Teen Skepchick Interviews: Dr. Erin Rotheram-Fuller
April is Autism Awareness Month. The first in our interview series featured Dana Howell, who shares her experiences as an autistic teen and adult. I am happy to introduce the second interview in our series with Dr. Erin Rotheram-Fuller, an assistant professor in educational psychology at Temple University. We talked about common misconceptions about autism, what peers can do to help, and much more. I really enjoyed our conversation–I hope you guys do, too!
So tell me about your work and research you do.
My research has been focusing on autism for the last 10 years. A lot of my work has been about socialization of high functioning kids and how to get them better integrated into the classroom. We look at the social aspects of the class: interaction with the teacher and students, as well as engagement with other students out on the yard. Do they have friends? How do they interact? We look a lot at the social relationships in the classroom so we can make a map of the social networks. And then we use that to find support for the child. There’s a lot of unwritten rules in the classroom and we, as adults don’t know all of them, so we use the peers to help the students with autism understand them.
Do you work mostly with a few target schools or students?
I usually get called in when there’s a bigger problem. For example, I get called in a lot when parents are threatening legal action against the school. It depends. Some schools are really eager to have me in and some other schools don’t think it’s necessary.
How do you find a peer that will be supportive for a student with autism?
Usually we ask teachers in the classroom: who is empathetic? Who lends a hand to students without being asked? There’s usually a few of them in every class, eager to lend a hand to anyone, and often already friends with children who may not be accepted by everyone else.
What do you teach those supportive peers?
Just being aware of how others communicate is an important thing that we teach peers. That is, not just the words they’re saying, but the other communicative strategies one can use. We also teach things like how to help someone who is having trouble getting involved in social activities, and empathy and patience for disruptive or difficult behaviors from others.
For example, the other day we were working with a class and the child with autism didn’t want to do the activity. He growled at me to try to get me to go away. But one of the peers went over to him and asked him what he wrote down, and got him involved in the group. It worked so much better for the question to come from a peer than from me, as an adult. I am much less socially influential than someone his own age.
Can you go into more detail about some your empirical research?
I was part of an intervention study where we looked at two different strategies for socialization: training a child with autism to learn social skills, versus training three typical peers in the same classroom. This was done from 1st to 5th grade. We found resoundingly that training the peers was much more effective. That is, training both the child and the peers simultaneously or just training the peers was much more effective than the target condition, which was training the child himself. So, we know that the environment around the student with autism is really important.
Now, I work with teachers and peers and the whole classroom environment. I help them understand that some people are different, but that everyone has different skills we can value.
Did those results surprise you?
We weren’t sure what was going to work better. A lot of times interventions are tried in the field of autism and they’re often not compared to each other. Training the child with autism has shown to be effective, though it’s often been studied with only a couple of children at a time. The same is true with peer mediated approaches. They are shown to be effective but both hadn’t been compared to one another.
We found that the peer-mediated approach was better, and it improved the children with autism’s social standing in the class, expanded their peer groups, and the teachers even rated the kids higher. It was a brief intervention–only six weeks long–but it really helped everyone to have three peers helping out. Peer support is very important. And that’s just not part of the curriculum after 3rd grade.
That’s really interesting work. Now for our audience, it may be important to know some basic facts about autism. What are the most common misconceptions about people with autism?
One of the biggest things that the peers have challenges with is that children with autism are very concrete thinkers, and that’s not something that others can see about them right away. Sometimes they take things literally–joking and humor is hard. It’s hard for them to understand and hard for them to do themselves. It’s a big part of our communication though, when we use sarcasm or jokes to tell others how we feel, and when its not understood, the whole interaction is more difficult. Others need to understand that people with autism may need you to be more direct in the things that you say, as well as the way that you say them.
Secondly, hand flapping or rocking back and forth and repetitive behaviors can also confuse or scare people away. Sometimes people with autism have some sensory needs and this will help them deal with it. They may bite their fingers or rock back and forth…maybe it’s anxiety or maybe it’s something else. We just let the peers know that these kinds of things can make them feel better, and that its okay, as long as its not dangerous to themselves or someone else. We all do things like this sometimes (like shaking our leg when we’re nervous), but its just important that we don’t judge or become afraid of someone that needs to do that.
Autism has been in the media spotlight recently, partly due to this whole anti-vaccination controversy. Do you have any comments about the controversy or how to deal with it?
I’m pregnant now and my child will be getting vaccines. There’s a lot of misconceptions out there about the whole vaccine connection to autism. There’s been a lot of evidence out there to show that the connection isn’t there. And it can be so dangerous not to vaccinate.
It’s hard for me to talk to families who have a child with autism and also have a new baby. They feel reluctant about vaccinating, and I understand, but still encourage them to do it.
What do you say to these families? They must be very worried.
It depends on the family. Usually I give them the evidence, and the literature when they want it. A lot of times they don’t really care about that. I sometimes ask how they would feel if their child got measles and they could have prevented it. We have to protect kids against the things we do know about. It’s a lot of listening and addressing their biggest concerns directly. I give them the recommendation to vaccinate and try to give them as much information as I can.
The problem is, I can’t tell them what does cause autism. The more we can figure out about what causes autism, the better we will be able to inform and help parents. Right now, they are looking at neurobiological models and there’s some good progress, but we’re just not there yet. There’s just no definitive answer. We just know that its not the vaccines themselves.
Part of the fear of vaccines is because a lot of people in the media, especially celebrities, have been promoting this view. As much as we would like to believe that the media doesn’t sway our view, it does. That might be all that the family has heard about this issue. A little bit of knowledge is always dangerous, and we’ve got to find better ways of getting all the info out there.
Do you have a final message that you want to leave our readers with?
I think it’s all about tolerance and acceptance. People with autism have some unique differences, but we’re all different in many ways. We have so many people who have great strengths and weaknesses. If we want to make a welcoming environment in general, we have to accept everyone, and figure out how to use everyone’s strengths to make us all better.