NEW BREMEN — Colleen Zunk, who works with autistic young people, says the difference between average preschool age children and autism spectrum students is a lack of social and communication skills.
“Generally a child who has autism spectrum disorder...(is) disconnected from other people and unable to interact with people and objects,” she said. “Instead of playing with a toy the way they normally would, the child uses the object in a way that stimulates the senses.”
Zunk spoke to a group of experienced professionals in autism Friday in New Bremen to bring up strategies that can help the preschool-age children the group works with to better understand and connect with children on the autism spectrum.
Zunk, who works with the Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters (PLAY) project, said that the world of an autistic child can be a lonely one.
Being next to one person or 100 people makes no difference for an autistic person because of the difficulty connecting with people. Instead the worldis full of “comfort zones.”
Comfort zones, as Zunk described them, are actions a child repeats or places a child goes, or even a way of zoning out into the distance that cuts the child off from the people around him or her, to the point they might as well not be there.
She gave examples of turning off and on a light switch, climbing stairs or opening and shutting a door. Often the children are attracted to lines or lining things up, she said.
These actions give the child a place to feel safe, but simultaneously can cut him or her off from family, friends or teachers.
The PLAY program, Zunk said, is a train-the-trainer program. During her three hour program, Zunk trained the professional caregivers in ways to connect with autistic children with the idea they would train the parents, and the family would become the primary people to work on the program with the children.
“Working at home, they’re in their safest place, most familiar place with people who love them most,” Zunk said.
Parents who are really dedicated to the program, she said, play 20 to 30 hours a week in what the program calls “floor time.” The intensive intervention, Zunk said, has brought children who are at the lowest levels of connection on the spectrum up to the highest levels.
But the program isn’t just applicable to autistic children, she said.
“For any kid you work with, and in life with people, the techniques we talk about today are meaningful,” she said.
What participants learned was how to identify comfort zones, and six different techniques to engage child.
“One of the techniques will create engagement with the child,” Zunk said.
One of the ways she mentioned was, after identifying a comfort zone to slowly enter it, but without forcing the child to interact.
Zunk showed a video of work she did with a child she said was on the lowest end of connection. He had retreated to a space by the window with a toy, unresponsive to attempts to connect.
In the example, Zunk entered the space with her back to the child, and let him come to her. When he did, she didn’t ask him to do anything. She sat in his space until finally he put her hand on a toy to help him use it. When he left the space, he allowed her to play with the toy with him.
A mother employing the technique in a video turned her child’s repetitive opening and shutting the bathroom door into a game they could play together. The bathroom to the child felt like a safe place, she explained. Taking away a comfort zone can actually escalate negative behaviors, Zunk said. Instead of forcing the child out of the bathroom, the mother would sit outside, or knock at the door.
“This mom spent a lot of time at that bathroom door,” Zunk said.
Other techniques Zunk described were narrating what a child was doing without telling the child what to do, but simply providing a running commentary.
Another strategy was helping a child with their comforting task. If the comforting task is putting cars in a line, for example, picking up cars and handing them to the child begins a connection.
A fourth way to connect was imitating what the child is doing by playing the same thing simultaneously, and then changing the activity with a variation on the same activity, in some way varying the play the child engages in as comfort play.
Daniel Evans, coordinator for Auglaize County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said the talk would be employed at the ground level with autistic children. Autistic Spectrum Disorder, he said, is increasing in young people — people who work with disabilities are seeing more and more cases. Helping these children connect socially was important to helping them succeed, he said.
“In this big bad world we have, if child can be bonded to family, how much more success he can have,” Zunk said.