This page is devoted to my personal opinions & strategies for working with a subgroup of individual persons — primarily with severe regressive autism — who are nonverbal & demonstrate significant motor & sensory impairments. I have also found some of these strategies effective with those with some verbal capability who have difficulty accessing their words.
What do I do when I encounter a child with these enormous gifts & obvious challenges? I establish trust. I tell them that I know of their competence & that I am willing to serve. I view myself as a bridge to help them understand & utilize our communication system. At the same time, I acknowledge them as my teachers. Most importantly, I attempt to keep my own energy, calm, peaceful, yet assertive to insure they feel safe & protected, as they appear to be very sensitive to my energy.
When teaching, I attempt to set a dominant rhythm, encourage the kids to stop self-stimulatory behaviors, & deliberately send mental prompts. I do this to limit the focus of the child & keep him on track. I feel it improves the student’s ability to categorize, organize & access information. If the child is facing me, I send the mental prompt in mirror image. This is especially true when I am using word cards. I also say the answer sub-vocally. I speculate that a type of entrainment of brain wave frequency is occurring during my interactions. There is more. There is a sense of trust established. The children do not react to things that might normally bother them, but rather just go with the flow. I speculate that it is easier to entrain brain wave frequency when the discrepancy is not too great. I believe these children are vibrating at a high frequency. I speculate that those they are now able to initially join with are vibrating higher than normal also. After initial entrainment occurs, I attempt to lower my own frequency by becoming present or aware, in hopes that they will lower their own frequency to match mine. Over time, I have noticed that the individual can respond to individual persons he normally would not relate to. I speculate that this method is at least partially responsible for increased receptive language skills.
To see if a connection has been made, I might show the child two picture or word cards & see if he will select the one I ask for. This may be a child who had not shown any prior ability to read, or even negligible receptive language skills. If so, & the connection was successful, I think of the word card I want & speak it sub-vocally. When facing students, remember that I visualize in mirror image. When possible, I prefer working with students from behind so I am moving in unison with them.
This is also true when I engage a child in facilitated writing or drawing, as we are moving in tandem using a typical right to left progression. Unlike hand over hand, I hold the writing or drawing utensil in my hand & instruct the child to copy or draw a particular shape or letter. When working, I often start the child at the top & stop when a switch in direction is needed. I often also stop him at the bottom, as many of the children obviously have difficulty starting, switching & stopping movement. If a variety of individual persons are working on assisted writing or drawing, I would suggest they all use the same top to bottom, left to right progression, unless a student signals a different precedent.
I always say the letter, shape, or object at the same time I am sending the image and/or sub-vocalizing. If I am facing the child, images are sent in mirror image. I like to get rid of mental prompts as receptive language skills improve, explaining to the individual what I am trying to do & why. This is tricky in a group setting where the students’ needs for prompts vary.
I find that giving the student a limited choice of possible responses & then slowly expanding the field gives him a vehicle to demonstrate his competence. It puts him on track & increases his ability to filter, organize & categorize information on its own. Stimulus response-type instruction seems to increases the fluidity as opposed to inactive listening.
In direct contrast to teaching typical children or verbal, concrete-thinking autistic children, I tend to work with individual persons with this type of autism starting with the abstract, moving to the representational & then to the concrete. I meet them in areas of abstract thought (words). Once they appear to be easily able to read a word by selecting it from a field of choices, I would then have them select the word when the function was given. (i.e. what do you color with?) Next I might ask them “who/what/where/when/why” questions & again have them select the correct word card — not only to check comprehension but also to narrow their focus & hopefully help them form mental categories. By example, if I ask a “who” question, hopefully they begin to process that I am searching for a person. If I ask a “where” question, then I am searching for a place. “What” would signal an object. “What” are they doing would signal a verb. If a child has difficulty labeling, then I often start with actions, because there’re less of them & their meaning is potent: i.e. eat, drink, play, jump.
The word needs to be connected with a picture & the picture (representational) with the object (concrete). It has been my experience that students are often able to pick out the word “glue” or the picture of a bottle of glue before they can pick out the actual glue bottle from a field of choices. I wonder if this, too, can be explained by vibration frequency and/or image consistency. Does a two-dimensional image of the word “glue” vibrate at a higher frequency than its three-dimensional counterpart? Does the student perceive three-dimensional objects as we do? Is it possible that a three-dimensional object vibrates so slowly that it is not being perceived in the same way by sender & receiver? Or is it simply that actual objects vary so much in terms of attributes?
Words are constant, as are many communication pictures used in the classroom. Whatever the reason when teaching, I believe the individual should be encouraged to demonstrate concrete correlation & awareness. Integration, correlation, transfer, & backward chaining of underlying skills needs to occur. Even though the lights (abstract) are on in the attic, the foundation (concrete) is often very weak. In contrast, when I am joining for them to give me information & increase my level of awareness of the spiritual side of life, I just let it flow, as they are the ones teaching me. I believe the two can coexist if virtually everyone would be honest with the student, the parent, & the community.
I facilitate gross & fine motor movements in all areas & slowly get rid of prompts, using backward chaining — whether it be buttoning, tying a shoe, throwing a basketball, cutting food, selecting a correct response, drawing, writing or typing.
I am open & aware of the influence I can have over their communications. Either intentionally or not, I supplement this form of communication with PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). PECS encourages spontaneity & is less dependent on a connection with me. PECS also serves as a preliminary step to augmentative communication devices & programs. Adept students do not need their partner to be within certain proximity to use it… However – PECS restricts the student’s higher-level communications & astounding demonstrations of intelligence or access to it.
