Last week, I participated in a workshop called H.U.G.S. Science TM, which stands for Help Uncover Good Scientists. I am very optimistic that this workshop will improve my therapy practice in some important ways. Let me share with you what I am thinking.
An often recommended way to engage a child with autism is to use the child's interest as a topic of play, discussion or academic learning. Sometimes this is challenging, as when, for example, a young Temple Grandin (who is a well-known adult who has autism) became interested in cattle slaughter houses. She has advocated for taking anything that a child is interested in and teaching the child academic and social skills around that content area. For her, this educational approach resulted in her getting a doctorate, becoming a professor and becoming the world's foremost authority in designing humane slaughter houses. I think she is right to encourage us all to consider the possibility that early passionate interests, no matter how obscure or unusual, might end up becoming the foundation for an occupation or a highly pleasurable life-long hobby. Even in the short term, incorporating a child's passionate interests is a fast way to gain the child's attention and cooperation, so I have become pretty good at being genuinely interested in anything that engages a child. But I also believe that limiting oneself to supporting exclusive, narrow and obscure interests may limit the child's social relationships in childhood and in adulthood and ultimately limit a child's quality of life--a point made eloquently by Dr. Steven Gutstein in his book, Solving the Relationshop Puzzle. I have found it relatively easy, with many kids, to expand interests.
I use a kind of hybrid educational approach and do not limit myself to using the things that a child is presently passionate about even with young children. Instead, I use activities that I think the child would be interested in if only he or she had a little exposure. I try to expand a child's interests but I am realistic about what activities I choose, particularly early in a child's development of language and social skills. Traditionally, preschool toys and activities emphasize social/imaginative play, and are successful learning tools to the extent that the child has mastered a huge and ever-expanding set of language and social skills. Trying to get a child with ASD to focus when the content is so challenging is simply unrealistic for many young children. I have had great success, however, creating group experiences and therapy activities where the content is based on exploring the physical world. Once a child is pleasurably engaged in an activity with others, the language and interactions skills can be taught naturally.
I can't claim that physical sciences are a strong knowledge area for me. I can only offer physical science content because the kids I work with are so young that I still know more about physical science than they do. I have done enough therapy based upon this kind of science, however, to know that some of my most successful therapy sessions were sessions that involved physical science exploration. Marble Works, magnet games, water activities, and blowing feathers across the table are all standard games in my repertoire. I attended a H.U.G.S. Science workshop presented by a preschool science specialist, Joanne Burke, with some confidence that I would come away with good therapy ideas. Joanne has created a science kit filled with about two dozen homemade science experiments. Most of the materials are readily available, although I would not have come up with the combination nor thought of so many ways to use these things. Joanne modified her regular workshop for a small group of Speech and Language Pathologists and focused her discussion on the link between developmentally appropriate preschool science activities and facilitating growth in language and critical thinking skills. Developmentally appropriate sciences for young children, she explained, are cause/effect sciences that always allow the child to initiate an action, observe immediate results, repeat that action, or try something new. There is predictability in this science that immediately hooks the child into participating and helps the child begin to think in new ways. Many of the experiments that we learned were about things that move and things that change--physics and chemistry. From a child's perspective, though, H.U.G.S. experiments are also sensory treats. Objects spin, are launched, slide, tumble, race, fall, wobble, hover, float, and sink. Liquids flow, drip, blend, squirt, gush, are sucked in and poured out. Colors, sounds, textures, weights, sizes, and shapes all come to have meaning and play a part in simple but dramatic experiments. I hope you noticed the rich vocabulary potential suggested above. Vocabulary embedded in this context is interesting, useful, and concrete in meaning. For the highly verbal child with ASD, I predict that the precise nature of the language would be particularly engaging. H.U.G.S. science is not about providing a child with a collection of facts--it is a means of integrating experiences with language and critical thinking skills. I believe this kind of science will motivate many of my young friends with ASD to initiate, observe, analyze, predict, wonder, tell, ask, remember, and generalize what they have learned. That is what I am hoping, anyway.
Over the summer, I will try and then record the therapy usefulness of H.U.G.S. experiments and get back to you on this. Here is one other thing about using these materials that I feel excited about--I often have trouble finding activities that dads feel comfortable doing with their child. I am so happy after sessions where I see a father totally enjoy what he and his child are doing. I can predict, based on past experience, that the experiments I saw in this workshop are Dad Bait. Increasing my repertoire of father friendly activities is very cool. Notice the wooden piece in the picture below. It is called a Launcher. It is easy to imagine the average dad popping items into the air with a launcher, isn't it?
To contact Joanne Burke if you want her to present her delightful H.U.G.S. Science TM workshop to your group or to purchase one of her science kits, you can email her at email@example.com
This post has been submitted to the All About Parenting Blog Carnival at About.com Parenting Special Needs