One cannot understand what it means to rear a child, whether a youngster with autism or otherwise, by watching the child through binoculars from a comfortable distance, as though one were engaged in bird watching. Child rearing is an inherently messy business, requiring rolled-up sleeves, a tender heart, and at times, nerves of steel. A child with autism is like a poorly translated sonnet whose meter has been muddled and whose closing couplet doesn’t quite rhyme. How shall we repair the meter without the original as our guide? In her poem Versed, Rae Armantrout writes, “Metaphor forms/ a crust/ beneath which/ the crevasse/ of each experience/. Traversed by robotic conveyers.” Let us begin there.
We turn to the tools of science to divine an answer to our versed puzzle. Our frustration is palpable; definitive answers are so bloody elusive and take so interminably long to achieve. Just when I’m prepared to hear an answer to my question, there is no one to ask, or so it seems. That is because science doesn’t work that way. Scientists do not wait around wearing an intelligent expression, waiting for someone to ask them a question. It is important to remember that science is seldom based on a particular fact or study that yields earth-shattering results, though that’s always a pleasant surprise when it happens. Effective science is about whether one persistently pursues the trajectory that defines a wisely productive strategy. Focus on the discovery arc, not the specific finding.
Scientific research is like fishing. You have to be a good observer of nature so you’ll know which bait to use. Next, you need to know where to cast your lure, and finally you have to be patient, and be prepared to try again and again until your data leaps out at you like a fish taking a lure. We cast our bait hoping to reel in a big scientific lunker. Our skills are improving as we learn how to recognize what we are looking for instead of concluding the task is too daunting or the fish caught so far are too small. William Whewell, the 19th century historian of science recommended we look at the interface of fields of study for the most fruitful clues. He called the process of “jumping together” of ideas, concepts and data from sister disciplines, Consilience. The distinguished biologist, E. O. Wilson wrote a wonderful book by that title in 1998 about the interface of fields of science.
Educational and behavioral neuroscience is a consilient undertaking. It is the application of brain science knowledge and methods in tandem with principles of behavior analysis and its methods, to lead to new understanding that permits us promote acquisition of children’s intellectual, social and emotional skills that will elevate their quality of life. One of the most promising entry points in this effort has involved developing highly effective methods of turning on or off genes that lead to new brain connections, called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Those experiences are arranged by behaviorally trained teachers and therapists through a process we call Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention. While experience-dependent brain plasticity may not be the holy-grail many of us suspect, it is a window of opportunity too good to pass up, and may just help us refashion our sonnet. When we compose our next couplet it will rhyme effortlessly as though things had always been done that way and we will wonder what all of the fuss is about, for it will seem plain as the nose on your face.