At the indoor playground his parents own in Naples, little Sam Stewart is content being alone, amusing himself with a ball and jumping up and down inside a giant bounce house. The 6-year-old used to have no choice about it, however. He was trapped with his thoughts — unable to communicate through speech and facial expressions with his mom or dad and others.
But now Sam, who is autistic, is coming into his own, thanks to his parents’ patience, special education classes and an innovative early language-development technique called the Hanen program.
Founded 35 years ago by Canadian speech-language pathologist Ayala Hanen Manolson, the Hanen program helps not only parents of young autistic children, but those whose children display communication and social skills delays. It also aids parents of Down syndrome children.
During the free, six-week workshops, parents learn techniques that improve their child’s communication skills, giving them the ability to turn everyday activities into language learning experiences, instead of setting aside time each day to practice speech techniques or use language flash cards.
The driving philosophy is that parents are their child’s most important teacher.
“It’s a much more naturalistic approach,” says Jennifer Hamilton, a Hanen-certified speech-language pathologist who teaches the workshops to parents in Collier and Lee counties. “We bring in language at the pace of the child. We meet them where they are.”
During the sessions, parents meet in small groups with a Hanen-certified speech-language pathologist (SLP) to learn the hands-on techniques they’ll use at home with their child. During the course, the SLP makes a home visit to watch the family interact, videotaping what they see so parents can make improvements with their child.
They also use the Hanen book, “It Takes Two to Talk, A Practical Guide For Parents of Children With Language Delays,” by Jan Pepper and Elaine Weitzman, in the course. The book shows parents the practical tools to encourage communication.
“We know that parents are doing the best they can in their home, and we respect that,” explains Hamilton. “Parents can take what works for them.
“We (teach them) how language is learned and how they can facilitate that.”
So often, notes Hamilton, parents try to speak for their child, finish their sentences or try to get their child to do something other than what the child is enjoying.
“Parents have to notice what their child is working on. Learn to wait and help prompt instead of just doing the task or saying the word for the child.”
For instance, instead of putting pretzels in front of a child who hasn’t communicated whether or not they are hungry, with the Hanen technique, a parent would eat a few pretzels, then wait to see if their child verbalized that they wanted the pretzels, or made eye contact or used other communication skills to express their desire for a pretzel. The parent may also say the word “pretzel” for the child to imitate the word. By using these techniques, language becomes more meaningful and powerful to the child.
“With Hanen, you wait for the cue from the child and focus on eye contact and the give and take of communication,” notes Jessica Stewart, who took the program to help her son, Sam.
“It helps bridge the gap between therapists and parents,” explains Jessica, “It brings the therapy home in a very simple way and we learn how to use communication in everyday situations.”
Sam, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, spent two years in public school classes, but now attends a private academy in Naples for children with learning and developmental disabilities, where he receives additional speech therapy. Even with a busy life and a business to run, Jessica and Ray Stewart have adapted the Hanen Program into their home life.
“We don’t have a structured lifestyle, so it’s good for us to apply this in creating lessons anytime and anywhere,” says Jessica Stewart.
The Stewarts learned about the Hanen Program through their involvement with the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resource System or FDLRS (pronounced “fiddlers”), a state-funded program that provides assistance and training to school districts and parents of special-needs children. As soon as Sam was diagnosed, their pediatrician referred them to the organization to guide them through the educational and support programs that are available.
For first-time parents like the Stewarts, the six-week Hanen course gave them a chance to meet other parents whose children have similar difficulties.
“It made everything functional,” adds Ray Stewart. “We learned from other parents and got support from (them).”
Although the couple took the Hanen program two years ago, they still use the techniques and continue to be encouraged by the results.
“He’s more engaged at home and communicates more with us,” comments Jessica. “There’s more eye contact, more listening.”
Hamilton, who taught the Stewarts, says that many parents say the program is life-changing.
“Our parent satisfaction rate is huge,” Hamilton declares, adding some children no longer need special education classes after their parents master the Hanen program. “It’s not that they’re cured, but they’re at such an improved level.”
In one study of the technique, children whose parents complete the program experience a higher rate of words per minute, greater vocabulary, increased spontaneous use of words and improved use of sentences, according to the Hanen website.
For parents like Jessica and Ray Stewart, however, learning to communicate with their child is the greatest skill they could ever learn.
“It’s depressing at times because you feel this disconnect with your child,” Jessica Stewart says. “You wonder if you’re going to be able to communicate with him. But he gets better every day.”