Ever since Junior was diagnosed with Autism, my husband and I have gotten a lot of advice.
“Have you tried the GF/CF diet?”
“You should make him play with other kids.”
And, Lord help me,
“Just smack him a few times; he’ll learn.”
We tried the gluten-free thing for a while; the forced play and smacking (and several other suggestions) we turned down out of hand. The single best piece of advice that we received came in a text message from Dr. K., a research doctor specializing in the brain.
“Call this number.”
The number in question led us to a training program for ABA therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis. Through this program, we met Dr. Linda, Mr. Brandon, Miss Therese, and Mr. Dustin, the founding group of guides for Junior’s journey between his “world” and ours.
Junior is a beautiful little boy with a sunny disposition and an eagerness to please. In his case, Autism manifested as echolalia, social delay, and an incredible preoccupation with (and gift for) numbers. When presented with an option, he would either repeat the question to mean yes, or decline by saying all done. Stress or dismay produced shrieks and agitated hand signs. Pronouns were minimal at best; Junior’s default was she.
“Want she to do it.”
“She get some juice.”
Other children barely existed for him, except as interlopers who would disrupt his carefully arranged patterns of blocks or interrupt his counting. Numbers were the only thing that mattered; the only way to engage his attention. By the age of four, he had mastered binary code and division. Now six, he’s working on fractions and algebra.
Thanks to his therapists, he’s also learning to share his remarkable world with the people around him.
A far cry from the days of negative reinforcement, ABA is a research-based system that focuses on the positive, building rapport and self-esteem. Junior looks upon his therapists (called “providers”) as his friends. Employees of Integrated Behavioral Technologies, Inc., the providers come to our house several days a week to work with Junior one-on-one. They play basketball with him on breaks and indulge his taste for nonsense syllables. They’ve learned to use what motivates him, and to avoid what he fears.
Mostly, they try to keep up with him.
Regular team meetings are held to create and tailor programs designed to teach Junior particular skills, such as saying I don’t know instead of screaming if he’s asked a difficult question. Junior’s astonishing memory (a gift shared by neither of his parents, I assure you) allows him to memorize and implement his programs with remarkable speed; the meetings are frequent affairs.
We are among the lucky parents: Junior has no underlying health issues, he is easily motivated by success, and ABA therapy has worked wonders for all three of us. My husband and I are able to react calmly when Junior is suffering from overload, and we are able to discern the difference between escape and attention behaviors and respond accordingly. From early December, when his therapy schedule really ramped up, to just after Christmas break, the change in Junior’s skills was dramatic. Faculty and staff members at his elementary school remarked on it repeatedly.
“He looked me in the eye!”
“He knows how to sit still now!”
“He played a game with a classmate!”
“Look at this picture he colored!”
Applied Behavior Analysis is not a miracle cure, but then, Autism is not a disease. I think of Autism as a different kind of operating system; ABA, via compassionate, hardworking therapists, is providing new subroutines that give Junior a more user-friendly way to process his environment.