As a British Postgraduate Autism Specialist, I employ a variety of modern programmes that support the development of social and emotional cognition in autistic children. A particular programme will be carefully chosen depending on the developmental stage, needs and preferences of a particular child. The programmes are designed to keep the emotional arousal of autistic children at the lowest possible level during the interventions and hence, are offered in the child’s natural environments and during the natural learning hours (participating primary schools on the North Shore of Auckland). The major interventions encompass:
SCERTS® framework to assess and develop social and emotional cognition
Employing elements of a highly individualized and developmentally based SCERTS (i.e. Social Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support) model that is currently successfully used in twelve countries allows me to “fine-tune” relevant proven methods to help the child progress in coping even with complex tasks such as advanced emotion understanding when he is developmentally ready. The SCERTS approach targets primary developmental areas that need to be addressed while working with an autistic child. Therefore, through the relevant observation forms, I can build a detailed picture of the students’ developmental needs, select relevant objectives and follow through his skills acquisition efficiently.
Socially Curious Programme to develop social attention
Originating from the idea that children learn best through the engaging and dynamic communication experience, Socially Curious has been designed to help autistic children with developing social attention in a bright and cheerful way. We all love to recollect our best times and shared experiences. Children, both autistic and neurotypical, make sense of the world surrounding them by taking in information through their senses, interpreting it and relating it to what they really understand. Their knowledge and experience shape the way they interact, develop and grow as individuals. Creating an irresistible invitation to learn infuses the learning process with enthusiasm, creativity and motivation.
That’s why Socially Curious therapy sessions with diverse and engaging teaching moments provided at least three times a week was proved effective in improving the child’s attention span to the adult-led agenda. With elements of the programme applied in around 80 educational establishments for young children, Socially Curious was developed to engage the child’s interest to secure his attention while working on various educational tasks. All four stages of the programme have been widely recognised for supporting children with selective attention which usually affects their learning process significantly. It allows us to start at the attention level pupils are at (compared to a neurotypical peer) and help them build upon it. Highly effective elements of Socially Curious programme would also be conducive to eliciting a situational understanding of a range of feelings on the self and others.
Socially Smart programme to develop social competence
As all human behaviour is functional, addressing behavioural issues such as social anxiety in autistic children needs to commence with understanding their social and emotional cognition. Developed over twenty years ago, Social-Emotional Intelligence Curriculum is a recognised way to teach social competence to encompass social thinking (i.e. as we communicate with others we think about them), social problem solving and social skills. The initial dynamic assessment helps to look into the child’s current social processing to decide on the initial core treatments. Socially Smart teaching materials will then be selected depending on the age and social communication profile of the child.
During the sessions, children will go through the topics addressing basic and advanced social and emotional cognition, building friendships and peer interactions, understanding basic and advanced emotional states, a variety of self-regulation techniques, understanding expected behaviours in a variety of social settings and mutual co-regulation, also group objectives, group behaviour expectations and a variety of other social topics.
Group Thinking Programme to develop peer interactions
Adapted from the Lego®-based therapy, a social development programme that introduced collaborative Lego play to improve social competence through interest and motivation, Group Thinking is now also suitable for children with such issues as fine motor skills. Popular part of social learning, Lego-based therapy was found helpful in developing an understanding of the others’ points of view and consequently, developing social competence as well as promoting interaction in primary-aged children; furthermore, one of the latest Cambridge PhD researches has found a reduction in social anxiety as a result of the intervention. An improvement of emotion understanding could also be achieved during the Group Thinking programme alongside other elements of social competence. As the therapy implies using popular high-interest play materials, verbal and able autistic children often display higher interest in initiating and sustaining interactions with peers and neurotypical playmates as well as higher levels of flexibility throughout the problem-solving parts of the game.
Sensory Talk to make communication more meaningful
Sensory experiences are paramount to our cognitive development; starting from a new-born, it’s the experiences received through the senses that will then wire the brain, as with each sensory experience a pulse will be sent through our mind to create a new neural trace. Sensory development also precedes linguistic development. With receptive and expressive language issues common in autism, increasing sensory input is a natural way to improve language ability. Also, through the Sensory Talk programme, we can introduce multimodal sensory experiences to facilitate language development in a bright and captivating way.
TEACCH approach to reduce cortisol levels and emotional arousal during the therapeutic interventions
An indispensable part of organising interventions with autistic children, the TEACCH method allows to foster independence in autistic students and nurture their individuality. When integrated into organising adult-led agenda, it could contribute to the development of metacognitive strategies (i.e. ability to think about cognitive processes to guide behaviour). TEACCH is a widely popular way to organise primary and secondary school routine for autistic children as it offers a notable impact on education provided. Arranging the physical environment in a structured way, providing visual schedule and structured work/activity systems alongside other elements of TEACCH, it helps to reduce the emotional arousal of the students alongside anxious or dysregulated behaviour during the sessions.
Reciprocal Imitation approach to engage the mirror-neuron system, the neural basis of social cognition
A naturalistic intervention designed to teach autistic children spontaneous imitation during the preferred play interactions with a play partner, Reciprocal imitation approach increases a range of social‐communication skills such as social engagement, pretend play, language and gesture use. The goal is to teach the child to imitate as a means of social communication and therefore, it is more important that the child spontaneously attempts to copy practitioner’s actions than to perform any specific action correctly. Implemented in a number of play settings, reciprocal imitation uses holistic strategies based on affect to teach imitation.
Hanen Approach® to develop social attention
The strongly interrelated impairments of social interaction, communication and imagination have been widely recognised as cardinal signs of autism. Looking into the child’s communication impairments and its three major parts, namely receptive communication difficulties (what a person is able to understand), expressive communication issues (what a person can express) and social skills deficits (including social thinking, extracting social rules and pragmatics) helps to identify the key issues verbal autistic children have in communicating effectively and in understanding the verbal and non-verbal language of other people.
Advocating that the natural environment is the most effective way for children to learn, the Hanen approach provides autistic children with opportunities to establish interaction with the key people in their lives. Based on academic research indicating that parental involvement is crucial to a child’s progress, a famous Canadian method was created to provide autistic children with a clear strategy to develop more of social understanding.
Derbyshire Language Scheme to improve social understanding
Another framework that helps to improve communication skills in my students is the Derbyshire Language Scheme. Developed by an Educational Psychologist Mark Masidlover and a specialist teacher Wendy Knowles around 40 years ago, the scheme allows me to build a general understanding of the child’s verbal development, based on a quick -around 45 minutes- testing. The programme covers the skills that develop in neurotypical communication between 9 months and five years.
Social Stories™ is probably the most widely used “focused intervention strategy” for autistic children. They empower socially challenged children by enhancing their understanding of the social encounters in their lives and supporting their ability to be active participants in the social world around them. I love Social Stories as they are, in fact, a practitioner’s playground where you can modify or re-configure any part of the story to make it more meaningful for a particular child, within the boundaries of his preferred sensory modalities. To illustrate, adding a creative twist to one of the Social Stories helped me to teach the students expressing empathy to other people.