Autism and the Power of Pictures

BroadSpectrumProject-2BoysPhotographs have the power to inform and sometimes change how we think about something. An example of the transformative potential of photographs is the Farm Security Administration Photography Project which was carried out during the Great Depression. In that project, the FSA commissioned photographers to visually document the daily lives of tenant farmers and sharecroppers to give Americans a front row seat on the devastating affects of a longstanding drought. Many believe the project sufficiently influenced the views of enough Americans to allow passage of the New Deal economic reforms.

A nonprofit in Massachusetts called the Broad Spectrum Project is harnessing the power of photographs to promote a broader and truer understanding of the day-to-day facets of living with Autism. The photographer behind the Project is Kristin Chalmers, who produces posed and un-posed photographs of children with Autism and their families. The organization’s mission statement is:

To provide authentic images of autistic people, so the world can see the many diverse faces of autism, begin to understand its effects, and support the cause.

To ensure the authenticity of their images, Kristin often takes photographs of children and families while in the middle of their daily activities, doing what they normally do or in celebratory events, such as a regional benefit walk for Autism Speaks. Chalmers was recently named the official photographer for Autism Speaks New England.

Kristin has a son with PDD/NOS and is sensitive to the sensory and situational challenges of children on the Spectrum when she organizes and schedules photo shoots. Photo subjects aren’t generally asked to pose in formal portrait-taking sessions because those sessions involve many elements which are upsetting to children on the Spectrum – dressing in uncomfortable, possibly sense-violating clothes, going to a strange place in an unfamiliar situation and sitting and smiling on cue in a studio with bright, hot lights.

For times when formal photo sessions are scheduled, Kristin is willing to change the schedule if the appointed day turns out to be one when the child has a hard time getting regulated. She works, not just to create insightful, poignant pictures, but also to make sure the photography process is a good and beneficial experience for the children she’s working with.
When you scroll through the Spectrum Project collection of pictures, you may first simply see that the photos are beautiful and well composed. Then, as you continue to look, you find yourself walking alongside the children and the adults who love and support them. You’re caught up in the spirit and rhythm of their lives.
This is a very good thing indeed. It’s a good thing for Spectrum families. Better yet, it’s a good thing for neurotypical individuals who struggle to understand Autism as more than a “light it blue” campaign during Autism Awareness month and news stories about children in crisis.
The website for the Broad Spectrum Project is: http://broadspectrumproject.org

Social Learning on the 9th Planet

ABOUT.US-INFOINTERVIEW-Hudson-withDavid12.8.12A family is hosting a friend for dinner. The teenager in the family watches as the friend reaches for a cookie and says, “You’d better not eat that or  you’ll gain more weight.”

A man is talking to a group of people at work about his recent vacation. A co-worker stands at the outer edge of the conversation group and interrupts the story, saying (a little too loudly) – “Hey, did any of you know that the last drive-in movie theatre in the state has decided to shut down for good?”

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The teenager and co-worker in these examples might be easily dismissed as rude or weird or tactless or stupid. Truth is, they’re perfectly normal for individuals with High Functioning Autism (HFA). Individuals with HFA possess many of the technical skills of conversation. They can say words clearly and use grammar correctly in long, complex sentences. However, they don’t inherently understand the rules for social language – such as tact and staying on topic — which allow them to engage in the appropriate back-and-forth conversations which are precursors to making friends and developing relationships.

Video Behavior Modeling is an Effective Tool for Teaching Social Skills
Individuals with HFA can learn social language skills when those skills are directly taught to them. Research studies conclude that one of the most effective strategies for teaching social language skills is video behavior modeling. In video behavior modeling, target behaviors are broken down into small component skills. For example, engaging in conversation involves the skills of maintaining eye contact with people in the conversation group and paying attention to what others are saying (joint attention). The skills of maintaining eye contact and paying joint attention to others are modeled in separate videos by a peer (peer modeling) or the student (self modeling). The student watches the skill demonstrations and then imitates the behaviors, individually and in conjunction with each other, until the skills seem familiar and easy to repeat.

In time, a student may be able to generalize the skill, meaning he/she may be able to move beyond using the skill in the specific practice setting to using it in new, unplanned situations. Generalization may or may not happen for individual students. Even if skills are generalized, the jury is still out on the question of whether ASD individuals ultimately learn to intrinsically understand social behaviors or simply perform them as they would a memorized script.

9th Planet Video Behavior Modeling Program – Adds Humor

There are several video modeling programs which can be used to teach social skills. One program, called 9th Planet, uses video modeling along with elements of humor to encourage sometimes reluctant ASD teenagers and young adults to actively engage in social skills lessons. The 9th Planet program uses a “stranger in a strange land” theme to demonstrate social skills in an entertaining way to spark student interest in the characters modeling the target behaviors. The videos feature a young man named Tad Shy who hails from the 9th Planet (hence the program name of 9th Planet). Tad is stuck on earth where social rules are different from the ones he used (or didn’t use) on the 9th Planet. He encounters social situations he doesn’t know how to manage and is coached by a talking, animated computer named Bob. The videos model a wide variety of social skills, from relatively simple skills such as eye contact to more complicated skills like recognizing false friends. One teaching series models social skills for students who are searching for jobs. Some of the job search topics include networking, working with a job search mentor and doing information interviews.

Learning By Doing

The learning in the program goes beyond video modeling and into learning by doing. Tad Shy, the central character, is played by a young man on the Spectrum who edits the videos and assists with script writing. Many of the videos feature young people on the Spectrum who play different characters in the videos. Learning plans include theatre-influenced activities such as role plays, conversation volleys and improvisation exercises in which students actively practice skills to reinforce the video learning. Students also work on projects to create their own social skills videos.

Locally Produced, Globally Sold

The 9th Planet videos and learning plans are produced by a family-owned company in Minnesota. Videos are shot at business locations throughout the Twin cities metropolitan area, including local libraries, independently-owned coffee shops, grocery stores, photography studios, candy stores, classic car shops and candy stores. Animation and animation voicing for the spaceship computer are created by one of the company producers.

The videos and learning plans are used in a growing number of secondary and post-secondary classrooms throughout the United States. They are also being sold in Australia, the U.K., Germany and Canada. This fall (2013), the company’s co-producer will teach program-based classes about the social skills involved in finding and keeping a job for the Autism Society of Minnesota.

Next Steps – Jobs and Tough Stuff Skills

9th Planet is now focusing on teaching the socially complicated skills which generally preoccupy transition-aged and young adult ASD learners. A skill set package about looking for jobs – Job Searching on the Spectrum – was released in Spring 2013. A follow-up skill set package about social skills used on the job is in the early phases of script writing and production. A single e-pub video and learning plan called Recognizing False Friends will soon be released in August 2013. Recognizing False Friends teaches some of the skills involved in discerning when a friend isn’t trustworthy and saying “no” to an untrustworthy friend when personal boundaries are crossed. The production team is also starting work on a series, requested by a local school, about dating and romantic relationships.

Bottom line — there’s a seemingly endless list of social language skills to be dissected and taught to teen and young adult ASD learners who struggle with communication and relationships. 9th Planet videos and learning plans use researched effective practices to teach those skills. Most importantly, the 9th Planet program is designed to make social learning a challenge but also fun – because if ASD students think social skill learning is only a matter of hard work, it won’t happen.