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Special Needs Parent Resource

Embracing Autism

Published: Tuesday, 31 May 2011 22:14

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Two years ago, Kevin and Lorna Miller’s lives changed forever: their only child, Ross, then 3 ½ years old, was diagnosed with autism (PDD-NOS to be exact). Days later, a friend mentioned a unique treatment—The Son-Rise Program—during a chat that would also change the Miller’s lives.

by Kimberly Horg-Webb

In February 2009 the Millers boarded a plane to Massachusetts, heading to the Autism Treatment Center of America, home to The Son-Rise Program, a treatment and education model that helps children on the autism spectrum by teaching parents new ways of relating to their kids.

“We are already seeing miracles happen,” says Lorna. Since starting the program, she and her husband have seen dramatic improvements in their son’s behavior and abilities, but even more importantly, they have seen Ross—who used to be such a miserable little guy—become a one very happy boy.

Ross can now handle the transitions of going to different places, previously too difficult a task. He used to refuse to let his parents play with him; he never asked or answered questions. Now, he wants to play not only with his parents, but with other children too, and he inquisitively asks who, what, where, and those famous “Why?” questions (all the time).

Since that first visit for Son-Rise Start-Up Training, the Millers have traveled back to Massachusetts four times for one-week training sessions.

“It is a program developed by parents for parents, and it is amazing!” says Lorna, who also notes that Ross had about 90 percent echolalia (automatically repeating words he heard from people or his books and videos), which has gone down to just 10 percent. And, he is starting to have conversations with his parents on a regular basis.

Reaching “Unreachable” Kids

Son-Rise was created in 1974 by Barry Neil Kaufman and his wife, Samahria Lyte Kaufman, to recover their severely autistic son. The program empowers parents to act as the key teachers, therapists and directors of their own programs and utilizes home as the most nurturing environment for families to help their children.

“One of the main educational techniques of Son-Rise that differentiates it from other autism treatment modalities is ‘joining,’” says William Hogan, Senior Son-Rise Program Teacher and Trainer. Joining, he explains, means “enjoying and imitating a child (or adult) when they are involved in their exclusive and repetitious behaviors.” 

So, instead of stopping a child who is rocking, hand flapping or repeating certain sounds, Son-Rise parents learn to join their children in those odd, self-stimulating behaviors. Hogan says joining continues until the child gives a cue to the facilitator that they are now ready to interact.

While Lorna and Kevin were in their own classes, Ross spent nine hours a day playing games with Hogan and other certified facilitators and senior teachers. The center also tracked Ross and gave them a comprehensive assessment of where he was on the Son-Rise Developmental Model, which continually helps them make decisions about Ross's program goals. Each evening, his parents would then go in the playroom with him and practice what they had learned throughout the day. The family saw his average interactive attention span double in that first week.

The couple also learned how to create a solid learning environment for Ross at home. “We have a designated, distraction-free playroom in our home where Ross and his team of volunteer facilitators play with him,” says Lorna. “It is there where we join him in his exclusive or repetitive behavior.”

The Millers now use Ross' own motivations to challenge him each day and help him grow. For instance, his favorite shows include Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Sesame Street, so his parents bring a variety of related games, including "Help Elmo Find His Blankets," into the playroom to help facilitate socialization skills, communication, flexibility and interactive attention span. Ross also loves reading, writing and drawing, so the family does a lot of that together.

“He already reads at a first-grade level and is academically ahead of kindergarten level,” says Lorna. While Ross has made huge improvements, his parents want to be sure he is “socially ready” to attend school. Through homeschooling, Ross will continue a full-time (50 hours a week) Son-Rise Program.

Lorna says that by deepening her understanding of what Ross was doing and why, she has learned how to relate to her son in a whole new way. It allowed her to love and accept Ross for exactly who he is. That whole-hearted acceptance is reflected in the name of her blog: "Lorna Loving Autism" (MiracleForRoss.com/lornalovingautism).

Lorna urges other parents to visit the Autism Treatment Center's website (AutismTreatmentCenter.org or call 877-766-7473) and look into resources posted there. “I'd like other parents to know that there is an alternative out there,” she says.

“It truly has helped me come to peace with Ross's diagnosis,” says Lorna, “and to be incredibly hopeful about his future.”

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Dandelion is a free quarterly magazine that serves as a resource for Bay Area and Sacramento families of children with special needs: autism and Asperger’s, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, those who are blind, deaf, in wheelchairs, learning disorders, sensory issues and every special need in between. Dandelion’s mission is to create and empower a community of local families through a variety of media by providing a database of resources, trusted and thought-provoking editorial content, an up-to-date calendar of special needs-specific events, noteworthy news, as well as contributions to the community.