Often when using PECS, I have the child type the word on the picture & hand me the communication device. Once they have demonstrated that they understand that the word, picture & object are the same thing, I let them type their request on a voice output communication device. If they are not using a voice output device, I have them hand me the communicator. At this point, they may also switch to augmentative communication programs such as speaking dynamically. I have worked with a few who demonstrate this level of independent competence; with no agent present, they demonstrate similar language deficits as moderately functioning verbal individual persons with autism. Though these particular students were nonverbal & had significant motor impairments, they appeared to have less difficulty initiating.
It has been said that individual persons with autism use one sensory channel at a time. It has also been said that there is a delay between visual & auditory processing. I would like to add that I have noticed that some individual persons demonstrate disconnected sensory channels. Often they will lose their accuracy in selecting a correct response if they have to get up & move. Giving a visual prompt, picture, sign or gesture usually remedies the problem, but it does not explain the break. Is it going from listening to moving that cause the thought disruption? Or is it because they have lost their connection with me?
Of course, then there was the nonverbal student who never looked at the table to scan the array of answers — not even a quick peripheral glance, yet, his selection of responses was invariably correct! It appeared as if he were seeing & controlling his body from outside himself.
Some of my more severely affected students were not actually be easily able to match an object presented visually with an object they could touch but not see. By example, I put a crayon, bottle of glue, scissors & a ball in a bag. Then I showed a student a crayon & asked him to reach in the bag & find the same. He appeared unable to do it… I then put one of the objects in his hand, & he had no difficulty reaching in the bag to find the same object. He was successful at tactile to tactile, but not visual to tactile. Other students who showed the same difficulty eventually picked it up with practice, but he continued to have difficulty.
When students are engaged in self-stimulation, such as hand flapping, I encourage them to stop when we are in the process of direct instruction and/or joining, because it appears to interfere with our connection. Tapping the child alternately on the right & left side of the body to establish a rhythm seems to calm the student down & cut down on his need to self-stimulate. When not involved in direct instruction, I let them re-engage in self-stimulatory activities if they are not dangerous. I attempt to replace dangerous ones rather than fade them.
Many of the children appear to lack an internal rhythm. I would suggest that parents keep babies & young children very close to them so the child can feel the heartbeat & rhythm of the mother. I have noticed that by alternately tapping the right & left hand, shoulder, or arm calms the kids down & lessens self- stimulatory behavior, as many appear to be used to provide self regulation or rhythm. I might also have them listen to ocean waves to help attune them them to the rhythm of the earth. As they matured, I would encourage them to take part in group meditation, holding hands with calm individual persons with even breathing. Listening to binaural beats, & musical entrainment CD’s, new age music, & nature sounds all seem to have a positive effect.
I allow ample time for spinning, swinging or jumping on a trampoline & have found that saturation lessens the need for vestibular input over time. Many of my students liked rhythmic pressure to the sides or front & back of their heads. It has been particularly help-fulfor students who are self-abusive, anxious, or exhibit auditory defensiveness. I believe that brushing, deep-pressure, massage, joint compressions, meditation, reiki & reflexology all have their place in helping the child feel more comfortable in his body.
1) Open your heart & join. Keep your emotions & energy calm, open, & loving.
Truly love them & feel blessed in their company.
2) Approach with respect. Assume competency. Acknowledge intelligence.
3) Make sure they are comfortable. Be aware of internal & external sensory irritants
and attempt to alleviate them. (lights, sounds, smells, erratic interfering thoughts)
4) Provide positive sensory experiences. (deep pressure, massage, spinning, swinging)
5) Realize that many self-stimulatory behaviors & movements are used to get their bodies, sensory systems,
and brains to function. Help them establish an internal rhythm.
6) Understand & organized body leads to an organized mind. learning appropriate & varied
movement patterns enhances all areas of function.
7) Let those who chose to use you as a tool. It is often a step along the way.
8) Understand some individual persons with severe autism benefit from an agent with a strong rhythm to
maintain their attention & override other interfering stimuli. Use this strong rhythm to deter
interfering self -stimulatory behavior during direct instruction.
9) Accept the fact that a form of telepathy or joined or entangled energy is occurring.
10) Empower them! Promote independence with dignity! Accept the unexpected!
1) Meet each child at his level.
2) Provide visual strategies, motoring, & mental prompts as needed to insure errorless
teaching. Remove as needed using backward chaining techniques.
3) Teach through out the day. Include children in all conversations. Provide slow relaxed visual and
auditory input throughout all activities.
4) Narrow focus. Start with a field of two & broaden.
5) Use sentence closure techniques for non verbal or those with limited verbal capability.
6) Teach categories to help them develop an internal filing cabinet that limits choices.
7) Provide motivating activities specific to each child to increase initiations.
8) Make sure the child correlates the abstract (word, sign) representational (picture) concrete (object).
Remember, With severe students with a propensity toward hyperlexia & or telepathic prompts the word
may be learned first.
9) Teach simple understanding of parts of speech by having the children answer simple “wh” questions about a
sentence in hopes of internally limiting possible responses, thus promoting easier access.
10) Repetition is key, particularly if movement is involved. Yet, be willing to move on if the children indicate
I have served as a teacher of individual persons with autism for 18 years. What they have taught me was to be sure of nothing, & open myself to the extraordinary. It has been & continues to be a remarkable ride. Much of my work is based closely on the premise of thought transfer or shared energy. Mary Ann Harrington MS