For Kids with Autism, Learning to Talk Starts with Reading

April 17, 2012


Most autism programs teach kids to speak but the language they produce is “all wrong.” By taking into account the unique way the brain develops in autism, Marion Blank’s methods teach children how to truly communicate.

A significant percentage of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) do not speak.

But in the rush to develop programs to get children to speak, says Marion Blank, PhD, a developmental psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University and a world-renowned expert in teaching children how to read and speak, there has been little consideration of what children should be speaking about.

Most current programs focus on teaching children to voice the names of different objects and simple requests. The result, she says: many programs aimed at children with autism result in language that is “all wrong.”

In an article for The Autism File, Blank recounts the story of a young boy who had been taught how to describe the size, shape, and color of different objects. His mother took him to a new place one day, and when he saw a toilet in the bathroom he exclaimed, “That is an O!” “The child’s speech represented a reasonable sentence,” Blank wrote. “What is awry is the communication. What the child’s comment shows us is the disturbing and anomalous world of “language without communication.”

Instead, Blank’s programs teach children how to speak and communicate by tapping into the unique way the brain develops in children with autism. “Typically developing kids learn to speak first and then to read. And their ability to speak helps them learn how to read. The converse is true for kids with ASD,” says Bradley Peterson, MD, director of the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons.

“Reading is a better mode for them to learn language,” adds Suzanne Goh, MD, co-director of the Developmental Neuropsychiatry Program for Autism & Related Disorders at Columbia. “The challenge is how to get the children to be receptive to learning anything from an adult.”

The first step in Blank’s program teaches the child to follow the lead of an adult and to learn very fundamental impulse control. “They need to be taught how and the skills need to be practiced, [but] children with ASD are able to learn self-restraint,” Goh says.

Next come the learning programs, carried out by a parent one to two hours a day, five days a week. “The greatest strength of Marion Blank’s program is the way it evolves into the various developmental phases,” says Diane L.’s mother in a video series produced by Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry. Diane, now in her early teens, has participated in the program since 2003.

“You start with the basic inhibition. Then you move to the non-verbal cognitive work. Then the verbal cognitive work, coupled with the reading. It’s a way to build language in a more and more sophisticated way.”

Freddy K. started the program when he was 7 years old. “It can be hard, there are certain things you have to do, but it works,” his mother says in the same video series. “I think he’s more receptive to learning. I think he’s teachable.

“We knew because of some of his interests and some of his language that there was something more there, but you could never get at it. This almost feels like he’s being rewired. He’s happier and we’re all happier.”

For more information about Marion Blank’s reading programs, watch the videos above, or visit Columbia University’s Developmental Neuropsychiatry Program.

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