my son learn to do things the way he is expected to do, at the time they feel it to be appropriate. There doesn't seem to be a lot of comprehension that, no matter how bright he is, he has a different timetable and different way of looking at things. This is an essay I wrote to help my son's IEP team gain a little more understanding. Anyone who wants to copy and use this, is welcome to do so, with my blessing. Hope it helps!

Horse Training
By far, the majority of programs currently working with children on the autism spectrum are based on a behavioral modification type of model in which the trainer shows or tells what is wanted, and then follows this up with a series of positive and negative reinforcements until the desired behavior is ingrained in the subject. This kind of method usually runs much heavier to negative reinforcement than positive, by its very nature. It is a method very much like those used to train animals to perform specific duties.

An apt analogy can be drawn between teaching a child on the autism spectrum, who needs to be specifically taught behaviors appropriate to his various settings, and the training of horses. Horses are very intelligent animals with distinct individual personalities, and need to be taught what is desired of them. Training them to do ranch work is usually handled in one of two ways: breaking them to saddle or gentling them.

Breaking a horse is basically setting up a situation where the horse fights against you until he is so worn out he finally accepts your authority because you have proven to be stronger than he is. It is a battle of wills and a test of endurance for both the horse and the trainer. Sometimes this is done in water, where the horse is slightly beyond his depth and tires more quickly, and once the horse's will is broken, you get results pretty fast. In this kind of training, the end result is a horse that will usually obey and can be taught to do all the basics of a horse's job on the ranch. He'll do what you ask him to do most of the time, and only that much. He will never volunteer anything, because his compliance was compelled when he finally admitted that yours was the greater strength. Many horses trained in this way will periodically try to escape, or fight the saddle and reins again, just to test whether you're still strong enough to dominate them. As long as you can prove that, you remain the master.

Gentling a horse is a very different proposition, and it takes a lot longer before you see results, because you train him slowly, step by step. It is a process of comprehending and leading, rather than dominating. You give him time to get used to you, teach him to like you and want to please you, by making compliance pleasant and rewarding. You concentrate almost exclusively on praising the horse’s best efforts and avoid using negative reinforcement when he makes mistakes, understanding that they probably come from a lack of comprehension, rather than from defiance. You watch him and let him show you when he is ready and able to bear a heavier burden. When enough time has passed (and it varies according to the horse and whether some other trainer has abused him before you got to him), the horse will begin to have such confidence in you that he will even consent to take on burdens heavier than he is comfortable doing, and work even after he is fatigued from unaccustomed labor. He learns to trust you and looks to you for guidance because he recognizes you as his natural leader and ally. This horse is not nearly as likely to panic and become uncontrollable when surprised as a “rough broken” horse is. He will warn of others approaching your camp, fight for you in an emergency, and can be trusted and given his head when you have to cross difficult terrain, because he is independent and intelligent enough to choose a safe path without your direction. A gentled horse, because he is part of a partnership, will be unswervingly loyal, and do anything you ask, that is in his power to do—even to the point of running to his last breath because you ask it of him in an emergency.

I think we need to look at the big picture here, and ask ourselves whether it is our ultimate goal to gentle this child, or just to break him to saddle.

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9 Comments

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Carlene - posted on 03/16/2011

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Deb: this is very encouraging to me. i have a 2 yr old with autism and he has a twin sister who is "typical but with behavioral issues" her dr said yesterday that she may be showing signs of ADHD (which she would come by honestly... both my siblings and i have it). i have been trying to figure out a way to get them both on the same page... my day is full of "no! get away from there! quit terrorizing your bro/sis!" this puts it in aspect a little. thanks ms deb!!

Debora - posted on 03/15/2011

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Deborah, yes. We learn as much from our children as we teach them (or more) if we meet them on their level, in their own little worlds, instead of dragging them kicking and screaming into ours.

Debora - posted on 03/15/2011

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Amber, that is indeed the point I was trying to make. We need to work with our children according to their speed, and reach them where they are, instead of insisting that they live up to our demands without understanding them. My own philosophy has a lot to do with the sort of things Barry and Samahria Kaufman did to help their son Raun (who was featured in a very moving film titled Sonrise). I started with the analogy of horses, simply because so many programs train our children as if they were animals instead of intelligent, reasoning beings that have difficulty communicating clearly.

Debora - posted on 03/15/2011

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Katherine, if you read carefully, you will see that the analogy is in the process of training, not saying that children are like horses (except in the fact that horses are intelligent...and of course, our children are more so). I wrote this because all too many times, those who train our children treat them as if they were lab monkeys or something, to be molded at their will, and do not allow for the child's likes, personality and intelligence. The focus is on breaking the child's will, and making them behave in prescribed ways. It is all about control. I was attempting to help ignorant people, who don't understand where our children come from at all, to see them as beings with rights.

I would never have to explain this to a parent of a child on the spectrum; they already know it by practice.

Annmari - posted on 03/15/2011

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This is a brilliant analogy! Good on you! Your child is very lucky to have the mother he has. All the best,
Anni

Deborah - posted on 03/15/2011

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I feel that all children are like animals of the world.They are all different in many ways,As the paresnt of a 16 yeard old Autistic PDD boy I have learnt that the best way to get the best results is listen the them ,and to watch what they do and how they do it. Children will always give us signs on what they like with out useing words.My son was never a runner but when things start to get to him he will go to a place in the home were he can spend time playing with balls.Balls of all different sizes and colors. For him it is away to calm himself. If you want a child to listen to you on what you are saying to them then I feel the best thing to do is get them to look you in the eye,To do this you may have to get down the their leval but if that is what it takes then that is what one should do. All children learn at a different pace and leval.No matter what child it is. I feel the best that any parent can do for their child is to listen to them and talk with them not to them or down at them. No child likes to feel they are less than any one else.

Amber - posted on 03/15/2011

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I don't know, I disagree, just from my own experience of course. Prior to my son being diagnosed on the spectrum (he was almost 7 when diagnosed), I felt frustrated because I couldn't get him to listen using the same meathods that I had used with my older NT children.
After his diagnosis, and after reading, and getting information on how to best teach him, the difference is astonishing. In only one year, he is happier, and more co-operative.
I think the point Debora was trying to make is this, forcing a child to learn, or behave, a certain way, will give you short term results, however, by gently correcting, and offering praise for positive behaviour, it may take longer, but in the long run you have a happier child, who is willing to learn.
My son used to run away, on a pretty regular basis, and I'd have to chase him because I never knew where he was going. Now, he almost never flees, instead he tells me he wants to go for a run, and runs around the block, sometimes twice, but checking in with me in between.
I have a much happier child today, now that I've accepted that he learns things a little bit different, and I've learned how to tap into that.

Katherine - posted on 03/14/2011

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That's not such a great analogy, Debora. Children are nothing like horses.

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