Tuesday 11 January 2011

Why we need guided participation in autism education

School. Securing an appropriate placement for their child is a tricky and traumatic process for most families of a child with autism. As you will have gathered from my last post, I feel that most of the autism education provision available today in this country leaves a lot to be desired. I feel that that most schools, though well-meaning, still just compensate for, or ‘work round’ the difficulties at the heart of autism, instead of addressing them. There are some ‘good’ schools if all you are after is a placement focusing on academics, self care and ‘social skills’ (responses learned by rote) without fostering social and emotional development and flexible thinking.

Non-autistic children develop flexible thinking and social and emotional competence as part of the special relationship that takes place with their primary caregivers in the early years. In most cases, the primary caregivers are parents.

The first clip accompanying this blogpost shows the child development milestone of ‘joint attention’.

(How cool is that - techno virgin manages to embed video in body of text)

Children with autism fail to engage in joint attention - a key developmental milestone that is a prerequisite for perspective-taking. Joint attention involves the child looking at an external object (here, the object is a toy) and then looking to the partner to share their reaction to the toy. Here, the emotion shared is joy - both the neuro-typical child and the child with Downs smile at the adult, a non-verbal “oh wow…isn’t that a cool toy?”  The child with autism doesn’t engage in joint attention and isn’t interested in the adult’s response to or feelings about the toy.
Joint attention is one of the first steps in being able to borrow another’s perspective to inform decision-making.  As children, learning about the world, we reference the adult’s emotional reactions to stimuli to determine safety and value.
It is well documented that in autism, joint attention fails to develop.  Children do not learn how to borrow someone else’s perspective to help them make decisions.  The failure to develop joint attention is part of the atypical path of development that children with autism veer onto when they are tipped over into the autistic spectrum.    This atypical developmental pathway results in children having severe and pervasive difficulties managing uncertainty and change. 
I sometimes have trouble with that myself (but it is intermittent rather than chronic).  I’m sure most of us can identify with the feelings of anxiety that result from being faced with uncertainty or change.
As ‘neuro-typical’ (non-autistic) people, however, we have developed the thinking competencies that allow us, for the most part, to have a bash at coping with uncertainty and change.  Usually most of us are successful most of the time in managing uncertainties whether large or small. 
This includes the myriads of small uncertainties and changes that happen every day.  For children with autism, the smallest change or uncertainty, such as a bus being late or having to take a detour, can trigger an extreme negative response, sometimes referred to by parents as a ‘meltdown’.  Children with autism learn to avoid change or uncertainty – an instinctive survival response when a challenge is too great. 
Human communication is full of uncertainty – sometimes changing from moment to moment, so it’s no wonder that social interaction is such a challenge for people with autism.  But it doesn’t have to be like that.  We know that neuro-typical kids learn how to interact socially and think flexibly (and therefore behave adaptively) during the many hours of playful fun they have with their caregivers in the early years. 
Barbara Rogoff, a Professor of Psychology at Santa Cruz University, coined the term ‘guided participation relationship’ to describe this special relationship between child and caregiver that enables the child to collaborate in a learning relationship with close adults which is ‘carried out day after day, without much deliberation or conscious awareness.  Children participate alongside family and community members in authentic activities as apprentices, actively seeking to appropriate meaning and expertise from adult guides who provide opportunities for the apprentice to safely encounter cognitive challenges.’
During the research period that eventually led to the development of RDI, Dr Gutstein studied many families of children with autism and concluded that children with autism are unable to take part in the GPR.  Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) allows parents and their children to have another go at the GPR.    The child is able to master the developmental milestones such as joint attention that they missed first time round, enabling them ultimately to take different perspectives and to think more flexibly.
What I am doing with Philip in the 2 footage clips accompanying my previous blogposts is using the GPR to work on his flexibility.  Philip is the ‘apprentice’ to my ‘mentor’.
Part 2 – more on guided participation, follows shortly.


  1. Great post and I am seriously impressed with the inclusion of the video clip.... techno virgin no longer!!!

  2. What a great clip - the child with Down Syndrome clearly teaches us the difference between autism and a learning difficulty. Indeed the child with ASC might have a higher IQ than either of the other children but he sadly lacks the vital tools needed to engage in authentic, reciprocal relationships.

    In most settings this lack of ability, this massive obstacle, is like the elephant in the room and many educators just ignore it - almost as if they believe it's not worth the effort to even try and remediate it.

    Thanks for this ...