Monday, June 20, 2011

An Internship Update.

I am now entering the second full week of my internship (just starting with the tiny babies!) at the Frazer Center, and I already feel a strong sense of identity there.
The Frazer Center hosts a vast array of programs, arranged by age group, in order to serve children from early infancy to pre-k. They also have a program set in motion to equip mentally and physically disabled adults with life skills and job training.
In order for me to experience all that the Frazer Center is offering, my internship coordinator has arranged for me to rotate every week to a different age group/section.
My first week had me working in the summer day camp program that is partnered with the Marcus Autism Center. For the week I was there, four of the eight children (ages 4 through 9) had high-functioning autism and the other four were typically developing peer mentors.
I was completely in awe of the staff, who worked tirelessly and resourcefully to come up with games, crafts, books, and lessons that would encourage good social interaction skills like eye contact, personal space, and conversation skills. Through a system of tokens and stars, we offered external motivation for "good choices." This worked for some, but not for all of the children.

One thing I would like to repeat that was wisely spoken by my supervisor is this: If you have met one child with autism, you have met ONE child with autism.

It was truly inspiring to watch how the teachers would accept setbacks in cooperation with the mentality that it was not the child that was broken but the method. When I asked them about their methods, time and again they would tell me that every child is capable of improvement, it's just a matter of finding what will motivate them. I was impressed by how little they allowed any personal pride to interfere with the ultimate goal: to help every child be as successful as possible. It didn't matter if they had to change the method a thousand times, they were going to work until they achieved the results they were looking for-- and they did.
I won't elaborate on every detail of the camp (it was largely how you would expect a summer camp to be: making snow globes and coloring and playing hide and seek outside and having snack, etc.) but I will give an example of this trial and error mentality.
We had a child, who for the sake of privacy will be called Denice, who was not motivated at all by the token or the star system, in which collecting all five stars resulted in trip to the treasure box at the end of the day. Denice had little to no interest in the treasure box, and once she had lost one star, she would completely check out for the rest of the day. On Denice's worst day, she earned 0 out of 5 stars, choosing to pout at the table for close to seven hours. By the end of the day, the teachers had formed a sort of isolation room out of tables and napping mats and put Denice in it with one of the teachers to contain her outright resistance and nearly violent misbehavior.
The teachers decided they could not disrupt the class like this every day- and besides, even the negative reinforcement was providing the attention she craved. (I am reading a book on autism written by the director of psychiatric services at Marcus and it claims that the drive for attention in autistic children can be filled by either negative or positive attention. I think this is actually true of most typically developing children...and many people my age, as well.)
So they decided that for Denice, the stars would be a prerequisite for going on the nature walk outside, her favorite activity. They also said she could gain stars back later in the day with good behavior if she lost them.
The next day, I am here to bear witness that Denice was an entirely different person. She asked ME if she could help me clean up. She participated in all the games. She played, for the most part, nicely with her friends. And while Denice is still not the model child, (there may or may not have been an incident since then with contraband splatter painting that marked the ceiling, the tables, the chairs, and about 15 feet of the floor) the teachers found something that motivates her enough to work well most of the time.
I have to say, I really enjoyed working with summer camp. Working with children that age can be exhausting, but it's so rewarding to watch them catch on to concepts and develop personalities. They really are just little miniature versions of people.
Oh, and if you're ever feeling down on yourself, hang out with kids ages 4-9. You will be to them the coolest thing since sliced bread. Try playing hide-and-seek. If your experience is anything like mine, you will have a trail of fifteen children peeking out from behind the trunk of a tree because they all want to hide with you, and it will be one of the greatest boosts to the self-esteem you will have ever experienced. Totally defeats the purpose of the game, though.

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