Review – Chaos to Calm – Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism

Chaos to Calm – Martha Gabler

Chaos to Calm

I’m going to quickly address the general topic of this book so you can decide whether you want to read this review or not – the advice in this book originally comes from people who use these methods to train dolphins and dogs. If you’ve seen Jurassic World, then think of the clicking thing Chris Pratt’s character does with the Raptors. It’s a bit like that. I’m not a big fan (of this method, not of Jurassic World – for all it’s flaws I love dinosaurs), so thought I’d throw that up at the front.

The method used and described in this book is called TAGteach, and I’m going to put in the definition provided by the book:

TAGteach combines positive reinforcement with an event marker signal, often an acoustical signal. Many things can be used to “mark” an event. I used box clickers, flashlights, and even handclaps if I had nothing else available. The marker – the key communication tool used in the system – makes a distinctive “click” sound to mark a behavior at the time it occurs. This sound becomes a simple acoustical message that is quickly processed. Then benefit of this is that it is binary, with only two values: The mark means YES, and absence of the mark means “try again”.

So basically – when an autistic person does something you want them to do you mark (click your pen/flash your light) and when they do something you don’t like you don’t mark. There are quite a few of the things from ABA that people have massive problems with such as “Quiet Mouth”, “Quiet Hands”, and “Quiet Feet”. There is a big section on using this method to reduce self-stimulatory physical behaviours – there’s no discussion of any function these behaviors might have because they’re just dismissed as pointless physical behaviors.

Children with autism often have unusual eye behaviors. My son often squints and flutters his eyelashes. Sometimes children may stare fixedly at some object or roll their eyes around wildly, and they often avoid eye contact. Children may also make unusual grimaces or other facial movements. Generally, we would like to decrease odd eye behaviors and increase nice eye behaviors.

Which reads a lot to me like – the whole point of this is to make a child look less autistic. Who does it harm if a child flutters their eyelashes or stares at an object? If a child was poking things into their eyes then yes, I could see diverting the child to a less harmful behavior, but none of this is harmful.

To jump back for a moment, the first things this book teaches are “Quiet Mouth” and “Nice Walking” – now the “Nice Walking” part isn’t horrendous because a big chunk of the focus is on the child walking beside the adult when out in public which is obviously a big concern for parents of autistic children who run in potentially dangerous situations. The “Quiet Mouth” one starts by saying that if your child is crying, wailing, screaming then you should just ignore them and start marking each time they are silent and provide them attention. Then it progresses onto doing the same thing for verbal stims, echolalia and verbal tics – ignore them and mark and provide attention for meaningful verbalisations. Again, no discussion on what might be causing a child to be upset, and no discussion of how what Gabler terms meaningless verbalisations might be very meaningful to the child, just clicking or ignoring.

Gabler claims to have used this method with her son to great effect and the book is peppered with examples of how he has improved – one anecdote talks about how he can now sit in a waiting room for 45 minutes with no toys or treats without issue. That particular anecdote seemed especially unreasonable to me because most adults will have things to occupy themselves whilst waiting, such as their phone, a tablet, a magazine or book. So why is it a good thing that her son just sits there for 45 minutes doing nothing but waiting? Also, I’m not going to say whether this method worked for her son or not – because I don’t know. Maybe it did work because the method was actually good for her son (regardless of my opinion of it), or maybe it worked because carrying out the method caused her to pay so much more attention to her son that her increased involvement in his life meant he reacted to her. Either way, there’s an awful lot of books which describe so called “amazing” methods, it’s difficult to decide which accounts to believe at times.

There are indepth descriptions throughout the book of how she implements and adapts this TAGteach method to different situations, and she even includes the data for when she was teaching her son how to lie in bed and go to sleep. Rather than click she decided to use a torch to mark every time her son exhibited preferred behavior (lay down/sat on the bed/was quiet) and over the course of 3 and half hours one night she marked (so flashed the torch) good behaviors 536 times. I would not be able to sleep if someone flashed a torch at me just short of twice a minute. What about children with visual sensory processing problems – what is 500+ torch flashes going to do for them? The only time sensory processing is acknowledged is when Gabler basically says sensory processing is useful because the children will hear the click better.

Then there’s the general attitude concerning autism that makes parts of this book very unpleasant to read:

Recently, I pulled up to a red light, happened to glance at the car on the right, and noticed a young man with autism in the back seat. He was rocking rhythmically back and forth, never missing a beat, never looking to left or right, with his face and mouth frozen into an odd grimace.

This young man was clean, well groomed and nicely dressed. Obviously his caring family had made arrangements for him to be taken somewhere, but he was as imprisoned by his behaviors as if he were draped in chains. What a loss.

This piece basically ends the book where the author makes all these over-arching and narrow-minded judgements of a person she sees in another car whilst stopped at some red lights. Since she witnessed him for 30 seconds or at most a minute, she feels qualified to say that this young man is “imprisoned” by his autism and that his life is a loss. If that paragraph had appeared earlier in the book, I might have just shut it and not bothered finishing it.

Is it worth reading? Give this one a miss, there are better strategies out there than this.

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