We all like good news and our guest today has reasons to be happy. Congratulations to Jonathan Alderson! JPX Media Group announced the winners and finalists of THE 2012 INTERNATIONAL BOOK AWARDS (IBA) on May 23, 2012. Jonathan’s book, Challenging the Myths of Autism: Unlock New Possibilities and Hope, won for the Parent Resource Category. Jonathan was also honoured to be a Royal LePage “Local Hero” and received congratulations from the former Mayor of the City of Toronto, Ontario David Miller for his work.
In March of 2012, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s press release says they estimate that 1 in 88 children in the United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder. Most folks will cross paths in their daily lives with individuals who are autistic. Mr. Alderson’s Challenging the Myths of Autism clearly dispels long-held misconceptions and damaging stereotypes. It will help readers better understand and accept the behaviors and needs of people with autism. I just reviewed Jonathan’s book and highly recommend it to everyone, not just parents, but also caregivers, teachers and healthcare professionals who work with individuals on the spectrum. Read my review here.
Interview with Jonathan Alderson Part 1
Lorna: Welcome to our Author Interview Series! I read you are based in Ontario; therefore, were you born and educated in Canada? Tell us about your studies and places of work. It is not only the treatment of autism in Canada and the United States you are familiar with as you have worked in Europe also.
Jonathan Alderson >> My family emigrated from England to Canada before I was one year old, so, yes, I was educated in Canada. But the truth is, there really isn’t much in the way of courses or programs you can take in Canada for autism treatment specifically. In the early 90’s when I had just finished my undergraduate studies there was in fact not a single program focused on autism treatment. Now of course governments, like Ontario’s, have been pressured by parents to create and fund behavioural treatment programs and as such they’ve also put in place one-year diploma/ certificate training programs for students to learn to be behavioural therapists.
I had no intention to focus on autism. I was headed into a career in education and psychology and aspired to design curriculum for school boards. But during a summer course in Massachusetts, I was introduced to the Son-Rise Program. I was invited to observe a play-therapy session and was struck by not only the fun that the therapist was having with the little boy with autism but also the overtly positive attitude she had toward him. She was strongly focused on accepting his differences and on expressing love in every moment of the play. This stood in stark contrast to the dry theory I had just read for four years in my university text books and I decided in that moment to sign up for a one-year training at the Son-Rise Program. I ended up training and working there for eight years because of the in-depth training they offered and the amazing results I witnessed!
During this time, I read as much as I could on autism and attended conferences, lectures, and listened closely to what parents had to say. I learned that there were many other choices for treatment beyond the remarkable work we did at the Son-rise Program. And in particular, I became very interested in the biomedical treatment of autism and ultimately in how to merge and combine various approaches and strategies into a multi-disciplinary approach.
It was time for me to explore these ideas more fully, so I spent a year in Australia and worked with several families there followed by a year in England working with about seventy-five children and families across the United Kingdom before undertaking a Masters degree at Harvard University. It was during these years that I began to design what is now called the Intensive Multi-Treatment Intervention Program (IMTI). I have been designing and directing treatment programs for children diagnosed with autism based here in Toronto for the past ten years, and have been inspired by the great development and learning that happens when various strategies are coordinated effectively. I wrote more about my background and what led me to this work in the preface of Challenging the Myths of Autism.
Lorna: Education has many different fields of interest. Tell us what influenced you to “specialize” in the treatment of children with autism. You have worked internationally, giving seminars and training workshops in Europe, the Middle East, Australia and Mexico, are all countries on the same wave length when it comes to autism?
