Dr. James D. MacDonald's Website
Helping Parents Help Children. Programs for Parents, Therapists & Educators
Conclusions From 26 Years Studying Autistic Children
Since l971, I have worked with over 500 families of children diagnosed as Autistic, PDD, and related conditions. I studied the children within clinical treatment programs designed to build communicative relationships. Many of the findings are reported in several of my publications, especially Becoming Partners with Children. As I have personally gotten to know these families, I also carefully researched their relationships with the children through over 200 videotaped analyses. At this time, I am working closely with about 30 families and I want to report much more optimistic findings than I often see in the literature. First, before I describe a few programs that focus on building playful relationships with autistic children, I want to report a number of findings that concern me deeply about popular perceptions of these children.
PROBLEMS IN THE WORLD OF AUTISM
- The pessimism that most parents hear and read concerning autism is unfortunate, harmful, and often downright mistaken. We regularly see many children with some autistic features who can come into our social world if we join their world first.
- The future for autistic children can be quite optimistic if we stop rejecting and controlling them and join them as partners in their worlds.
- Much of what many people try to do with these children are developmentally mismatched attempts to force the child in adult and academic worlds too soon, with out preparing the children to be social and communicative first.
- Autism is primarily a problem and mismatch in relationships between the children and others. The autistic child and her partners are in vastly different worlds with distinct perceptions, motivations, sensitivities and speeds.
- Not only is there too little hope for autistic children, there is much too little respect for and inclusion of parents in helping the child develop. Most parents who come to me are convinced that only professionals can" fix" their child. This is an extremely dangerous belief because many parents virtually give away their child to professionals and avoid building just the intimate social relationships that only they can do. I now firmly believe that what autistic children need much more than school and therapies is the education of their parents in what the child needs and what they can do.
- The problem often seems to be too much, too soon, and too fast. We are rushing children to learn things like language long before they are ready and many of us have been far too impatient and unsupportive of the little gains that these children are making.
- School performance is not enough. It is true that some academic and behavioral programs have shown that autistic children can improved cognitively and perform academically. However, the thrust of our work has been that unless we help autistic children become playful, social and communicative, it may matter little how much compliance and school knowledge they achieve. I personally know many autistic children who succeed in many school tasks but who are still isolated and unable to develop friendships.
- My major conclusion is that our most important responsibility to these children is to offer them a social world in which they can build genuine relationships. Our goal in this work can be stated as: "We want to make autistic children into social communicative persons before they become students. I have personally watched many children slowly but surely emerge into socially successful persons when their families first focused on frequent playful relationships before teaching them to be students.
Consequently, the results from the work with many families has led to a few major conclusions.
- Autism is primarily a social problem that must be faced within the family, rather than a cognitive problem that can be fixed by schools and therapies alone.
- Parents and families inevitably influence their child’s development more than schools can. Consequently, professionals and parents need to collaborate more than they now do.
- The most vital task facing us regarding autism is to genuinely learn how to enjoy the child and help the child genuinely enjoy others.
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