Ardsley resident Rob Bernstein, who specializes in working with autistic children and their families, has published his second book, “Uniquely Normal Manual: Using the Bernstein Cognitive Method for Autism.”
Released in January, the manual follows up his award-winning 2017 book, “Uniquely Normal: Tapping the Reservoir of Normalcy to Treat Autism.” His latest book offers specific exercises parents, teachers, therapists, or other professionals can use to help autistic children change the way they think.
Bernstein, a behavioral therapist who practices in White Plains, developed the guide based on 35 years of experience, including working with his own autistic child. He earned his master’s in education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“I decided to write the manual probably because of the feedback on the book,” he said. “People wanted more… They can see my method in the 27 case stories in ‘Uniquely Normal,’ but they said, ‘I need to know exactly what to do.’”
The manual details how Bernstein works with his clients; it’s a practical guide, explaining how everyday situations can be used to help an autistic person achieve the next level of development.
“We’re changing a habit in their minds, changing the way their mind works,” Bernstein said. “Build up a different habit, and the kid gets on his own side, empowering himself.”
Bernstein’s method is designed to help autistic individuals with the challenges of organizing their thoughts, thinking about cause and effect, self-correction, verbal self-direction and expression, and solving a problem cooperatively, which requires planning, sequential thinking, and expressing choices.
His approach is to let the child lead, and follow that lead: “No agenda, no expectations; join them, and add one thing that will be the change. Create a safe space.”
“Get the kid’s mind to relax and see things from another person’s point of view,” he explained. For children with a perseverate nature, for example — repetitive, obsessive, insistent — develop another kind of thinking. “They need to breathe, to calm down.”
The “Uniquely Normal Manual” describes exercises and activities for eliciting and organizing language, developing flexibility, seeing things from another’s point of view, overcoming perseveration, and waiting to take turns — difficult concepts for many autistic individuals. However, Bernstein noted, “You could be literally a genius and still be on the autism spectrum.”
He explained why his method is different: “You can’t insist on them being like everyone else.” Rather than saying their behavior is poor, he says, “Ask, ‘What can I do to help this child from their point of view?’”
To elicit and organize language, Bernstein devised a way to “put words into the child’s mind.” First, the adult should have the child fill in words as the adult reads aloud, then speaks, sings, and sings with the child. He also recommends using movement, even a therapeutic car ride, to encourage language.
In the manual, Bernstein recounts a session with a nonverbal child, 6-year-old Jackie, in a park. Jackie sat in a swing, expecting a push. Instead, Bernstein said to him, “Push me.” Jackie didn’t respond. Bernstein continued with “Push,” “Push the swing,” “Push me up,” and other variations to get Jackie to verbalize what he wanted. Finally, Bernstein pushed the swing gently, and when it returned, he stopped it and reiterated a variation of “Push me.” He kept repeating the pattern, and eventually Jackie yelled, trying to speak.
“I must have pushed the swing, stopped it, called out one of my ‘Push me’ variations, and heard Jackie’s squawking response at least 50 times,” Bernstein’s narrative continued. “At no point was I certain of the outcome, but I kept going. Who was I to deny Jackie the chance to speak, when he was trying so hard? I would have done it 100 times or 500 times, as long as he kept trying to speak.”
After more yelps, Jackie demanded, “Puh!” “In that moment, Jackie’s mind connected action to language,” Bernstein writes. “The logjam was broken. That day at the park, he said his first three words: ‘push, dog, and water.’”
Bernstein has done such exercises hundreds of times, and has instructions for parents. “I’d like them to be calm, because for these kids to look at themselves, parents have to reflect, not react to what they do. When parents react and focus on ‘do, do, do, do,’ insisting and fighting, you can’t get through that way. If parents calm down, the kid will also calm down.”
Bernstein acknowledges that the exercises are demanding of the adults, so he suggests that parents work with their child for 15 minutes a day. “I want to be realistic. If you’re really engaged with your child, let the kid lead, then add something to the exercise to get the kid to think, respond, talk, consider.”
In addition to his Tuesday afternoon free parent support group, Bernstein also sees private clients. “I do it because that’s my life’s work,” he emphasized. “That’s the drill: being on the front lines.”
“Uniquely Normal Manual: Using the Bernstein Cognitive Method for Autism” is published by Future Horizons Inc., Arlington, Tex. and is available through Amazon.
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