Welcome to my first blog on PsychCentral. My name is Diane Yapko.
Working with children on the autism spectrum is a challenge I have enjoyed for more than a quarter century. When I saw my first client with autism in 1980, I knew very little about autism. But, as a speech-language pathologist, I knew about language development and disorders and, specifically, I knew about pragmatic language problems or difficulty with social language. I was trained in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when ‘pragmatics’ was the emphasis of a speech-pathologist’s education in the United States.
That pragmatics orientation was the beginning of learning to see my clients and the problems they presented as occurring within a social context. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the importance of understanding how the context or specific situation including the people, the environment (including all the sensory issues), and the expectations we each bring to a situation affects our work with clients and affects their success.
I want to emphasize at the outset that there is no formula, no “cookbook” approach that will be effective in working with all children on the autism spectrum. So, my blog is not intended to promote any one theoretical orientation, methodology, philosophy, approach or perspective. I hope to bring many different ideas, comment on various issues emerging in the research and in the news, discuss concepts from a number of different disciplines, and provide practical strategies that I hope readers will find useful.
Most people want to know how I first started to work with children on the spectrum, and since this is my first blog, I thought it best to start out with that story.
I remember when Jeff (not his real name) came into my office in 1980.
I approached him and said, “Hi, Jeff.” Wide eyed with a beautiful round face and blond hair, Jeff replied, “Hi, Jeff.” It didn’t take an expert to know that something was amiss! So, I said, “My name’s Diane.” And Jeff said, “my name’s Diane.” Back then, most people knew only about autism in its more extreme form of a child who was typically nonverbal, often rocked, hummed to him or herself and was self abusive (e.g., hitting or biting oneself). So, my first thought was not, “this child has autism so now I do ________ therapy.” Instead, I asked myself several questions:
1) What was Jeff doing? (he was repeating whatever I said),
2) What did he need to do? (he needed to say “hi” using my name, not repeating his name), and
3) How could I help Jeff do that?
Again, I said, “Hi, Jeff” but this time, I quickly moved next to Jeff rather than across from him and looked at where I had been standing and said, “Hi, Diane.” Jeff was silent and watched as I repeated this sequence twice more. As I did, I pointed to Jeff when I said his name and pointed to myself as I said my name. A few more times and then it happened. I said, “Hi, Jeff” and remained silent as Jeff filled in “Hi, Diane.”
So, it began… my work with children on the spectrum was off to a successful beginning. It was only a start, and there was much more that Jeff and I had to learn about greetings, conversation and more complex social behavior. I’ll share that in future blogs…