Dr. Heather MacKenzie

Reaching and Teaching Children with Autism and other Special Needs

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Beliefs and philosophy

After more than two decades of work with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I know that we cannot place limits on their abilities.  We should never say “never”.  As one parent said to me, “Never is such an arrogant word!”. We do not know enough about learning and the human brain and spirit to place limits on anyone’s learning.

I know that people with ASD can learn and they want to learn.  I have had adults tell me that a child is ‘lazy’ or ‘manipulative’ but I don’t agree.  If we set up the environment and activities properly and keep our expectations high, the child’s true motivation to learn will be revealed.

Without question, people with ASD have difficulty learning some things. They have difficulty with communication, social skills and behavioral and cognitive flexibility.

But … we should not look at these characteristics solely as difficulties. They can be more productively viewed as reflecting preferences. From this perspective, people with ASD prefer to:

  • have some alone time; being around other people too much can drain their energy and be stressful.
  • warm up to people and experiences, stand back and see what is happening before taking part.
  • pay attention to details other people may miss; sometimes, this attention to detail can capture too much attention and cause people with ASD to miss other important features.
  • understand the logic and reasoning for things before deciding if they want to try them out.
  • have things decided and to stick with a plan; changes are not easy to handle.

In addition, people with ASD have significant learning strengths. They typically include:

  • visual/spatial abilities: seeing is truly believing and it also improves understanding and remembering.
  • musical/rhythmic abilities: using melody and tempo can enhance processing and comprehension.

Based on my experience and research, I have developed the Learning Preferences and Strengths (LPS) model for enhancing learning and development in children with ASD. The LPS model honors and nurtures each child’s learning preferences and strengths and uses them to advance development in other areas.

By using the LPS model as a ‘lens’ for viewing the person with ASD, we can determine the types of structure, content and processes that are most productive for advancing learning and development.  We can also understand his or her behavior and reactions.  Honoring the child’s learning preferences and strengths can help him or her maintain a sense of equilibrium and calm even while ‘stretching’ to new levels.

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Here is a wonderful example of strengths in people with autism which, when nurtured, can lead to amazing things.  This is a recent clip about Stephen Wiltshire who is now a (more than) self-sufficient artist: Stephen Wiltshire

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The LPS model is discussed at greater length in my book, Reaching and Teaching the Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers (2008).  Follow this link for more information on the book and, to purchase it, follow this link.

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