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