HELPING CHILDREN WITH AUTISM TO LEARN. Edited by Stuart Powell. David Fulton pound;15
This book contains several complementary approaches for working with children with autism, ranging from those who have profound learning difficulties to others who might be described as having Asperger's syndrome.
The child with autism is presented as being "outside the culture", unable or struggling to tune into the meanings that are embedded in our social world. Learning to understand what things mean cannot be accomplished alone. It is vital that children develop the social interactions that make learning possible.
Mel Nind's contribution shows how "intensive interaction" gives children the experience of what it is to be social. The teacher adopts a strategy based on early child development to construct a shared experience with the child.
The flexibility and negotiation required to achieve this can be seen throughout the book in different contexts, for example using musical interactions, ICT or a multisensory curriculum. Learning is promoted when the teacher starts from where the child is developmentally, and makes learning enjoyable.
These same principles emerge in Elizabeth Newson's inspiring ideas for teaching children with Asperger's syndrome about metaphor. These children, tied to a concrete understanding of the world, often interpret what is said to them literally. For example, failing to understand that "pll your socks up" does not necessarily refer to socks. The use of metaphor is ingrained so deeply in our communication that we fail to notice it, yet it can completely confuse children with autism.
Newson's use of humour in teaching metaphor offers a welcome way of approaching a difficult concept.
Time, patience and creativity are also vital factors. Flo Longhorn highlights these in her description of broadening the sensory experiences of children with profound learning difficulties. Occupational therapists, as well as teachers, will find her practical suggestions valuable.
However, I question the validity of including "extrasensory perception" in a list of senses. Also, Flo Longhorn imputes awareness of others' emotions and thoughts to the children she describes, or at least the potential for choice in the matter. This runs counter to the evidence presented throughout the book.
The importance of reciprocal social interactions in developing learning is clearly demonstrated. This is illustrated in higher-order skills such as metaphor, reading using ICT, and in more fundamental experiences that include developing sensory and interpersonal awareness, or understanding that a plate represents dinner-time.
Social scaffolding is at the heart of learning and this book offers teachers some fine examples.
Kieron Sheehy is a lecturerin inclusive and special education at the Open University