Our 10 year old son, Noah, was diagnosed with developmental delays at age 3 and with autism at age 5. Somewhere in between those first few years, my wife and I made the decision that we would not remain isolated in our home for the rest of our lives simply because we had a child with autism who was completely dependent upon us for every aspect of his care. Unfortunately, it took the first few years of living with autism in a world of isolation to teach us this. Once we began connecting with other families who could relate to our struggles, and learning how to survive the challenges that are often associated with maintaining an active family social life, we began living again. As a family of six, strong social connections are integral to our way of life.
Through the help of the knowledgeable and caring therapists at the Shafer Center for Early Intervention, my wife and I became students of applying the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis to teach Noah the skills necessary to function in the community at large. Now we take him with us on shopping trips, to sporting events, concerts, festivals and carnivals, and to his favorite…the grocery store. Noah also plays adapted ice hockey for the Baltimore Saints; he takes therapeutic horseback riding lessons at Maryland Therapeutic Riding; he takes swim lessons at Kids First Swim School; and plays adapted baseball with The League of Dreams. He attends church every single Sunday at LifePoint, and participates in 2 or more 5K’s each year with his family. Just a few short years ago, I do not think either one of us would have predicted the degree in which Noah would be involved in his community.
Despite the fact that Noah may still display challenging behaviors due to his cognitive delays, sensory issues, and inability to communicate in a way that is universal, we still believe it is important that he becomes and remains an active participant in our community. Our commitment to including him in every aspect of our social lives is twofold. First, we believe that as our son and as a human being, he is deserving of every opportunity we can provide him to be an active participant in his environment and immediate community. Second, we are committed to promoting autism awareness. People who know nothing about autism have so much to learn from children like Noah who seemingly have so little to offer. “Lessons” related to compassion, perseverance, and humility, are often lessons overlooked as they relate to essential life skills. We honestly believe that the lives of the people in the community whom Noah has touched are now better people for knowing him.
David Savick Noah’s dad
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For Noah the world is sometimes confusing and over stimulating, but navigating his environment is vital. A simple family chore such as doing the weekly grocery shopping can provide dozens of learning opportunities for Noah. But first, you need a plan!
We wanted to decrease Noah’s “maladaptive” behaviors such as body dropping, grabbing at items, or darting away and increase Noah’s engagement and “purposeful” behaviors during the trip. Examples of purposeful behaviors include: pushing the grocery cart, carefully picking up items that are pointed out to him, placing them gently into the cart, and staying connected to his father through following directions and responding to gestures and body language.
The goal is to expose Noah to a world outside of his familiar school and home and increase his purposeful behaviors and engagement to others and his surroundings.
The approach that gets Noah to this goal is Applied Behavior Analysis*. We determine the cause of Noah’s maladaptive behaviors and then create a plan to teach replacement behaviors through positive reinforcement. The probability that Noah’s appropriate grocery shopping trip behaviors will increase in the future depend on the type and level of positive reinforcement delivered after such behaviors. For Noah, rhythmic joint compressions, tangible ‘fidget’ items, smiles, high fives, and rhythmic talking or singing have been proven to act as reinforcement for these target behaviors. Preventative measures are of utmost importance as well. It is vital that the caregiver creates structure and routine and remains calm and organized. Thinking five steps ahead isn’t too bad either! The goal is not to stock the entire kitchen, but rather to have Noah work on generalizing skills from home and school, like following simple instructions and responding to gestures. This gives Noah more opportunities to grow and become more independent.
-Maureen Rushton Noah’s Behavior Consultant, The Shafer Center for Early Intervention
* Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a science that involves using modern behavioral learning theory to modify overt behaviors.