Understanding the Nature of Autism

Dr. Patrizia Collard
Stress Management Consultant and Psychotherapist

Understanding the Nature of Autism, A practical guide, by Janice E. Janzen, M.S. San Antonio, Texas: Therapy Skill Builders, 1996, pbk £ 52,--, pp. 454

It seems to have taken three years, looking at the publication date, for this brilliant insight into autism to reach the other side of the Atlantic. But thank God it finally did, for rarely have I come across a more comprehensive guide to a disorder which, in its multitude and variety of presentation, can be mind boggling for anyone having to work with people afflicted by it. The book is thus aimed at a wide readership, starting from counselling psychologists who may be involved in diagnosis and treatment, teachers and parents who are living with and training people with autism, and of course students of psychology who may want to find out the basic facts about the disorder.

Any advice given, any technique explained - all refer and are applied to patients of all age groups: the toddler, pre-school child, pupil, up to the young adult. Every chapter starts with a poem by David Eastham, a young man with autism who only learned to communicate with the help of a computer at the age of 19. These poems are a reflection of the torments of the soul of a person with autism, thus shedding an important light on the whole question of feeling and empathy and their connections with autism. They have the function of drawing the reader right into each chapter’s revelations. It becomes obvious from the word go that the author, who has worked in the field of autism for more than 25 years, is not only extremely knowledgeable on the subject, but also on a mission: she wants us to understand and realise how much more can be done than one ever suspected possible.

The book consists of six parts, each of which again contains a number of chapters. Private stories and anecdotes illustrate facts and extensive case studies. The volume contains a number of questionnaires and record keeping forms which may be reproduced and used in various settings.

Part one of the book, entitled the Nature of Autism, and the four chapters contained therein can be seen as the core or skeleton of the publication. It gives plenty of cross-references to other chapters or publications and basically concentrates on symptoms, learning styles common in autism, effects on language and communication and behavioural phenomena and deficiencies. It contains a very helpful analogy. Janzen compares the functions of a brain to those of a computer and sheds light on the discrepancies of a brain affected by autism. To give you one example. The input system is described as a video camera and most of us are able to scan the environment and direct the camera towards imortant events. A person affected by autism however may have little control of their camera and may never take in the whole picture. They may record but small details, which may then contain bits and pieces of unrelated information. The end of each chapter contains a summary which helps the reader to gain a quick overview of what the chapter is about. Thus it is possible to read it out of sequence and concentrate on those areas relevant to one’s present work or interest.

The rest of the book continues in this vein: part two discussing the questions related to assessment, part three those of which program to chose for which client, part four discusses a multitude of interventions, whereas part five concentrates on teaching new skills. Part six finally adds insight into ‘managing difficult problems’, and the book finishes with a collection of family stories.

As you can see from the layout, the book encourages you to use it hands on and since I got hold of it I have certainly treated it as a goldmine not only working with children on the autistic continuum but also applying some of the interventions in the field of ADD. Two areas of criticism remain: many references to organisations and resources available are US/Texas specific and cannot be applied here in the U.K. Secondly the book costs £52,-- (Paperback) which is a lot of money for an individual’s purse. Otherwise Janzen presents herself as an author who has it all - knowledge, experience and a big heart, and all these qualities are reflected in ‘Understanding the Nature of Autism’.

P.S. - a personal note
On March 23 1990 a 22 year old man with autism jumped from a special-school window in Hong Kong, in terror at being forced to eat food he was unaccustomed to. In 1999 he won damages from the school over the incident, which had put him in hospital for months. Had Janzen’s book been available to his teachers and trainers, it is unlikely this incident would have occurred.

Patrizia Collard (PhD) Stress Management Consultant and Psychotherapist

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