High Fives to Improve Life for Children with AutismJun 23, 2014
A simple change in mindset can greatly improve the quality of life for children with autism. Joseph Viskochil talks about how parents and siblings of children with autism can become a “family of high fives” and create a positive environment. He gives some tips for making such a change and suggests resources for further research on this new model
Interviewer: A really simple change in mindset can make all the difference in the quality of life for your child with autism. We'll tell you what that change of mindset is next on The Scope.
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Interviewer: There's a new way of thinking when dealing with people with autism called a Strength-Based perspective, and it's one of these things that is, like, 'Wow. Really? We didn't think of this earlier?' But it can make all the difference in the quality of your life when you have a child with autism. We're talking with Joseph Viskochil, and let's talk about this Strength-Based perspective and what a difference it can make. But before we do that, let's go to what the thinking was before. It was something called the Deficit Model.
Joseph Viskochil: Right. So the Deficit Model of thinking is something that is ingrained in our society. We look at what is wrong with the person. We look at what the person needs to improve on. We compare what the person is doing to their peers and to other people across the nation. How is this person not succeeding in all the areas that they could be succeeding in? What could we do to change those deficits?
Interviewer: And that's for everybody?
Joseph Viskochil: That's for everybody.
Interviewer: All right. Why is that bad?
Joseph Viskochil: What that does is it tends to focus your attention on what the individual is lacking in. If, say, I wanted to go play basketball in the NBA, we would all be able to see you're too short, you can't jump, you can't run fast, and you can't make shots. All these things that you can't do takes me to a perspective of, 'Oh, this is never going to happen for me.' It really takes away the hope that I have of enjoying playing basketball. Whereas if you look at the positives, the strengths that an individual has, it engenders the sense of hope that one day you're going to be able to do all of the things that you really enjoy doing.
Interviewer: So maybe the strength is, 'I'm really great at passing, I have amazing ball control, and I can steal it from anybody.'
Joseph Viskochil: I hustle. I give 100 percent, and that's something that not every NBA player can say, that's for sure.
Interviewer: So this is a new way of thinking for individuals with autism? The deficit model; where did that come from in the first place?
Joseph Viskochil: Well, the way that we've always treated medical illness or mental health illness is, 'Where is the problem and what can we do to fix that problem?' It's all about problem identification analysis and then fixing that problem whereas some problems are more amenable to fixing, such as a bacterial infection. OK. Let's use the Deficit Model there. We focus on what's wrong, and we try to treat it. Conversely, there are a lot of behavioral tendencies that if we look at strictly from a Deficit Model of thinking, it's really hard. You're fighting tooth and nail to make any sort of behavioral progress. But if you switch that around and if you focus on what behaviors the individual is employing that are positive, that can really take off and take you to new heights of your quality of life.
Interviewer: This seems like such a simple thing, but it's a relatively new concept.
Joseph Viskochil: For some reason, it is a relatively new concept. In some circles, we do focus on their positives, say, for typically developing children, we look at what they do well, and we try to force them into that route. That's where parents of phenomenally young athletes really pressure them; into playing that they're good at and pushing them. For kids on the spectrum, the model hasn't gotten there yet where you focus so much on the person's positives that you really devote all your attention there because you're so busy trying to correct the deficits.
Interviewer: So some might say that this 'Rah, rah, cis, boom, bah,' this cheering, 'Everybody's a winner. You're doing everything fantastic,' approach might be detrimental. Is that the case or not?
Joseph Viskochil: Sure. This is the common argument; if everyone gets a medal, then no one is special. But that's not really what we're trying to target. We're not saying at one individual event. We're saying as a global perspective, viewing a child at what they can do and what their strengths are in, not necessarily giving them a trophy every time they do something correctly, but really becoming more optimistic, positive, and fostering that sense of positivity to take an individual through their developing years.
Interviewer: Who developed this way of thinking? Again, it sounds so simple we all could've come up with it, but we didn't.
Joseph Viskochil: The first parent that I saw that really espoused this to a high degree with an individual with autism was my friend, Clane Eudy [SP]. He told me that when his son was younger and they were beating their heads against the wall trying to fix all of the things that were wrong, it really wasn't going anywhere. When you focus on the deficits, that's all you see. And when all you see is something negative, your entire world view becomes negativity. But if you flip it around, if you become a family of high fives and focus on the positive, that elevates your mood, the mood of your entire household, and it really creates the sense of well-being.
Interviewer: How can parents utilize this? Give me an example of how a parent with a child with autism or anybody. Actually, it sounds like it's good for everybody.
Joseph Viskochil: It is good for everybody. The trick is to let yourself do this. You almost to think of all the deficits as a little fly on your shoulder. Imagine that little fly on your shoulder and flick it off. Say, 'I'm not going to worry about that right now. Let's find something that we can celebrate in your son or daughter. Let's find something that can turn into a positive.'
Interviewer: Is it important to hone in on specifics?
Joseph Viskochil: The more specific the praise is, the better. If you can praise something very specifically, that's better than general praise. So saying, 'I really like how you made your bed this morning,' instead of, 'Good job with your chores.' The more specific with the individual praise, the better. But, in general, just focusing, finding the positives, increasing the amount of reinforcements and making that environment more positive doesn't have to be on any single, specific things.
Interviewer: What are some of the outcomes of that kind of behavior that you're going to notice?
Joseph Viskochil: If you're being praised and allowing yourself to focus on what you're successful at, that's going to open doors to become more successful in the future. If you feel successful, you're going to be more successful. This is a concept called Self Efficacy. If you think of yourself as being competent, able to do something, and able to succeed, you're more likely to succeed whereas if you're trying to bring yourself up from this deficit cloud, it's going to be so much harder. You're fighting up the mountain in the mudslide instead of just hiking up the mountain as it normally is.
Interviewer: Is there a resource that you could recommend if people are interested in finding out more? Maybe some key words or something?
Joseph Viskochil: Googling strength-based research would probably bring you up with a lot. But, really, what you're going to want to look for is just inside yourself. This doesn't have to be something that you go externally for. This can be very introspective. One night. Take a minute. Look inside and see, 'How am I focusing on the deficits, and what can I do to change that? What are the positives that I can focus on?' This can be very individualized and very personalized.
Interviewer: Does it feel silly at first when you start doing that?
Joseph Viskochil: It does, and you have to commit to it. You have to say, 'This does feel kind of silly. This is definitely not the way my grandfather was raised. This is not tough love. This is not any of those concepts.' But once you get past that initial reluctance, it opens so many doors.
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