Guest: Mr. Walt Jenner - Education and Outreach Director for Autism Research
Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatrist
Announcer: Welcome to an MUSC Health Podcast.
Dr. Linda Austin: I am Dr. Linda Austin and I am talking with Mr. Walt Jenner, who is the Education and Outreach Director for Autism Research at the Medical University at South Carolina. Walt, you certainly have a very strong background and many years of experience in special education services for a variety of kids with developmental problems. What sorts of educational programs are available for children with autism?
Mr. Walt Jenner: That’s a great question because the understanding of autism is so recent, there has just been a beginning of an evolution of education programs for children with autism spectrum disorders. Certainly, the best known and the best research to something called the Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA for short.
Dr. Linda Austin: Can you describe what that approach is?
Mr. Walt Jenner: It goes back to may be a lot of people, who remember B.F. Skinner. B. F. Skinner was a behaviorist that taught pigeons how to play ping-pong. I think that’s perhaps his most famous video, but the idea is to break learning down into very small discrete trials and being able to reinforce it or extinguish it. In autism, what you want to try to develop is speech and language skills, social skills, and you want to eliminate behavior that interferes with learning.
Dr. Linda Austin: So, am I write in thinking then that with that sort of program you might offer children rewards for starting with simple things like pointing to a ball as you say ball.
Mr. Walt Jenner: This exactly the idea, is to break learning down into smaller and smaller portions. If a child is not speaking, you have to begin by trying to get some kind of sound or gesture or even to have the child pay attention to you, to look at you, so that they can begin to communicate. So, it’s paying attention to what the child is and is not doing and then trying to reward or reinforce the behaviors that you want.
Dr. Linda Austin: For a very young child, let’s say 18 months old or two years of age, what kinds of rewards would you use?
Mr. Walt Jenner: I think that, not surprisingly perhaps children like to be tickled or there is a lot of movement or just a lot of joy that you could express. Certainly, food rewards have worked. We have to be careful and not to use too much candy for example or a favorite toy. You can withhold a toy or give a toy for example if you are working with a child as a therapist. There is hell lot of criticism or some criticism because the feeling is that you are teaching robotic behavior. Children will only respond if they get rewarded, but if you think about the way we usually function, most of our things that we do have some kind of pleasurable or reinforcing ideas, but ABA interventions are the best researched of all of the interventions being used. There are some controversial therapeutic interventions being used with autism and I would have to say right now that ABA is really the best research as over 30 years of research with a 100 pure reviewed studies that support the idea of using ABA therapies for intervention.
Dr. Linda Austin: Where can a parent go to get ABA training for their child?
Mr. Walt Jenner: For very young children, we would encourage parents to contact the BabyNet Services. Starting in a Zero-to-Three program, BabyNet can provide contracted services in South Carolina; I understand up to 20 hours per week of ABA services if your child has an autism diagnosis. Parallel to that, South Carolina also has a department devoted to autism called the Developmental Disabilities and Special Needs Autism Division and parents could also contact their county DDSN Board and request an evaluation and if again their child is diagnosed with autism, they will contract for ABA services.
Dr. Linda Austin: I would imagine then a parent could start with a pediatrician, who would presumably know about this resources, is that right?
Mr. Walt Jenner: One of the jobs I have doing education and outreach is to try to be sure that physicians are aware of the symptoms of autism, aware that they should make that referral and aware there are services starting at 0 and going through 22 that parents can use to receive intervention services for their children. We have gone from an age of hopelessness to an age of hope. We know that autism is not a death sentence. It can be treated and children’s behaviors can improve.
Dr. Linda Austin: I know that there are large regions of this country that don’t have pediatrician. I have worked in an area like that in Northern Maine actually. Is there a single website address and that you might send folks to get good information?
Mr. Walt Jenner: One of my favorites is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website "http://www.cdc.gov" and if you look at autism or at the campaign called Learn the Signs, Act Early, you will have a wealth of information about the characteristics of normal or typical development as well as a science of autism. Another favorite site is "http://www.autismspeaks.org, which is a large nonprofit organization now that has a wonderful website for parents talking about the latest research as well as where the parents could get help in their local areas.
Dr. Linda Austin: Thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. Walt Jenner: You are welcome.
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