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ASD

Film review – Life, Animated

Regressive Autism

One thing that ‘Life, Animated‘ has in common with the book ‘George and Sam’, which I reviewed here a couple of months back, is the idea of an ‘autistic crash’ – a regression, where parents ‘lose’ the child that they thought was growing up in their home, and inherit an obviously autistic child with a very different developmental outlook. Charlotte Moore describes her son Sam as having had a significant crash at around the age of 6. Owen Suskind, at the centre of ‘Life, Animated’, had his crash at the age of 3, which is much more typical according to what little research there is on the topic.

In ‘Regression in Autistic Spectrum Disorders’ (Neuropsychology Review, 12/2008), the author, Gerry Stefanatos, talks about the utility of home video in supporting the ‘enigmatic scenario’ of autism following after a period of normal development. We are lucky enough to have some in this film, as Owen’s early course of development is described through interviews with him, with his parents, and in home videos.

‘Regressive autism’ is a contentious idea, tied in as it is with ‘acquired autism’ through immunisation and also with gut-flora theory (which is actually not entirely outside of the academic mainstream). As such it is extremely interesting to see that there exists video of a young Owen playing rough and somewhat imaginatively with his dad, with fairly speedy turn-taking and some sensitive adaptions and adoptions of his father’s words and actions. The contrast with later videos of Owen, with his now unusual gait, his head-down demeanour and his ‘slow-or-no’ response to social stimuli, is strong, and frankly rather compelling for those like me who wondered whether regression in ASD is really a thing or not.

This film is part biopic – showing him making his way in the world as a young, autistic adult; part fantasy animation – taking his ideas about the autistic mind and animating them; and part documentary – as he makes his way in the world as a young adult.

Stay in character

Owen’s dad says that ‘Owen vanished’ at the age of three. He stopped sleeping. His motor skills deteriorated. His language processing broke down and he started reciting gibberish. Owen now recalls that people were ‘garbled’ and he could not understand what they were saying. He was diagnosed with autism and therapy commenced, with his parents utterly devastated. The only thing that calmed the young Owen was watching animated Disney films. 

[d͡ʒusə vəʊs] – “Just your voice”. This is what the little mermaid had to exchange to become human. These were also Owen’s first recognisable words in this era. The paediatrician called it echolalia, which of course it was. 

Then after one of his brother’s Walter’s birthday parties, Owen commented that ‘Walter doesn’t want to grow up, like Mowgli or Peter Pan’. This is the moment that Owen’s magnificent dad realised that Disney was not just a refuge for Owen, but that it was something that he was starting to use as a mirror for his own feelings. A window opened, and the whole family began to speak to Owen in Disney dialogue.  

Cue Owen’s dad acting out the role of Iago, the villian’s sidekick in Aladdin. He is incredible. What a playmate he must have been for Owen. 

The film shows how Owen has interpreted the films – Hercules is about not giving up. The Jungle Book is about wanting to have friends. Pinocchio is about wanting to be a real boy. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about persecution and self-identity. Dumbo and Bambi are about breaking out on your own. The Little Mermaid is about being broken hearted. 

Owen has internalised every moment of the films, he lives the emotions, and he replays them to make sense of his own life. He finds that the exaggerated expression and emotion in the animations assists him in his interpretations. 

[From a speech therapy specific perspective, it’s interesting to meet Michelle Garcia Winner (she of the brilliant You Are A Social Detective book) as she delivers some input to the adult Owen as his ‘Social Thinking Evaluator’.]

Making an impression

For autistic kids, words, interactions, social thoughts, they all run by at a rate of knots, like a dizzying ride on a roller-coaster. The sheer simplicity of an animated social encounter, say between Simba and the threatening Scar, is what makes it so irresistible to the autistic mind. Add in the fact that it can be replayed, unchanging, as many times as you like and you have a useful learning tool for autistic kids.  

Crystallising social thoughts is at the heart of a range of approaches that aim to help autistic kids understand why people do the things they do, including Superflex, Friendship Terrace, and Comic Strip Conversations. Even outside of these formal approaches, adults working with children with autism are always having to find ways to get the child to chase back the vapour trails of social thought. They do this by choosing good play partners for the child, emphasising what that child was thinking, why they thought that what they did, why they did and said what they did and said, what they want them to do, and so on. Different children need a different slant to make this information interesting and meaningful, and we need to be alert to that child’s social references if we are to make an impact on their thinking. 

Donguri Wobbly Wooden Toy Review

Here’s disturbingly real video review of a delightful toy that I picked up on holiday in Tokyo. It’s called ‘Donguri’ and it’s made by Comaam. Anyone remember the Weebles? Well these are similar, but a lot cuter:

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As I state, in a fairly incoherent manner in the video, these sorts of toys are great for helping children who have attention difficulties to take turns in a small group, and children who have difficulties initiating interaction might  be encouraged to request them (verbally or through picture exchange).

