Perspectives on autism

14th July 2000 at 01:00
AUTISM PARENTS' EDUCATION AS AUTISM THERAPIST. Applied Behaviour Analysis in Context. By Mickey Keenan, Ken Kerr and Karola Dillenburger. Jessica Kingsley. pound;13.95.

A POSITIVE APPROACH TO AUTISM. By Stella Waterhouse and Donna Williams. Jessica Kingsley. pound;15.95.

REACHING THE YOUNG AUTISTIC CHILD : Reclaiming Non-autistic Potential Through Communicative Strategies and Games. By Sibylle Janert. Free Association Books. pound;14.95. tel: 020 7388 3182.

These three books represent different perspectives on meeting the needs of children with autism. Each agrees that this process should begin early and that significant progress is achievable.

"Colin's Story" takes up much of Parents' Education as Autism Therapists and is used to show the potential of applied behaviour analysis. Reports from health and educational professionals described Colin as egocentrically preoccupied, lacking the urge to engage socially, showing language delay, obsessiveness and poor adaptation to change. Characteristics such as these suggested the label of autism.

Colin was nearly four years old when his mother began a parent training programme in applied behaviour analysis. After only one year she had taught her son the skills he needed to begin primary school education successfully. Applied behavioural analysis is built on behavioural methods, reinforcing appropriate behaviours, breaking identified tasks into small discrete steps and highly defined teaching sessions. Several parents explain the approach with examples from work with their own children.

Such techniques have been criticised on several counts. These include the ethics of using explicit rewards, treating children "mechanically" and not tackling the child's underlying problems. These points are addressed, readers should not expect a critique of the behavioural approach in this book.

This is a straightforward introduction to the use of applied behaviour analysis. Readers are given the oppotunity and the evidence to decide if the approach is suitable for themselves and their own children.

Many interesting ideas are put forward in A Positive Approach to Autism. These include the relationship between anxiety in the lives of people with autism, the possible influence of metabolic and dietary problems and distorted sensory perceptions. Several "treatments" are also reviewed. The strength of the book is the way in which the voices and views of people with autism are used to examine issues. This is an excellent strategy. It is a shame, therefore, that elsewhere the arguments are often difficult to follow, information is poorly organised and potential inaccuracies are not identified. Poor referencing means that the reader is unable to follow up or check ideas that appeal or to assess the accuracy of information that is presented on important questions.

Reaching the Young Autistic Child is enjoyable and well-written. Sibylle Janert adopts an interactive and practical approach with pre-verbal children (three to five years) .

The children with whom Janert works rarely initiate social interaction, apparently lacking interest in other people. Janert shows how an adult can "carry the load" of an interaction in order to encourage and teach the child to take their first steps in initiating and interacting socially.

The book offers clear examples of activities and games, with an emphasis on speech, that may help to develop shared attention with another person. These interactions are seen to be fun and motivating for all concerned. The author also attempts to explore the sense of what is going on inside the child's mind during isolating "autistic" activities. Whether or not you agree with these attempts, the practical nature of Janert's work makes the book a valuable introduction to a child-centred way of working.

KIERON SHEEHY Kieron Sheehy is a lecturer in special and inclusive education at the Open University

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