Review: Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A Guide for Parents and Professionals

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I was asked by Professor Pamela Snow to review the book she co-authored with Dr Caroline Bowen, ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Development Disorders: A Guide for Parents and Professionals’. As a parent of a young man with autism who has recently navigated his way through 12 years of schooling, I was happy to oblige. Professor Snow provided me with an Author’s copy.

Over the years I have spent many hours pouring over research articles, industry publications and to a lesser extant personal stories, in an effort to help our son on his journey. Often this was a frustrating experience, (There is a minefield of dubious information out there). So after having had my fill of the “10 things you should know about Autism” type of publications, I’m happy to report that ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders’ is not that kind of book. If it were I think I would have returned the book to Professor Snow and declined the review.

I think this an important book because it attempts to demystify the endless interventions that are available for children with a developmental disorder. There are such books out there already, but in my experience some can be quite heavy going at times. To a large extent I think the laudable aim of providing some clarity about what is and isn’t helpful is achieved in a plain, easy to read style, that focuses on avoiding tiresome, bewildering jargon. Its purpose is to sort the wheat from the chaff, and on occasions those interventions where we don’t know whether the intervention is either.

The main focus of the book is to give parents and educators a brief introduction to a range of developmental disorders and present the evidence for a large number of popular interventions. This is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of such interventions, but provides a guide to where they sit in terms of evidence. As mentioned in the foreword by Dorothy Bishop, “The stance of this book is scientific and evidence-based. Thus the primary approach to evaluating an intervention is to ask, what is the evidence?” It is an attempt to take interventions that sound plausible and attractive, and put them under the spotlight.

There are endless mainstream interventions that are accepted as tried and true practice. Many unfortunately are not evidence-based, and as such it pays for parents and professionals to check their sources no matter how convincing they sound. The authors make the point that just because you are reading a National Association for (insert developmental disorder), doesn’t mean the advice is evidence-based. They also emphasise that we should question eminence-based practice that achieves its standing from the high profile of those that support it. The main scourge I found when attempting to find information to help my son, was the ‘testimonial’. I was pleased to see the authors suggest that one take a cautious approach to such personal recommendations.

The main focus for me was the chapter on Autism Spectrum Disorder. As my son stumbled his way through school there were joyful successes, but more often than not an unhappy boy trying to navigate the pitfalls of education. More than once my family received recommendations for strategies or programs that had a very dubious past.  ‘Making Sense of Interventions with Developmental Disorders’ has an excellent quite detailed look at the current state of play in terms of evidence surrounding ASD and is the longest chapter in the book. For parents or guardians of children who have been assigned the ASD label, the journey to find answers can be long and daunting. Thankfully chapter 4 in the book ‘Children with autistic spectrum disorders’ is clearly laid out and looks at publications that may be helpful for those who are tired of the miracle cure endorsed by celebrity publications. I was pleased to see an endorsement for ‘NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity’, which I personally found extraordinarily insightful, and a great model for accepting diversity. I would have liked more time devoted to making it clear how different “NeuroTribes” is as a publication in this field. But that is not the purpose of this book, it’s a guide, an entry point to what is available, so that criticism may be unfair.

There is an excellent overview on many interventions for those with ASD, and a brief look at the current evidence available. These interventions range from the bizarre to the mainstream and accepted, (again often with little evidence) up to those interventions that have a solid foundation of supporting evidence. Pages 128 to 131 have an excellent range of strategies to caringly guide and support your child. These strategies are helpful whether your child has ASD or not. Overall the entire message here is one I heartily endorse. There are no miracle cures and we don’t need them because children with ASD or any other developmental disorder are not broken.

There is also some good advice about the ubiquitous Auditory Processing Disorder, which every second child seemed to have when I first started teaching some 20 years ago. The key finding reported here is that perhaps we would be better of without the APD label altogether. It is reported that 50 years of research has yet to find any specific auditory interventions that are definitively helpful. Language interventions for those with language and learning disabilities are far more helpful for those given the APD label.

Chapter 9, titled simply ‘Reading’, contains a helpful examination of the huge range of reading programs and interventions available. Of particular interest to me was the information on dyslexia as my child was variously spot- diagnosed with this from time to time, and as a teacher I have worked with many dyslexic children. I would agree with the authors that different coloured paper and ‘dyslexic-friendly‘ fonts are perhaps less helpful than generally accepted.

What I learned from reading ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders’ is that even for someone like myself who has been exposed to the many interventions that are available, there are so many more dizzying choices that have the potential to lead us up many a garden path. As a parent of a child with ASD, and as part of a family who works and has contact with children with disabilities on a regular basis, we are at the mercy of many a charlatan or well meaning group or individual who believe they have the answers. More often than not they don’t. If you are a parent or professional who is using a practice that is listed in the book as lacking evidence, this book is not an attempt to mock or belittle you choices. Rather a rational attempt to expose you to where the practice sits in terms of its efficacy to date. I endorse the point the authors make that those parents or professionals, who may support an intervention with little evidence, do not need to be belittled or made to feel gullible.

A quote from the last page sums up nicely what the main thrust of this book is about. “Mainstream education has an opportunity here to show leadership in eschewing charismatic salesfolk and their shiny new, untested nueurofandangles, in favour of the hard yards of painstakingly engaging with scientifically validated approaches.” Sage advice in my opinion. ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders’, is a good stepping stone for parents and practitioners, whether it is for the inexperienced, or those with some mileage under the hood.

Mark Johnson

@markxsyst

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Virtual Creatures in a Botanical Garden

An article from the Sydney Morning Herald with the headline, Video games in school: Pokémon Go used to teach science, popped into my feed this morning.  As is often the case it was a bit clickbaity, but I do understand the need for this in our media.  What it actually meant was that some students captured a Pokémon Go character in the botanical gardens, and then the science teacher talked about the plant life seeing they were now there at the gardens.  Lured there if you will.

 
I don’t have a problem with games in learning but I do get concerned when some educators think that we need to tap into the latest game or fad that comes along to help motivate our learners.  Comments like “We’re using what the kids already like to do to get to our outcomes,…” are worrying for me sometimes.  The half-life of popular games and toys is generally quite short and I don’t think we should be expecting that teachers tap into the latest hit game in the market place.

 
Fidget spinners were all the rage for a short while and I saw a number of posts about incorporating them into learning.  In my neck of the woods, fidget spinners are so ‘last month’ and the students have moved on. Pokémon go is but a distant memory.  My view tends to be if the students are obsessed with these things at home, the last thing I should be doing is encouraging more use at school.  (Call me old –fashioned).

 
The other troubling aspect is this quote from the article. “Most major textbook publishers now have in-house game developers…”.  I think we need to continually cast a critical eye over this sort of development.  Perhaps not outrageous conspiracy theories about evil neoliberal villains profiting from students, but nonetheless we need to be cautious.

 
There is a place for online games in class, but I think we need to use them sparingly and with a very clear understanding of what our motives are for using them.  Vague ideas about motivating students need to carefully assessed.

 

In short, rather than luring students to the garden by chasing virtual creatures on a screen, leave the devices behind and stroll to the garden.  For me, that’s a bit closer to real life learning.