Henry is ten years old and has ASD. At the end of the summer term 2012 we made the decision to remove him from primary school and educate him at home. There were a number of reasons behind this decision: a realisation that he was barely speaking at school, despite using simple language frequently at home; concern about his increasing agitation and aggression; an awareness that the sensory environment of school was often overwhelming him and a firm belief that all these issues were interconnected.
From the moment Henry was diagnosed, at three years old, I had read avidly about autism and we had tried a number of different approaches to help him progress. The most effective had been an ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) programme supervised by the US-based clinic Growing Minds and Floortime, the intensive play-based therapy devised by Stanley Greenspan, from whose writing the title of this blog is taken. More recently I had been looking into Intensive Interaction and Sensory Integration therapy, especially the writing of Phoebe Caldwell on how the two approaches can be combined.
All parents believe, rightly, that their child is unique. Henry’s position on the spectrum has never been clarified, but most people would class him as severely autistic. His language is generally at single word level and he has huge difficulties with motor planning and sensory processing which affect every area of his learning, including the ability to play. However, in many other ways he does not fit the label of severe autism. He engages with the people he knows with warmth, joy and not a little skill and is able to respond to subtle facial expressions and gestures. Greenspan suggests that “children with the capacity for warm relating or with good potential for relating be described as having multisystem development disorder rather than autism”. The autism label has served us well in many respects, and is certainly less of a mouthful (I can’t imagine saying ‘ I’m sorry, he has multisystem development disorder’ to a disapproving supermarket queue) but it has sometimes also been a hindrance. Some people assume he wants to be left alone, is fearful of touch and are therefore reserved and wary in the way they treat him. When he fails to respond (a confident, extrovert approach – think CBeebies presenter on speed – is much more likely to engage him) their perceptions are strengthened, they withdraw more, and so on. More damaging is the belief, in some quarters, that his autism means he lacks both the motivation and the ability to talk. His attempts to communicate are not recognised and rewarded with a response; he gives up, the belief is underlined.
Both the Growing Minds team and Greenspan believe that intervention programmes for those labelled as autistic should be designed to take into account individual differences rather than attempting to meet the needs of a group seen as having a common problem. Greenspan writes ‘Every child is a class of one’. This was the starting point for me when I started thinking about a home education programme for Henry. I want this blog to be a diary of our days, a way of tracking progress, sharing successes and failures and connecting with other people who are following a similar path. It is dedicated to my mother, Di Freeman, who connected with children through play better than anyone I’ve ever known.