Magic In The Water

Trips to the National Aquarium are key to a Kennedy Krieger program that helps autistic youngsters master social skills

January 05, 2009|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,

Tyquelle Washington is a wiry 8-year-old with an infectious smile, boundless energy - but not a single friend. During board games, he interrupts his cousins and won't take turns. At school, he rarely listens to other children's interests, choosing instead to chatter about his own.

Like many autistic children, Tyquelle doesn't seem to know how to interact with people or form relationships. But he's learning skills that often come naturally to others through an experimental therapy in an unconventional setting - during trips to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The 16-week program designed by therapists at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute's Center for Autism and Related Disorders uses the entertaining backdrop of the aquarium to engage high-functioning autistic children and lay the foundations of essential social behaviors.

As the youngsters hold lizards and gaze at sea urchins, two psychologists provide intensive behavior therapy that teaches children how to read visual cues, understand emotions and take an interest in others. The therapists work with a group of children ages 6 through 8 and another ages 10 through 12, stages that are considered critical for building social interaction. While many autism treatments emphasize one-on-one contact, this one brings together groups of four children to create, clinicians hope, bonds that last.

"For children with high-functioning autism, social skills deficits can present barriers to participating in school and community life as they get older," said Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the autism center. "Addressing these challenges in a structured way can offer school-age children with high-functioning autism the potential to have more of the same experiences as their typically developing peers, from having a friend to going on a field trip."

The very nature of autism is perplexing. One in 150 children nationwide is affected by a range of related disabilities known as autism spectrum disorders, which vary widely and are different in every child. Doctors are not sure what causes autism, there is no cure and the field is crowded with new research theories and therapies.

Kennedy Krieger has found that constant repetition and prompting are key to therapies that help autistic children understand how to relate to others.

Tyquelle's program is called BUDS, for Building Up Development of Socialization. The staff works with the children once a week, alternating between classroom therapy and trips to the aquarium. Using a colorful flow chart, the kids learn to describe their emotions and recognize the consequences of their behavior. They are taught how to make eye contact, when to approach a playmate and even how to e-mail them. Before going to the aquarium, they get homework outlining exactly what they should expect during the visit.

Parents are invited to watch the classroom therapies through a one-way mirror and are encouraged to join the aquarium trips. At the aquarium, they dole out positive reinforcement with points when their child follows directions, communicates his needs or offers to help someone. The more points, the bigger the prize at the end of the visit.

A few weeks ago, Tyquelle and his grandmother Lettuce Clark joined the group for their first visit to the aquarium for a 1 1/2 -hour scavenger hunt.

The boys are all full of adrenaline as they approach the aquarium entrance, rushing to the exhibits and leaving their families, two teachers and three aquarium educators trailing behind.

The youngsters move from tank to tank, searching for animal life listed in their homework. The goal is not only to check off as many bullfrogs and electric eels as they can find, but also to share the encounter with others.

Through much of the visit, therapists Elizabeth Stripling and Brian Freedman prompt the boys: "Show your friends!" and "What do you see?" But a couple of times, Tyquelle initiates discussions on his own.

"Come look, it's a flounder!" Tyquelle squeals to the others. "It's down there - it's concealed in the sand. He looks like he's looking at you."

Cameron Langkam, 8, comes rushing over and is immediately mesmerized by the tank. But he doesn't respond to Tyquelle, and after a moment runs to the next exhibit. He's still chattering about the sturgeon from three tanks ago, which he calls the "seduction fish," to the amusement of the adults.

Stripling and Freedman offer Tyquelle an emphatic round of "good job!" for trying to engage Cameron.

For much of the visit, the boys have a blast, weaving through the meandering exhibits, giggling and peppering the aquarium staff and even passers-by with questions.

Still, there are moments of intense frustration. Cameron's mechanical pencil becomes dull and he plops down on the floor, shouts that it's broken and refuses to continue the assignment. Freedman squats to his level, and calmly instructs him to ask for help. Cameron does. And the pencil incident is over as quickly as it started.

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