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Giving a voice to children with autism

An interesting article that shows some nice information on Verbal Behavior. More than likely, the parent went to a Carbone workshop....

Giving a voice to children with autism

By Les Masterson/ CNC Staff Writer

Friday, December 10, 2004

Cole Crowley is a 5-year-old boy who loves his Big Bear videos, but until recently the youngster couldn't communicate that joy.

Cole has autism and couldn't tell his parents he wanted to watch his bear friend. Instead, he got frustrated by the communication block and would often launch into tantrums.

"Everything seemed very frustrating for him," said Cole's mother, Sandy Crowley.

The Crowleys tried different communication methods, including a picture book. Cole would point to a picture to relay messages to his family, but the slowness of the process frustrated him.

Then, Sandy stumbled upon a different teaching method. She attended a conference on Verbal Behavior in Danvers. As she listened and watched, Sandy found the missing piece in Cole's therapies.

VB looks to increase opportunities for expressing wants and needs for developmentally delayed children. Three VB methods include pairing signs and words, pairing sounds and words with reinforcement and vocal imitation.

For instance, if a child wants milk, the adult coaxes the child to communicate rather than just giving it to him or her. The adult lets the child request every action, including having the adult pick up the milk, open the container, pour it into a cup, place the milk on the table, etc.

At that point, the child gains confidence and is rewarded for communicating.

"The piece I found that was missing was the communicative intent," said Sandy. "I think that was hindering (Cole) going any further."

"It's just an opportunity to break it down into smaller pieces and have the child become successful," said Arlington's Behavioral Intervention Program Director Jon Pike of Verbal Behavior. The program is part of the larger LABBB (Lexington, Arlington, Belmont, Bedford and Burlington) collaborative.

Sandy decided to try VB with her son. Within 20 minutes, Cole learned four different signs to communicate.

"I was ecstatic. He never talked to me like that... I saw a difference in him in that little bit of time," said Sandy Crowley.

Over time, she continued working with Cole.

"We started to see a lot of changes," said Sandy Crowley.

Sandy videotaped Cole's improvement and spoke with Arlington's special education officials, who enthusiastically supported the idea. The group piled into a van and drove to Brick, N.J., to see VB in action. (Brick was the first community with a model VB classroom in 1999.)

Pike said Arlington officials had discussed VB earlier and was excited by the process, especially the parental component. By teaching parents the VB method, the children receive the same reinforcement at home.

"This has blurred the line between professionals and parents," said Pike. "I really encourage that."

"It will only help the child if it is being done at home as well as the school," said Sandy Crowley.

Since that Garden State visit, Sandy and the Arlington schools, with help from Parents of Autistic Children (POAC) of Massachusetts, a group that started last year, which is co-chaired by Sandy, have trained staff and implemented VB into the BIP program.

In September, Arlington became the first school system in the commonwealth to use the VB method.

BIP classroom teacher Peggy Sheehan said VB fits nicely with the Arlington High School program's Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). BIP speech and language pathologist Jennifer Mitchell said the children feel empowered by VB.

Instead of a child bouncing alone on a ball, the teacher would stand with the child and follow commands to bounce higher. By encouraging the child to communicate, the teacher is able to interact numerous times with the student and rewards the student for communicating.

"When you stop putting demands on them, they want to be with you and will be successful," said Sheehan.

Also, instead of frustrating the child by not rewarding him or her, VB suggests giving in to the child if communication doesn't happen quickly.

"Instead of placing a demand, you're placing rewards all throughout the day," said Pike.

Mitchell likens the results to the child viewing the adult as a giant chocolate chip cookie. The adult becomes a source of joy instead of someone associated with frustration.

"Getting what you want makes talking worthwhile," said Mitchell.

The question as to how the staff uses VB with students depends on the individual child. While one may start with signs, another could already be vocalizing. Now, more than 60 children are being helped via the VB method within the Arlington schools.

"The hope is those signs lead to more verbalization," said Mitchell.

Pike has been impressed by student progress in the short time since BIP started using VB.

"We really expanded the emphasis on (teacher-student) interactions," said Pike. "I think it's been paying off...

"I believe that this type of learning intervention will allow more of our students to progress in all facets of home and school life," said Pike. "In school, it prepares our youngsters for a higher expectation in literacy levels and that is key to many doors that have been traditionally locked to our students."

Meanwhile, Cole Crowley has continued to gain communication skills. With his expanded vocabulary, the Crowleys and school staff have seen a happier Cole emerge.

"It changed his life incredibly. His quality of life is much better than before," said Sandy Crowley about her son. "He's more comfortable with his family. He used to hate school. I literally had to drag him. Now, he skips in. He loves it."

To learn more about Parents of Autistic Children, call 781-858-5211 or e-mail