Thursday 21 May 2009

The Hanen programme

For the last 10 weeks we've been attending the Hanen programme, a speech and language course that teaches parents how to help their children communicate. Developed in Canada in the 1970s, it's one of the most widely used programmes of instruction for parents whose children have been recently diagnosed. It breaks down the communication process into small steps: how to intrude in their solo play; cutting out unnecessary words and phrases; using cues to make games and activities interactive. It shows, for example, how bedtime routines can be made more manageable by breaking them down into a series of small, predictable steps that the child can follow. Removing the source of anxiety, whether it's over-stimulation, under-stimulation or outright bewilderment, is often the first step on the road.
Perhaps the genius of the Hanen strategy is that it tackles a hugely complex problem in simple ways. It doesn't promise miracle cures or insist on strict, unnatural routines. It doesn't bombard you with arcane jargon (though the developers are a little too fond of acronyms for my liking). And neither does it frighten you into thinking that your child will be locked away in a cocoon for ever unless you follow its instructions by the letter. Instead it focuses on the relationship between parent and child and takes a structural approach to interaction on the activities you're already doing with your child and looks to incorporate them into an overall structure.
My one reservation is that by the time we attended the group, Euan was already starting to make progress in his speech and it felt as if some of the advice was already redundant. That's not the fault of the organisers, as we'd had to turn down a place in an earlier programme. But it does illustrate that Hanen is best suited to parents whose children have just been diagnosed.
However, during the 10 weeks of the programme Euan became markedly more expressive and sociable. His speech is suddenly more sophisticated - yesterday he asked for a towel, unprompted, when he spilled his milk at the breakfast table. It's hard to believe this was sheer coincidence. His school reported that he was starting to use spontaneous speech, asking the teacher for help, for example, where before he would have looked lost or got upset. In the playground I've watched him start to play with his peers when only a few months ago he stood sentry-like by my side, watching thoughtfully as the other children ran around him.
On the whole, I'd recommend it. Don't expect to have all your questions answered instantly or to see your difficulties vanish overnight. Understanding an autistic mind can feel like untangling a ball of string, but really it's a lot more complicated than that. The Hanen approach is more akin to setting guidelines that leave the key decisions in the parents' hands. As such, it's empowering. It also emphasises that progress with autistic children should be measured in short steps rather than giant leaps: it takes time and effort, but you'll get there if you persevere.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

The ignoble Savage

Thanks to the pre-emptive actions of Jacqui Smith, it looks as if I'll have to shelve any plans to go out for a drink with Michael Savage in the near future. The crude, loudmouth “shock jock” who has made a lucrative career out of firing off insults at gays, Muslims, autistic children and anyone else whose face he doesn't like has been banned from Britain.
I find this a hugely puzzling and self-defeating gesture by the Government. Everything Michael Savage (not his real name, but a camp showbiz sobriquet in the tradition of Coco Chanel) has to say about autism is offensive, pigheaded and plain wrong. But does he really pose a serious threat to the foundation of our society, as Jacqui Smith implies in grouping him with suspected terrorists? If that were true, I'd have to question if we had a civilisation worth defending. Preachers to the ignorant, which is what Savage is, are aggravating, attention-seeking and sometimes disturbing (not unlike autistic children, in fact), but the very last thing they should be seen as is threatening. It stokes their misplaced sense of self-importance and allows them to portray themselves as “the little man taking pot shots at the powerful” when the very opposite is true: Savage has earned a tidy fortune and a huge media presence from peddling his uninformed prejudices, at the expense of some of the most vulnerable in society.
Savage's arguments aren't hard to knock down. He says: “There is no definitive diagnosis for autism. None.” This will come as a surprise to the three doctors who wrote a four-page report diagnosing Euan's autism in clear and specific terms. He claims autistic children “don't have a father around to tell them don't act like a moron, you'll get nowhere in life.” Savage's own career path is a living refutation of that latter statement. “In 99 per cent of cases it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out.” If we translate the self-consciously folksy rhetoric into proper English, he's saying that autistic children haven't been shown how to behave, when in fact there's a huge span of successful therapies devoted to exactly that issue.
Until yesterday I suspect most people in Britain hadn't heard of Michael Savage, and were much better off for it. Now, thanks to Jacqui Smith's needless grandstanding, I've absorbed far more of his subliterate bile than I ever wanted to hear. I almost wonder if I shouldn't sue the Government myself for causing me needless distress. Sure, I wouldn't invite Michael Savage into my living-room, but I don't see that as a reason to exclude him from the country. In fact, let him come over and reveal himself for what he is: an overgrown playground bully who gets his kicks from picking on those who can't fight back. Or, to put it another way: Come over here and say that, Mike. And if you haven't got the bottle, cut out the dumbass act.