Thursday, March 4, 2010

The DIR Model and Autism - Does it Work?

Last week I had the opportunity to present, for the second time, at CasaBlanca Academy, a small, innovative school for children with autism in Hollywood, Florida.

It's not news that autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders have increased dramatically since the 1980s. The nagging question, though, is why. Genes certainly play a part, and so do environmental factors (but NOT vaccines!) But no one can point to a single factor, or even a cluster of triggers and say, "Aha! There we have it! Remove that and ASD will be eradicated!"

So while the hunt continues for the cause of ASD, parents, caregivers and educators on the ground are left to struggle with the effects. And those effects can be devastating.

Currently, the most popular method for working with children with autism is based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), but recent questions about the ABA model sparked others to devise new ways of working with autistic kids. One of those is a relationship model, or Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-based (DIR) method – a model founded by veteran infant development specialist and child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan. It's based on the premise that an exchange of emotional signals forms the basis of learning in childhood. The method trains parents and teachers to engage the emotions of even the most withdrawn toddlers by getting down on the floor and entering the child's world. “Floortime,” as Dr. Greenspan calls it, helps turn repetitive acts – like lining up blocks -  into playful interactions.

CasaBlanca Academy follows the DIR approach as applied by Celebrate the Children, a New Jersey school that has achieved some impressive results. The school was featured in a 2006 article in TIME magazine (well worth reading!) that investigated new methods for teaching children with ASD. Monica Osgood, the director of CTC, serves as consultant to CasaBlanca Academy and has assisted the school in mentoring staff and implementing an innovative curriculum.

Jim Barrett and Stacey Coulter are two of the parents who founded CasaBlanca (they're also my old Duke college buddies). They did so when they were unable to find a program suitable for their son Liam anywhere in South Florida. In just 18 months since the school opened, they say, the school has made significant progress in reaching its goals.

One of the reason's for the school's success is the energetic and inspiring lead teacher, Jennie Trocchio. She says: “It is truly an honor to work at CasaBlanca Academy, a school that views each student as a unique individual with limitless capabilities. Every single day since the school’s opening in August of 2008, I have had the ultimate privilege to encourage and educate my students through meaningful activities that allow the children to build relationships and blossom before my eyes. CasaBlanca Academy is unlike any school I have ever experienced, and the results we have witnessed are unparalleled."

I can't say whether it's the DIR method itself or simply its fabulous teachers that makes CasaBlanca such a wonderful place to be. But that, assuredly, it is. During the too-short morning I spent at the school, I got the chance to participate in a dance session, lead story time,  observe math and language arts seat work, and get involved in role play.

What I enjoyed most of all , though, was the spontaneous hugs, the wide smiles and the peals of laughter that rang throughout the classroom. This was a joyous, happy place, despite the very real issues being dealt with every day. I can't wait to back and visit again!

ADDENDUM: In doing the research for this blogpost, I was pleased and surprised to discover that some of the current scientific research exploring the DIR approach is being conducted right here in my home town of Toronto, at York University. The Mission Statement for York's Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI), which is conducting this and other studies into "the evolution of symbols, language and intelligence," makes for illuminating reading.



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