Autism. What he really needs, and how to get it.

I had a good discussion with my mum this week, who for various and longwinded reasons rang an Autism group looking for advice about dealing with Bright Eyes and ideas for what to get him for his birthday.

The reason I'm not naming the Autism group is because I am about to criticise soundly the advice they gave.

The first issue was his scripting. Bright Eyes 'scripts' a lot - he talks from TV shows and movies and computer games and even books. He has a line for every occasion - it's just not his own original one. The Autism phone help line suggested letting him script for a certain amount of time, and then teaching him that when we ring a bell, for example, he's not allowed to script any more.

To me this is like saying to an eighteen month old child who is scared of a thunderstorm and is crying for his mum, "You can be scared and cry for the next five minutes. Then I will ring a bell and you have to stop crying."

Let me sort this out a little bit logically.

Why does Bright Eyes script?

It's certainly not because he thinks it's a cool thing to do. It's a thing his brain needs to do to keep him from feeling anxious. Just like the baby needs calming from his mother, Bright Eyes' brain is set up so that he needs calming in anxious times. Telling him he cannot engage in his self-calming behaviours is, at best, a little bit ridiculous and at worst, counter-productive because it is seeing the behaviour as the problem, rather than looking deeper.

The actual problem is not the scripting. That's the symptom. The problem is that his brain is on high alert and sees almost everything as anxiety-producing. Bright Eyes' brain would much prefer life to be 'static' - the same in every way - completely predictable and unchanging. He would prefer people to be like computer game characters - they always say the same things and react the same way depending on what buttons you push.

If Bright Eyes cannot learn to deal with change and variety and messiness and 'good enough' thinking, he is going to fail in life because life is not static. It is insanely dynamic. It is not as simple as a script or a computer game.

Which leads me to the next part of the advice given by the Autism group help line lady. She referred my mum to a computer game featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, which supposed teaches autistic children to recognise emotions by using the faces of the various train characters.

Cute. But honestly? Completely counterproductive. If my son got on there and played it, he might learn, yes, that Gordon felt surprised. But would that necessarily translate into "Mum feels surprised when she sees me in a batman suit," or "When I jump up and down in the classroom my teacher looks mildly surprised"? My son would learn the script of the game, and he would speak it to me, over and over.

"Click on the engine that looks surprised. That's right. Gordon looks surprised. Well done. Try again."

The fact that ASD kids have trouble recognising emotions on people's faces is a symptom of a deeper problem. The deeper problem is again, that ASD children are cut off from the dynamic parts of communication. They have never learned to find meaning or enjoyment in a facial expression because it is too anxiety-producing for them. There is too much variety, change and surprising stuff there. They prefer static communication.

So what is the answer? Well, in my book, it's not bells or Thomas games. That's concentrating on the behaviours only, and while the temporary result may be to make life a little bit more liveable, it won't have any long-lasting effects or make the life of the ASD child any better because it has not even tried to touch the major problem.

The founder of RDI, Dr Steven Gutstein, argues that there is no point in reinventing the wheel in this game. ASD kids may have missed out on normal childhood development first time around, but they can learn it if they are given a second chance.

If we S L O W it down, if we remove distractions, if we take it step by step and go back to the very beginning, we can help ASD kids to learn what every other baby learns naturally.

This is the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) program. Not bells and train whistles. But normal childhood development, re-taught in a way that minimises anxiety and gives kids support while they face the challenge of the dynamic world. It's not a silver bullet, and it takes hard work and commitment, but things can get better for our children.

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