By Ann S. Roberts, PhD —
The Human Spectrum and the Autism Spectrum – what is the difference? Here at our school we don’t make such distinctions as we go about our daily life and work. Our school is called the Boston Higashi School and it is based on the principle of Daily Life Therapy®, which our founder, Dr. Kiyo Kitahara called “heart to heart education”. She believed that education for the autistic child reflected an educational model of what should be done for a normal child. “I have always made normal children a mirror in which I could reflect the image at which to aim for autistic children’s development. Needless to say, there is no difference in my education policy for normal and autistic children. They are all children and I educated them all carefully” (Daily Life Therapy, p3).
By this Dr. Kitahara meant that the education of children with autism was the same as that for any other child because these children were simply children first and that autism described just a small part, of who each child was, of what each could do, and of what the potential for growth and life of each had to offer. She felt that it was the responsibility of educators to educate the whole child, not just to “correct their deficits”.
Her model, called Daily Life Therapy® was built upon three principles, or “pillars” necessary for the sound growth and development of all children. The first principle is building physical stamina through vigorous physical exercise, something all children need and typical children get through the natural rhythm of play and rest. Vigorous exercise increases strength, stamina, energy, concentration and attention, and in addition adjusts mood, balance and coordination, bodily rhythms of life (eating and sleeping), physical health, sensory-integration, behavioral/emotional self-regulation, cooperation with others, having fun, developing a sense of mastery and pride – to name some of the most significant areas of impact. This is as true for children all along the autism spectrum as well as for those on the full human spectrum. The second principle is emotional bonding, the building of a relationship of reciprocal trust and understanding between student and teacher that is deep and caring, beyond words certainly in the case of our non-verbal students but this applies equally to all children in all schools. “Heart to heart” education means deeply respecting the individuality of each child and making sure that they know what they can expect from you and what you expect from them so that trust and security is established as a firm basis from which to risk learning new things. The third principle is intellectual stimulation, which is a principle of educating children in context so that what they learn in school can be naturally generalized to the world around them, establishing a natural curiosity about and awareness of their surroundings. Intellectual stimulation is not limited to academic subjects but to the full range of fine arts, music, and technology as well as physical education all taught as skills to encourage brain-based development.
How do we get apparently deregulated children to learn? How does the process start? It starts with educating autistic children not in an isolated one-on-one manner but in a group as with typical children, with their friends, having fun and participating together in a stimulating vigorous activity, young child chasing around and getting chased around by their teachers. When they have done this for a while all children are naturally hungry and will eat better food and will be less “selective” and “picky” eaters and will eat more healthy foods, particularly if adults put such foods in front of them and do not offer unhealthy foods to them. After a period of time, of days spent this way, they will be naturally tired at the end of the day and will also feel “satisfied” and will sleep better at night. Consequently, they will be better rested the next day and will gradually become more alert during the day and more able to participate intellectually in activities of learning. This process is called “establishing a proper biological “rhythm of life” and applies to both typical and autistic children who have not yet established such a rhythm. It is how parents raise their typical children and how autistic children also need to be raised, but more structure needs to be provided to establish such a rhythm for them.
Similarly, in other areas, we attempt to provide a broad-based education for our autistic students that mirrors the education that typical students would get. These students are part of the full human spectrum and are educated as children in an atmosphere of normality. They learn by being motivated in the same ways as their peers: by praise, by developing real skills, by a sense of pride and accomplishment leading to self-esteem and self-confidence. They are exposed to activities that are stimulating and FUN, with peers and friends, learning in classes, moving around in their school and going out into the community to practice use their skills in new settings.
In many programs, activities are “adapted” to indicate that students with autism may have reduced levels of functioning in a particular area and need extra help, such as with motor skills. Our students, who come to our program needing such extra help, get it through “normalized” and “enhanced” activities, which bespeaks to our view of how autism is just a part of the human spectrum. Rather than reduce PE programming, we teach our students to ride age-appropriate equipment such as razor scooters, two-wheel bikes, and even unicycles for extra fun. An example of how this can help not only with motor skills but socially came from a report from the parents of one family after their son learned to ride the unicycle and he was out in the driveway playing. His older brother’s friends who had never included him in any activities before noticed what he could do. They were all amazed and began to talk to him befriend him, leaving both our student and his brother feeling proud and happy.
Dr. Steven Shore, a prominent spokesperson with Asperger’s, recalls how, when he was diagnosed, it was like the “autism bomb” hit. He calls that one end of the spectrum. What is the other end? I like to think it is You and Me. We all have a mix of skills and abilities, of things we do well and things we do not do so well. Think of a spectrum as a ray of light broken apart into many colors. Each color is a different skill, which we all show to different degrees in various ways. In other words, we all share the same traits, expressed according to our capabilities and styles, that is our character. Character consists of the stable forms of functioning in different spheres that shape what we do – all along the human spectrum.