Aaron DelandMr. Aaron Deland, Los Angeles autism therapist, discusses developmentally based approaches to increasing social interaction skills that are applicable for children and adults with significant developmental delays such as autism spectrum disorders.

Anyone who has any experience with autism has heard the term Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA. ABA has been the most popular approach to developing social and communication skills for children identified with autism spectrum disorders for approximately forty years. ABA’s principles are rooted in the work of the noted psychologist, B.F. Skinner.

In general, ABA has a highly therapist-directed style that emphasizes making demands or requests of the child, and rewarding the child for compliance. The therapist has an agenda or curriculum of different cognitive and skill-based goals. The role of the child in most behaviorally based treatments is one of compliant trainee.

One product of this style of treatment is that it cultivates strong social responsiveness in children at the expense of developing strong social initiation skills. Sometimes people refer to social responsiveness as prompt dependence, meaning that a child is able to answer when asked a question or perform a given task when requested. However, the more crucial skills to develop involve helping the child learn to seek out people for interaction and interactive play.

This distinction between focusing on responding instead of initiating is one main difference between behaviorally based approaches and relationship or developmentally based treatments. Both methods embrace a child-centered focus, but the main difference is the philosophy underlying the way in which the therapist interacts with the child.

By adopting what I term a “motivate and wait” style of playing with children, I give them reasons and opportunities to become stronger social initiators. When a child with whom I am working presents me with an opportunity to engage him or her socially, it is up to me to make something fun happen so that the child realizes that the fun came directly from me.

Once I have found something the child is motivated to do, the key is to slow down the interaction and wait for him or her to initiate the game again through a social action. The key to the effectiveness of this style of relationship is that the playmate becomes the main attraction for the child as opposed to toys or other objects in the environment.

Many parents have bought toys with the hope that “this will be motivating enough to make my child be social with me.” It seems to make sense that if your child loves the movie Toy Story, it’s a good idea to provide all of the characters from the movie for him or her to play with. We like to see our kids happy or motivated, and for brief periods of time they want something we have to offer and that feels good. They light up a little, they may even look at us or smile or say something. But just as quickly as they show up and engage, they are gone, absorbed in the toy and the delightful moment of social exchange has passed.

Furthermore, the novelty of the toy will wear off and the toy will no longer stimulate your child. Before you know it, you are caught in the dreaded toy buying vortex of doom! Your house becomes some sort of inter-dimensional dumping ground for once-loved, now rejected toys.

When you provide really motivating objects for your child, he attends to the object rather than to you. Over time, his social experience of you becomes that of a really friendly vending machine. There is nothing wrong with that, except that a parent’s relationship with their child should be something more on the order of 5% friendly vending machine and 95% mentor, friend, guide and confidante.

Toys and games are just a vehicle for social interaction. It’s a mistake to be upstaged by the toys you give your children. For example, if my child loves Cookie Monster, I am not going to go out and get ten of the coolest Cookie Monster dolls and games I can find.

Instead, I’ll get one really simple Cookie Monster puppet and practice my Cookie Monster voice until it’s as if I have blue fur growing out of my ears and a serious craving for cookies! I will memorize the “C is for Cookie” song. I will, for all intents and purposes, become Cookie Monster. I will become the thing my child is interested in.

When we put the emphasis on the toy or the game instead of on us, we are inadvertently sending the message to our children that we endorse them enjoying things more than people. The toys, games and props you use are only there to make you more appealing and to motivate your child to be a social being.

If your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine and you come into the room with a battery operated, talking Thomas the Tank, where do you think your child’s attention will be for the next five hours?

We are trying to build a desire within our children to want relationships with people. What people provide materialistically in a relationship is a very small part of the attraction. All of the greatest toys in the world will not create relationships; in fact they create competition for our child’s attention.

I’m not saying that you should never give your children toys. What I am saying is that when you are playing with your children for the sake of their social development, you want to be the most motivating toy in the room. The goal is to get your child to play with you directly and give him or her reasons to reference you more.

The reason new toys are so appealing is that they are unknown and interesting. Because of this, they actually distract from social interaction rather than supporting it. Choose toys for your child that will support your person to person, face to face play. You want to think of toys as props and tools for you, rather than the driving motivation for your child. Remember the driving motivation should be you.

Here are some good examples of toys and activities that stimulate rather than detract from social interaction: dress up clothes, masks, paper and markers, blocks, blanket and pillows, puppets, balloons, plastic food, songs, and make believe.
One little girl I work with, Sam, loves Sesame street, especially Elmo and Cookie Monster. If I gave her a figurine of Cookie Monster or Elmo she would probably play exclusively and repetitively with it.

One day I drew two pictures—one of Elmo’s head and one of Cookie Monster’s head and started to feed each of them pretend cookies. After each cookie I pretended to feed them, I sang their signature song. Sam laughed and giggled at the sight of this. Before I knew it, she was playing with me and wanting to feed cookies to the cut outs herself. Her use of eye contact increased as well as her spontaneous language.

More importantly she was aware of wanting this interaction from me. I was the one making interaction worth her time. That is a key aspect of a relationship based approach to interaction: be aware of your child’s motivations, and use them to make yourself more inviting and intriguing to your child.

When I say “It’s not about the toy,” I mean that people are far more dynamic, fun, interesting and useful than anything a toy company could ever produce. Besides, no toy can teach a child to be a social being—only people possess that magic!

Aaron Deland has been an autism therapist for more than 10 years. He is trained in the Son-Rise Program® (a relationship based treatment), behaviorally-based methods (Discreet Trial, Verbal Behavior and Fluency), and has worked and trained at the Autism Treatment Center of America®. He has worked with more than five hundred children and adults with autism spectrum disorders, logging more than four thousand hours of one to one interactive time.

To connect with Aaron Deland:
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Phone: 310-721-5733