ASD Workstation Colourful Semantics Activity – Free Download

The more verbal autistic children that I work with seem to develop independence and pride in their work when their school adopts a TEACCH / Workstation-type approach. However, many of the activities that are available to download of the internet aren’t, for want of a better word, very ‘language-y’. For an example, take a look at the wealth of ‘match the shape’ / ‘match the colour’ activities that are made by Twinkl.

In order to redress this a little, I have started to provide the children with my own workstation activities where I take the aspects of these activities that I like – the fact that they are self-contained, self-checking and fairly satisfying to complete, and added in a dash of language. Today it’s Colourful Semantics. Next I will make something that is designed to develop superordinate and sub-ordinate category knowledge.

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Once again this activity requires you to own the Black Sheep Press Verbs Pack. This costs £15 plus VAT and it’s a must-buy for anyone working beyond the single word level with children.

The specific prompt pictures that I have selected are as follows:

Subject – Verb: man running, baby waving, girl crying
Subject – Verb – Object: boy throwing ball, boy cutting cake, girl eating banana, man reading newspaper, bear pushing pig, girl kicking balloon, man brushing dog
Subject – Verb – Location: man sitting on chair, girl sleeping on sofa, cat jumping over snowman, boy falling off chair, girl hiding behind tree, dog hiding under bed, cat standing on table.

As these pictures are copyright Black Sheep Press, I haven’t included these pictures in the download version – you will have to cut your own ones out and stick them in.

Individual pictures are provided of the subjects, verbs, objects and locations. Each page has a frame which the child can use to arrange the pictures, as well as the answer. In my version I have placed the frame behind a sheet of plastic, which has velcro spots for the elements of the predicate, as well as a flap to cover / reveal the answer. You will need to limit the number of pictures that you provide to the child so that the choice is not overwhelming.

secondsvopic

You can download the activity here.

Making things happen with words

I received a delivery this morning: 10 massive balloons. I’ll take the elastic bands off before I use them. These were just £2.29 from Amazon. They’ll last hundreds of sessions of language stimulation.

I use these in much the same way as I use my bubble trumpet: to elicit basic words from children who really want to make things happen. So this is words such as ‘balloon’ to request for me get the balloon out of the bag, ‘blow’ or ‘bigger’ before each breath for me to make them bigger, and ‘ready, steady go’ for me to let the balloon go for it to jerk dramatically around the room.

This represents a great deal of language from one piece of rubber. The child has to go via me to get what they want, and most children really do want to see the balloon whizz around (I do remember one child who dry heaved while I began blowing the balloon up… I tried something else with that child). There is also an element of cause and effect with the balloon – the child that requests ‘go’ without first asking ‘blow’ will just see me drop an uninflated balloon on the floor.

This type of approach (holding off before you give something motivating, and always expecting a little more from the child who is attempting to request) is ideal for children with autistic spectrum disorder and more generally for those who lack experience of directing the behaviour of others through language. These children are all, to one degree or another, inexperienced or disorganised with using language to request. They might look at your hand, pull your hand, get frustrated, go inert, do a shake of their body, and so on. They might use words, but at the wrong time. All of this can be seen as being partly intentional behaviour. The therapist’s job is to model the words (or in some cases, the signs), and wait for the child to make the leap and use them.

The rationale for interaction groups

Some children are hard to engage with. They want their episodes of play and interaction to give rise to warm, familiar feelings. They want their cognitive landscape to be of their own design. In terms of the ideas they are prepared to have, they are in a warm, fuzzy feedback loop. We might see the domain of their experience as being worryingly limited, but if that experience is everything to a child, then that child is all-powerful and all-knowing. Intrusions and impositions are generally unwelcome. He just can’t accept that a decent idea can come out of something as intrinsically random as a person. If we don’t find the right way to make him feel comfortable, the ideas and the experiences we seek to offer him run the risk of becoming a source of irritation. He could already be fading us out, back into the background.

So when we are working in one-to-one with a child, and when we are helping that child as part of a very small group, he will explore new mental territories with more vigour if we can dress the experience in familiar clothes. In one-to-one, this means echoing what he does does, enjoying it, and trying to make him understand that we are enjoying it. The closer we can get to his way of thinking, the easier it will be for him to incorporate and attribute any variations, extensions and explanations we might occasionally proffer. He will find it easier still if he sees us as being interesting and emotionally available.

In a social interaction group, the above still stands, but the rules and structure, repeated within and over the short sessions, themselves feed into the child’s wish to have some degree of ownership over an essentially familiar experience. In one way then, the aim of a block of social interaction groups is for the patterns and rhythms that underlie them to be as apparent to the children as they can be. To this end, we:

  • Use visual timetables. These give the children a readout of what the current activity is, and how far through the activities they have come.
  • Repeat roughly the same activities, in the same order, from session to session.
  • Have a definitive sense of completion and finality after each activity.
  • Promote repetition within activities by offering opportunities for each child to have a turn, and then to experience the activity again as an observer.

The lower the level of a child’s attention and social interaction skills, the more play all of the above will have. It never stops being true though – everyone knows that children generally do better when their environment is thoughtfully structured. Adults who work with children would do well to remember this as they go about deciding just how much novelty they can get a certain child or group of children to take on board in a given session.