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A Way That Works for Parents Teaching Autistic Children

How to accept authenticity and going with the child.

Key points

  • Parents need to join children's interest, not impose an agenda. Adding an element to the child's flow can be a powerful teaching tool.
  • Completely focus on the child and create an accepting, non-judgmental space.
  • Autistic children pick up on impatience, frustration, and negatively—potentially turning a positive experience negative.
  • Change happens gradually and it may seem "nothing's happening"—be patient. The interaction is still worthwhile.
Tammy Cuff/Pixabay
Source: Tammy Cuff/Pixabay

“It’s for their own good” is the well-intentioned but ill-conceived mantra of many parents. Parents often approach autistic children with an agenda—they want the child to do something differently, they want change.

To truly love and work with autistic children, we need to accept them as they are, as their authentic selves. If we worry too much about “fitting in” and “making it” in the neurotypical world, we may actually stop them from doing just that.

In "Uniquely Normal," Robert Bernstein teaches that accepting the authenticity of autistic children works. We want our autistic children to have happy and successful lives, but constant demands that they change inevitably tell them that who they are is wrong in our eyes. Does teaching them they must hide their authentic nature and keep up a facade sound like the roadmap to living their best lives?

Part of the beauty of Bernstein’s method is its simplicity. It works with children in their everyday environments, so it’s readily accessible and requires no props or tools. It focuses on doing the things that we know captivate the child’s attention and capitalizes on their natural absorption in those moments. There’s no judgment as to the importance or educational value of what interests the child. We start with whatever the child prefers.

The adult joins the child’s flow and moves with it, occasionally adding something new. This new step might further the child’s development in a way that is an extension of the child’s own behavior. By following the child instead of imposing an agenda, we respect their agency as a co-pilot, and choose a path together.

In January, a companion manual of exercises is being released: "Uniquely Normal Manual: Using the Bernstein Cognitive Method for Autism." It’s a practical help for parents, describing exercises taken from the original book so they can practice his methodology.

Having watched Bernstein’s work, I know what he’s expecting of us. When he asks us to spend 15 minutes with our child, he means being totally tuned into the child and nothing else. No phone. These days most of us don’t even remember how to fully focus on any one thing. A focused attitude of acceptance helps create a space without expectations, a safe place to engage and absorb something new.

Bernstein’s method teaches language and skills by extending the child’s existing responses, gradually adding words or modeling behaviors (one at a time) that fit with what’s already happening. Starting at the child’s level, parents help the child develop new associations between existing interests, and new thoughts and behaviors. This kind of development doesn’t happen on demand. It takes whatever time is necessary for the child.

If we don’t let go of our original agenda, we judge the child critically in our minds if “nothing happens.” “Nothing” might happen for what seems like a long time—the point is patience and giving the child time to assimilate new information. Blaming the child for not being on our timeline is wrong. Sometimes change seems to come at a glacial speed.

Autistic children can be exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of others who are with them. If one is impatient, disappointed, or frustrated, they know it. They may feel ashamed that they’re letting us down, or might get frustrated and angry themselves. Either way, what we want to be a positive experience turns negative.

Ron Suskind engaged with his autistic son using his interest in Disney characters. They spoke in the voices and lines of the characters. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Life Animated," he tells the story of his autistic son who lost speech and memorized the lines of Disney characters based on sound, not meaning. By engaging with his son in the voice and words of these characters, Suskind was able to teach his son meaning, to use speech for interaction, and ultimately, to speak without reference to Disney at all.

I’ve personally used Bernstein’s method in my work. A 20-year-old patient had dropped out of college and quit her job because they weren’t interesting. She had strong, focused interests that were “impractical.” Her parents and therapists repeatedly told her that she had a problem and needed to follow through with college or a job. Which meant she had refused to work with other therapists.

When I met her, she was surprised that I agreed with her—too many people were telling her she had a problem. I was interested in her “grand” idea—to change the healthcare delivery system in the U.S. It’s true that most everyone agrees our system of distributing healthcare is broken. I asked for whom this new system was designed, and her plan was to help those who lacked access to care, including the homeless, people of limited means, and people of color. After her detailed explanation, we talked about her ideas. I asked if it made sense to see how people could use this new system, and if medical providers would offer services under it. She was open to exploring how her ideas could be implemented.

As in the Bernstein method, I joined her and was accepting and nonjudgmental. In this way, we were able to add an idea that engaged her, and that had potential for creating useful life experience. It helped guide her towards a more practical analysis of her ideas, and perhaps, to discover new interests.

Both Bernstein and Suskind show us the power possible in the parent-child interaction, instead of relying solely on professionals to create change. This works with children of any neurotype. Parents have 24/7 access to their child in natural environments that are comfortable—the child’s own bedroom, backyard, or playground can be a “therapeutic” space.

There’s a lot to be said for “parent power.” All children want to feel their parents’ love, interest, and approval. When parents accept and join their autistic children and use step-by-step natural development that’s child-centered, the long-term impact can be profound.

More from Marcia Eckerd Ph.D.
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