Thursday, 3 March 2011

Meeting the Billy Graham of Autism*

I'm sitting in a packed, airy lecture theatre, waiting for motivational speaker and erstwhile autistic Raun Kaufman to appear.

The atmosphere is fidgety- it feels like we're waiting for a gig at the Roundhouse, rather than in this large school room in the middle of Regent's Park.

Having forgotten how quick early London traffic is at weekends, I've arrived early and enjoyed a quite cappuccino at the modernist park cafe.

Septuagenarians perform Tai Chi- I like this and a family of five park their bikes outside the window.

Watching them, I ask myself the question often on my mind, usually suppressed 'What if?' What if I had a normal family instead of sitting here waiting to spend my Saturday like this? What if we could go cycling together without somebody going kamikaze straight into the road?

But I stop myself, this is my life. This is our normal.

Cheery banners 'Cure Autism!!!', signpost the way to the lecture theatre and I feel my eyes well up- I, like so many other parents so wish there was a cure.

It's a crisp winter day and the huge, ecclesiastical windows around the room remind me of Larkin's High Windows.

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Then I stifle a grin as I think of the rude bits at the beginning of the poem.

For the uninitiated, Raun Kaufmann was diagnosed with autism as a young child and his mother cured him of autism through a self-devised intensive interaction programme that they later named 'Son Rise'.

He is an engaging speaker and far less evangelical than I'd expected.

Son-Rise is essentially a behavioural therapy, where the parent/ therapist tries to enter the child's world and bring the child into their world.

As a therapy, I think it has a lot of things to recommend it. I used the 'mirroring' technique on Lyla when I got home. After looking at my quizzically asking 'why are you copying me' she got into the spirit of it and said it was the best play session ever.

Like many autism treatments, the Son-Rise programme has it's detractors. There's controversy over Kaufman's 'recovery' and what some see as their hard-sell methods.

I have to say that although there were very serious-looking, besuited people hovering around the auditorium with clipboards, Kaufman himself was very likeable and when I met him afterwards and did seem to genuinely want to help people with autism.

One of the before & after videos showed a 'severely autistic' child. To me, the child seemed less autistic than Lyla, who is not severe,  and was in the middle of a tantrum. The after video showed him smiling.

This is very much short of proving that Son-Rise cures autism, but if it led to an improvement in this little boy's mood, then that has to be a good thing.

The Son-Rise programme is eye-wateringly expensive, especially if you want to visit Son-Rise-Ville in Massachussets, USA and certainly out of reach for us and most people.

If you like the Son Rise approach, there's some useful and more importantly, free information that you can access on their website.

*I've just realised that some of you who are not in the same (middle) age-bracket as me might not know who Billy Graham is: he's an American evangelist who was very prolific in the 60's & 70's. Writing that makes me realise that that was actually quite a long time ago!
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