Feature Archive

On the Cutting Edge of Autism Treatment

Teaching autistic children how to engage in imaginative play is one of many new techniques in autism treatment.

By Martin Downs
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

The Joker has stolen the world's biggest diamond, and it's up to Batman and Robin to get it back. On a video monitor, hands move toy action figures through the paces of the story, as an off-camera voice speaks the dialogue.

John, age 6, watches the monitor with rapt attention. He is autistic, and this is a technique called "video modeling," used by educators at the New England Center for Children (NECC) in Southborough, Mass., where John and some 200 other autistic kids attend school. When the video ends, Jen, his teacher, affectionately ruffles his hair and directs him to a table that holds the same Batman toys seen in the video. He is supposed to play with them in exactly the same way, saying the same lines, as he has just been shown.

Normally developing children play by imagining scenarios and acting them out with toys. Kids with autism do not. They have to be taught how to play this way. The goal is for them to understand the concept well enough to expand on their play, using their own imaginations.

Learning New Behaviors, Changing Harmful Ones

Teaching play with video modeling is something new that the NECC is studying. On the staff working with the kids are not only educators, but also researchers, and they report on what happens at the NECC to the scientific community. Video modeling is just one small part of the NECC's whole approach, called "applied behavioral analysis," widely regarded as the gold standard in autism treatment.