Monday, 8 January 2018

Autism & TEACCH

"TEACCH!!!" is not a command yelled by an enthusiastic school principal on the first day of term.
Although many teachers returned to the classroom this morning wondering if hell is nothing more than an endless series of Monday mornings, they are a fairly professional lot who manage to educate our kids without needing to be roared at.

Shortly after my son was diagnosed, a teacher at a prospective school mentioned using the TEACCH model of education; being a confused, new inhabitant of Planet Autism, all I heard was "teach model" and thought well, obviously it's a teach model...this is a school...are there other types of models???
Before Professor Google had a chance to educate me otherwise, I spent the next few hours worrying about the alternatives;
Was there a 'prefrontal lobotomy model of education'?
A 'hold hands in the forest and sing Kumbaya model of education'? 
A 'lion-taming, fire-eating model of education' (this one would really suit my fearless son who has probably consumed pretty much everything else at this point)?
Luckily, the internet, and some deep breathing, convinced me that my son was not about to be inducted into a child-eating cult fronted by  lovely, well-educated teachers...after I warned my adrenal glands to behave themselves and sit quietly in a corner, I began to like what I was reading about TEACCH.

TEACCH is an acronym for Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children. It was developed in the 1960's by Eric Schopler and Robert Reichler.  According to Mesibov, TEACCH has two complementary goals; to enhance the child's skills and to change the environment to enhance learning. It is based on understanding the culture of autism, in which "characteristic and predictable patterns of behaviour" are interpreted by a "cross-cultural" teacher.  It is a system of structured education for autistic people which is not curriculum led, but child-centred.  It plays to the strengths of those on the spectrum, such as visual information processing, while addressing typical problem areas such as executive functioning, attention and communication. Typically, each child will have their own workstation designed to limit outside distractions, where a highly structured schedule of education is delivered. The structure allows the child to feel secure in it's predictability and helps them develop organisational skills (using visual schedules); ability to attend to lessons is enhanced by reducing distractions, sometimes by screening out neighbours, and by keeping the environment as minimalist as possible. Ideally the classroom should be divided into clearly defined zones, such as an area for group work and a quiet area.  Using visual schedules provides predictability and helps the child to prepare for change.  Ultimately this can help the child to work towards independence and to become involved in setting and changing their own schedule.

What's not to like?

But, I thought, the written word does not always translate neatly into our messy world.  For example, Hitler thought 'Mein Kampf' was a great idea, and was probably a bit piqued that it didn't work out so well for him.  Not that I'm comparing TEACCH to Nazi Germany, but entrusting the heart and mind of your child to another person feels like sending your baby off to Hitler Youth and hoping that it's more boy scouts than Nazi Party.  You're sending your child into an environment you know very little about, and have no control over, so if trust doesn't come easily to you, prepare yourself for some very entertaining 3am fretting.

Happily, my worries about lobotomies and right-wing politics were unfounded as my son has comfortably used this model for the past nine years.  He hasn't come home sporting a swastika or minus a slice of brain yet.

TEACCH, as part of an eclectic model of education, is ubiquitous in Irish schools, and for good reason; it does what it says on the tin.  It provides security, structure and a clear path forward.  Many of the skills taught are easy to use at home (such as scheduling, which my son uses to reduce anxiety).  There are some criticisms though; some people believe it creates an over-reliance on structure and that skills learned in such a controlled environment may be difficult to generalise in the 'real' world.  It has also been noted that the TEACCH centre in North Carolina does not seem to be producing empirical evidence to support its effectiveness.
I can only comment from a mother's point of view; that my son is continuing to learn, at his own pace, in a calm, creative environment.

I know and love enough teachers to know they are not angels, but they must have a tarnished halo and a few wing feathers somewhere to shine such magic light into my son's life.


  1. It would be great if this model were available to students with aspergers who can't cope in mainstream, it might be the answer...

    1. I imagine it would work really well with Aspergers Candi. You both must be so frustrated. I really feel for the kids who fall between two stools; those who aren't "bad" enough to need a special school, and those who still don't have all the skills to cope with mainstream. Is his school not on board with it? xx