Jonathan Alderson >> I’ll answer this in two parts – First, as I explained, although I didn’t pursue studies in autism directly, it turns out that all of the different courses and fields of study along the way have helped me to understand the emerging and expanding field of autism research and treatment. Courses in psychology helped me understand the emotional and psychosocial dynamics that play a part in children’s development. Counselling courses gave me tools to listen more carefully to parents and therapists. Listening without judgment to other professionals and researchers who might hold opposing views has been critical to better understand how many ideas can actually be complimentary rather than opposing. From an early age, I had also been interested in biology and took courses right into undergraduate level. Having a basic knowledge of biology and physiology has allowed me to attend conferences and seminars and to read research on biomedical treatments and emerging medical advances. One of my big wishes is for governments to recognize the great potential of biomedical treatment of autism, especially when combined with both play- and behavioural-therapies. Autism as we know is an extremely complex and multi-faceted disorder which has kept me engaged for over twenty years. It seems that most of my studies and training before even being introduced to autism were all important pieces that I’ve drawn upon in my work. However, it is the parents’ dedication and abiding love of their kids and the amazing unique children I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years that have inspired me to keep working hard to learn more.
In terms of how autism is viewed in different countries and cultures: there is a good book by Richard Grinker called Unstrange Minds in which, as an anthropologist and a father of a daughter with autism, he looks at this very question you’ve asked. It turns out that there are definitely different ways that cultures have framed what autism is. Some believe the children are possessed by an evil spirit that needs to be cleansed while others believe the children are enlightened and are born to teach the community important lessons. In my own experience of working in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the USA, and Europe it’s clear that there is a range of judgment versus acceptance in society. Some communities promote acceptance of differences and embrace inclusion policies in their schools and in public while other societies are still acting from beliefs that the autistic behaviours are bad and inappropriate and should be stopped or hidden away. However, I think we have to be careful not to judge other cultures too quickly without first understanding the complex social dynamics that hold belief systems in place. As I mention in my book, as recently as the 1980’s there was still a law in effect in Canada to force-sterilize adults deemed mentally retarded, many of whom would have had autism. We all have a long way to go, even in Canada, towards greater understanding and acceptance of the unique differences, strengths and challenges of people with autism.
As a strong promoter of a multi-treatment approach, knowing how much better multi-treatment programs are than mono-treatments like ABA alone, it is frustrating to see our system settle on just one treatment approach for so long without evolving or advancing. It’s time for a change…
Lorna: A lot in 20 years has surely changed in the treatment and support that families with autistic children receive. What has already been accomplished and which of these developments have you embraced (or not)?
Jonathan Alderson >> It’s true there have been advances in the way we treat autism and there has also been a surprising lack of development, especially given the amount of millions of dollars that have been raised and spent on research. Probably the most promising research is being done in the area of genetics, including by Dr. Scherer here in Canada at SickKids hospital in Toronto. I have followed closely the research done by the dedicated doctors of the Defeat Autism Now (DAN!) group. I think they have brought to light some very important questions and models of causation as well as possible treatments. But what has concerned me is what some people call the “ABA is the only way” movement that has dominated the discussion and the funding for these past twenty years. One of the chapters I wrote looks at the myth that behavioural treatments (ABA / IBI) are the only evidence-based methods. This is often repeated as fact on websites and in books. But it is simply not true anymore. I present loads of research and evidence to dispel this notion. But for years, and still today, governments and service providers are unwilling to fund any programs other than behavioural interventions because they believe that only ABA is research-based and that only ABA gets results. This results in parents having fewer service choices and in children not having access to the range of treatments they could benefit from. As a strong promoter of a multi-treatment approach, knowing how much better multi-treatment programs are than mono-treatments like ABA alone, it is frustrating to see our system settle on just one treatment approach for so long without evolving or advancing. It’s time for a change (and so, again, I invite anyone reading this who feels frustrated like I do, to get a few copies of Challenging the Myths of Autism and ask your local MP and your local school principal and your child’s therapists to read it. We have to start a new conversation around autism if we are to take some new steps forward!)
Part 2 of Jonathan Alderson’s Interview is here.
Book is available on www.chapters.ca and www.Amazon.ca and in bookstores across Canada. It is also downloadable on various eReaders. You’re invited to ‘Like’ the Jonathan Alderson, EdM. and Challenging the Myths Facebook page. There are several free articles posted on my blog at www.JAlderson.com and I’m on Twitter at @Alderson_J