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Beyond Behavior and Language

by • December 1, 2014 • 2014, Babies, Big Kids, Cover Story, December 2014, Education & Learning, People & Profiles, Toddlers

Can social interaction-based teaching unlock new possibilities of independence for children with autism?

As heart wrenching as the prospect of an empty nest can be, parents are ultimately interested in seeing their children lead happily independent lives. For most parents independence is about their children simply growing up; becoming young adults who possess the life skills to support themselves and their own families is pretty much a matter of course. But for parents of children with cognitive disabilities like autism, independence for their children is not so certain. In many ways these parents’ primary question becomes, “Will my child be able to live an independent life?”

Dr. Karina Poirier, Psy.D., BCBA-D of Irvine’s Center for Social Cognition has made it her mission to help autistic and cognitively impaired children develop a capacity for independent thinking and the possibility of becoming independent adults. And parents are the key.

As a young intern in the Netherlands and France, Dr. Poirier had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented European experts in the field of cognitive impairment, who were helping these children learn and develop through social interactions.

Through this approach Dr. Poirier saw some amazing things happen. She watched as the I.Q.s of many children increased by as much as 40 points; she witnessed young adults with severe mental impairment stand up and give speeches and function socially in ways that people didn’t think was possible – all as a result of using social interaction-based teaching.

Inspired by her experience with these extreme cases and extreme results, for her doctorate Dr. Poirier decided to apply the method to children with autism. Most of the therapies in the U.S. for young children with autism focus on basic language and behavior. But Dr. Poirier believed she could get better results with the social interaction-based teaching she learned in Europe.

The result of her doctorate research was the Poirier Social Potential Curriculum, which teaches self-regulation as an intervention component in the early years. These are referred to as executive functions (EFs), and are often omitted as intervention goals for young children due to a misconception that EFs are considered higher-level mental functions, and they are believed to be acquired at a later development date. Because of this wrong assumption, many of the programs for young children diagnosed with autism focus on basic language and behavior. In contrast, research suggests a gradual development of mental processes that is influenced by experience and interactions with more knowledgeable adults or peers.

“Social interaction is something that we do naturally; we don’t even realize we’re doing it,” says Dr. Poirier. “To help children with cognitive impairment we have to stop and be aware of what we’re doing. We have to teach them, but we cannot think for them. Unfortunately most therapies and methods are teaching children not to think on their own, but to have other people think for them. My curriculum teaches kids how to think on their own.”

For years Dr. Poirier has been providing training for clinicians and in-person therapy for individuals, and she has traveled extensively, speaking and teaching about social interaction-based teaching. But parents are the ones she most wants to empower.

“Children can be taught how to think, how to interact with others and how to solve problems – but that happens by helping them build their understanding day by day. That’s why parents are the best teachers.”

She began providing workshops to parents wherein she would cover her curriculum, teaching parents how to be the teachers. Children with autism, says Dr. Poirier, have to be explicitly taught how to read emotions and integrate them; they need to learn how to remember the timeline of their day, to plan and solve problems along the way; they need to learn how to pretend, and build mental images – if they can’t do that, they can’t read other people’s intentions. These are the kinds of abilities that open up the possibility of independence in life.

“Normal play is how average children get a lot of the sensory input they need to naturally build these abilities, but children with autism, especially after they get labeled as autistic, get shifted into a cookie cutter treatment model and don’t get the same kind of play that other children get,” says Dr. Poirier. “We have to focus on developmental milestones, and help them go from one milestone to the next, rather than focusing on the label.”

When should parents begin working with their children through social interaction-based teaching? As early as possible, says Dr. Poirier, especially if the children have been identified as cognitively impaired or on the autism spectrum.

Dr. Poirier’s approach is working. Children who have attended her early intervention program are fully mainstreamed in general education. They are excelling academically and socially without classroom support. Their autism label is considered residual.

Parents can learn the Poirier Social Potential Curriculum in two ways: in-person and online. Dr. Poirier offers two-day workshops where parents and clinicians can learn the principles of social interaction-based teaching and how to implement them. The next workshop in Orange County will be held in Irvine March 19-20, 2015. For those who want to learn the curriculum on their own time, from anywhere, the Center for Social Cognition now offers topic-by-topic, easy-to-manage online modules. In both scenarios, the Poirier Social Potential Curriculum teaches strategies for:

• Enhancing and improving the development of basic cognitive skills through social interactions
• Integrating higher-order thinking skills into social learning experiences in order to promote self-awareness and self-regulation
• Developing the ability to empathize with others’ feelings, including complex emotions, such as pride and shame
• Taking others’ perspectives using interpersonal interactions
• Developing the essential skills for building meaningful relationships, such as lasting friendships
• Promoting language as a social tool for communicating messages in appropriate contexts to achieve social and communicative competence
• Acquiring conflict resolution skills to implement when problem situations with peers arise

Visit drkarinapoirier.com to register for a workshop or online learning, or to find out more about Dr. Karina Poirier and the Poirier Social Potential Curriculum. M

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