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By learning you will teach; by teaching you will learn.
Working to improve a child's social skills brings a special set of challenges, especially when social skills do not come naturally, as occurs for a substantial number of children and youth on and off the autism spectrum. Speech-language pathologists and other professionals who take on this challenge cannot manage it alone. Especially when targeting social skills, professionals need to work with and through others. The Latin proverb at the opening of this column, thus, seemed a fitting way to introduce this issue of Topics in Language Disorders. In it, issue editors, Amy Weiss and Geraldine Theadore, along with their invited authors, highlight many of the facets of teaching/learning relationships involved in "Caregiver-Directed Approaches for Facilitating Social Communication Competencies in Children and Youth On and Off the Autism Spectrum."
When professionals and parents collaborate to prioritize goals and individualize intervention approaches, the learning and teaching enterprises are mutual, bidirectional, and, when all goes well, synergistic. In the first article, Weiss and Theadore provide an overview of key concepts of social communication and discuss the policies, examples of approaches, and rationale for engaging parents directly in intervention targeting social skills in natural environments. They also touch on cultural concerns that are an integral part of determining social patterns of interaction and deciding how best to engage parents in teaching their children. Weiss and Theodore note that professionals using culturally sensitive methods can help parents learn new ways to support their children's development.
In their article, Woods and Brown review the evidence, in terms of child outcomes, for a number of well-known approaches for integrating family capacity building to support communication development in young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In addition, they point out conflicts, and possible means of reconciliation, between goals developed by parents after reading about the evidence for early intensive intervention and goals developed under public policies that mandate the provision of services in naturalistic environments.
Professionals, by their questions, learn from parents, but questions also can focus attention and become an important guide for teaching parents to attend to meaningful features of interactions. As parents learn new strategies for teaching their children social skills, they correspondingly learn more about the process of what works and what does not. Their new knowledge and insights, as well as their feelings about the process, can become a lesson not only for them, but also for the professionals collaborating with them. In their article, Prelock, Calhoun, Morris, and Platt explore these themes in the context of two pilot studies that involved parents of young children with ASD in learning how to work directly on social communication skills. The first focused on what clinicians could learn from parents whom they had taught to use strategies from the Hanen Center's "More than Words" approach (Sussman, 1999). The second involved preparing professionals across disciplines to help parents select one of two methods for joint attention training that best fit their family's circumstances. In this second study, professionals in speech-language pathology, early childhood education, and special education all sought to learn new skills working with parents. The professionals receiving additional training were the informants regarding the outcomes. They provided valuable insights about what they learned from parents about the teaching and decision-making processes and also noted the importance of clarifying key concepts, such as joint attention, for themselves.
Theadore, Laurent, Kovarsky, and Weiss also looked to parents for what they can teach professionals. These authors' qualitative clinical research was conducted using a focus group method, in which parents were asked to reflect on their prior experiences as members of parent groups held concurrently with interventions targeting social skills for the children with ASD and related disorders. Among several themes, parents affirmed the value placed on social skills and reported on learning to celebrate successes, while acquiring new skills themselves to support their children's development of social skills.
Adults, who used to be children, tend to forget how frequently a child feels emotions such as uncertainty, confusion, fear, disappointment, and rejection, even when there are no extra challenges due to autism or other pragmatic language and self-regulatory difficulties. Brinton and Fujiki bring aspects of emotion learning to a heightened level of awareness for readers. They also describe how parents can facilitate emotion understanding and regulation for children on and off the autism spectrum by talking with their children and modeling how to cope with challenging emotions.
Hewitt brings heightened awareness to another part of the population with ASD-adolescents and young adults who are transitioning to college. She points out the multifaceted issues that may interfere with success that extend beyond academic potential, including the need to develop sophisticated self-regulatory and executive functions to participate actively in a postsecondary environment that may include living in a dormitory. It is an environment in which parents need to learn new roles for providing supports in less obvious and less intrusive ways. It also is an environment in which professionals need to engage students in setting their own goals and becoming invested in planning and implementing their interventions.
I hope this brief overview has whetted readers' appetites for the rich information included within this issue of Topics in Language Disorders, under the able editorship of Weiss and Theadore. It offers much food for thought about best ways to engage with parents and children in mutually satisfying teaching and learning about social skills.
-Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD
Sussman F. (1999). More than words: Helping parents promote communication and social skills in children with autism spectrum disorders. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: A. Hanen Centre.
* Downloaded July 8, 2011 from http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Latin_Proverb/[Context Link]
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