Over the past 13 years, my husband and I have explored a wide variety of therapeutic interventions for our son Marco, who has autism. Although Marco made progress in some areas, overall he was becoming more anxious and more rigid than he’d been when we started working with him all those years ago. This past year, we discovered a new intervention called Natural Play Therapy (NPT). We started applying NPT principles in our interactions with Marco, and right away we noticed positive changes in our relationship with him. I was so impressed by the improvements we were seeing that I decided to take the NPT Connection Course, an online, interactive course for parents and professionals. I’m having such a wonderful experience participating in the course, I’ve decided to write about it—one topic at a time—on the NPT blog. The first topic I’d like to address is NPT and home schooling.
I have tried to home school Marco before. Last time, we stuck with it for three years. I started out full of enthusiasm and hope. Marco seemed enthusiastic, too, especially when I introduced our “Learning through Movement” program. We rolled on the floor like bear cubs and climbed over the furniture like squirrels looking for nuts. We did everything from cooking, yoga, and crafts to math, science, and poetry. Although there were exciting moments of connection and discovery, there were also long stretches of disconnection and confusion—on Marco’s part and mine. No doubt sensing my disappointment, Marco became frustrated. So did I. We went from full-day home schooling to half-day home schooling. Finally I gave up and sent Marco back to school. Even though I was uncomfortable with the rote, vocational approach they took at his school, I had become even less comfortable with my own ability to guide and educate Marco.
After two years back at school full-time, Marco started to let everyone know that he had had enough. He communicated his unhappiness through a combination of passive and extremely active resistance. I think his teachers were relieved when I decided to give home schooling another shot. Now, with our first academic year coming to a close, I am happy to report that we have left the frustration and confusion behind and are moving forward with growing trust and confidence--in ourselves and each other.
A big part of the difference between our previous attempts at home schooling and this one comes from NPT. Through NPT I am learning lots of ways to turn formerly frustrating situations into opportunities for exploration, connection, and growth.
For example, through NPT I am discovering productive ways to respond to Marco whether he is connected, disconnected, or somewhere in between. This is important, because students who are affected by autism need to disconnect often. Most educators recognize this need, and respond to it by providing frequent “breaks” for their students with autism.
With NPT, I have learned to go beyond simply allowing frequent breaks. When Marco disconnects, I have many options now. I can take the opportunity to closely observe him and gain insight into his world. I can explore his thoughts and feelings by sitting down next to him and participating in whatever activity he has initiated, even if it looks like he’s just “stimming.” I can put my own spin on what he’s doing and see how he responds. For instance, if he’s rocking side to side, I can sit with him, rock side to side, and add a little finger snap. If he doesn’t like my addition, I can stop. But I might get a smile of appreciation and connection. Or, as another example, if he’s reciting all the Wiggles songs he can think of, I can sit down with a paper and pen, draw a big circle for a “CD,” and take down the titles as he says them.
The funny thing is, these are things I would sometimes do even before discovering NPT, but instead of seeing them as opportunities to gain trust and deepen our relationship, I saw them as interruptions to our program. So instead of truly enjoying these moments, part of me would feel anxious and impatient when they occurred. It was feelings like those that led to frustration, and also eroded the trust between Marco and me.
Another positive way I can respond when Marco is disconnected is to sit down near him and quietly do an activity of my own. Marco has the freedom to observe me or not. This is a great way to introduce a new activity without any pressure. Marco can take all the time he needs to make sense of what I’m doing. When he’s ready, he can take the initiative to join me.
Here’s an example of how I might use this approach. Let’s say Marco is sitting on the floor with a stack of videos (we still have videos). He is opening the cases, taking the videos out, putting the videos back in, and closing the cases. He’s doing this over and over, and he appears agitated.
I sit down near him (but not too near) with some modeling clay. I break it into two pieces, one for myself and one for Marco, should he choose to join me. Without trying to get his attention, I start to make a “pinch pot” (a very simple craft). Marco ignores me and continues playing with the videos.
Once I make a nice round pot, I decide to put a head and tail on it. This gets Marco’s attention:
“What is it?”
“ A pig.”
Marco smiles. I know what he’s thinking.
“Just like on Angry Birds,” I say, and he laughs.
He seems to have forgotten about the videos. He doesn’t pick up the clay that I’ve put out for him, and I’m careful not to suggest it. (Knowing Marco, I’m sure that would spoil the moment.) I’m happy he’s watching me, taking a genuine interest in what I’m doing. Simply watching is such an important part of learning—one that seems underappreciated in the world of autism education. This time around, I’m not worried that Marco’s not “doing” anything. I’m confident that he will join me when he’s ready.
This unique approach to responding when our kids are disconnected is just one of many innovations that set NPT apart from the other therapies we’ve tried. In the weeks to come, I hope to share more of the inspiring ideas I’m learning in the NPT Connection Course. Stay tuned!