13 December 2010

Autism: a new approach

Health24 recently had the opportunity to witness the effects of a novel approach to autism first-hand.


A video clip of an autistic child who made such remarkable progress within a few months that he could laughingly play with his sister and mom, touched parents, teachers and therapists attending a public lecture in Cape Town.

It was part of a week-long conference on the DIR/Floortime model of treatment for children with challenges in relating and communicating, including autism spectrum.

The presenter, Rosemary White, who owns a paediatric physical and occupational therapy centre in Seattle, WA, is involved in various other programmes and councils in this field, as well as at the University of Washington's School of Nursing Infant Mental Health Certificate Programme.

In the first clip White showed a case study of a five-year-old autistic boy, whose seven-year-old sister tries her utmost to play with him. He fleetingly looks at her when she initiates games but constantly turns away, resulting in his sister becoming despondent, sighing deeply.

Three other recordings, made over a period of six months, were shown. According to White the treatment involved looking at every subtle clue to establish how he communicates, as it was never clear what his intentions were. Members in the audience commented on the remarkable improvement in his responses, copying action around him, prolonged shared attention and ability to read the intention of others. His face also showed expression, and he could show what he wanted.

Then in the last clip, his mom is joining in the fun and his sister is hiding in a hammock, and at last her brother takes the initiative, reaches out and finds her - there you are, he cries with joy.

Tailored intervention

According to White this progress is thanks to the DIR model, which stands for Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-based. Developed by the acclaimed American Dr Stanley Greenspan and Dr Serena Wieder this model is a framework that helps therapists, teachers and parents conduct a comprehensive assessment and develop an intervention programme tailored to the challenges and strengths of autistic children. It builds on social, emotional and intellectual capacities rather than focusing on skills and isolated behaviours.

Both case studies White showed at the conference were of young autistic children in play therapy situations. Asked about this intervention in the lives of families, she said when the parents were in partnership with the therapist they felt their power of being with their children, they understood how to relate with them and to support their overall development.

A lot of the family's stress living with autism is reduced because it enables the parent to see the strengths in their child rather than just challenges. With better understanding, the need to orchestrate the child's world (to avoid upsets) gets diminished.

Although only recordings of young children who are fairly verbal were shown, this model can have an impact on other children on the spectrum too, as well as older children, says the organiser of this conference, Polka Spot Early Intervention Centre in Cape Town.

Learn more

Polka Spot provides multiple therapeutic services under one roof. Read more on, or for information contact or tel. 021 422 1756. Read more about DIR/Floortime at: or

(Betsie Kilian for Health24, December 2010)

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