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Limitless Growth With the Son-Rise Program

Raun Kaufman sheds light on the Son-Rise Program as an enriching, empowering and effective way to give your child with autism the possibility of limitless growth

The title of the talk was “Autism Help” and I was intrigued. As a parent of a 10-year-old son with autism, I am always attuned to event announcements and news stories on the topic. The speaker, Raun Kaufman, is purported to have “recovered” from autism as a child. Knowing that autism is a lifelong condition, I wondered how this was possible. I signed up, along with my husband and teenage daughter, and drove all the way to Alabang to listen to one man who was the living proof that the possibility of progress, if not outright recovery, becomes an exciting possibility. Thanks to his parents, they took it upon themselves to help their son, and eventually developed the Son-Rise Program. 

Discovering another path 

Raun Kaufman is high energy, articulate, and astute. In the 1970s, when he was just two years old, his parents noticed he was hardly speaking, not making eye contact, and engaging in repetitive behavior—all typical signs of a child on the autism spectrum that, to quote the Autism Speaks website, “refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” Raun’s parents, Barry Neil and Samahria Lyte Kaufman, were told that he would have to be institutionalized.

Raun Kaufman | Paul del Rosario

Raun recounts, “In the ’70s, cattle prods were being used on these kids. They had their wrists tied to the arms of chairs to prevent them from flapping, all of this to try and stop these kids from doing their repetitive, so- called autistic behaviors. [My parents] were watching this and they were like, whatever we do, we know it’s not going to be this.” Instead, they took Raun home, and decided to teach him themselves. 

How did they do it? They simply lay down on the floor with him and imitated his play, no matter how absurd it was. Ron relates, “I start to really respond. I start looking at them. I start smiling at them. I start including them in my play. I eventually start to use words. I start to speak. I start to relate to them. I start to cross that bridge from my world to theirs.” 

Three years later, Raun basically became a neurotypical child. His father wrote a best-selling book, Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love, detailing their inspiring story, which eventually became a TV-movie. Raun’s parents thought to share their method with other parents and educators, establishing the Autism Treatment Center of America in 1983 in Massachusetts. 

While Raun’s story is certainly an inspiring one with a positive outcome, the medical establishment initially rejected his parents’ method. “The very fact that it was parent-directed, parent-created was highly threatening to the professionals at that time,” he explains. However, after more than 30 years, the establishment is slowly coming around, with two recent scientific studies affirming that kids under the Son-Rise Program saw incredible progress, plus other studies that prove positive developments using similar techniques and approaches. Raun believes that a new generation of therapists are more open to trying the Son-Rise approach.

He senses, “In just the last few years, I have seen a real beginning of a shift. More and more people who come to the Autism Treatment Center are getting sent there by their doctors and therapists.” 

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‘Joining’ your child 

“Our job is to unlock the intelligence that’s already there,” proclaims Raun. It’s hard to imagine that a child who is unable to engage with others can find a way to attain his potential. Raun asserts, “A child with autism is capable of limitless growth.” 

It all starts by entering the child’s world, using their own interests and behaviors, no matter how strange, to motivate them to learn. Raun calls this “joining.” Children with autism display repetitive behavior, usually called “stimming”—flapping hands, lining up toys, walking around the room, an intense interest in a singular topic, etc.—which is actually their way of dealing with the challenges of the “normal” world. 

Raun explains, “They create an island of predictability in an ocean of unpredictability.” But instead of dissuading kids from “stimming,” parents should join in the activity. If your child likes to line up his toys, then you do the same. You aren’t merely mimicking your child, “you are falling in love with what your child loves,” says Raun. The common assumption is that this encourages your child to continue his repetitive behavior. But in fact, in most cases, the opposite happens. Your child eventually stops and looks at you in amazement that you’re actually interested in what he’s doing. 

From this joining phase, parents can then take the first steps in introducing their child to the neurotypical world, but without judgment or coercion. Your child should want to enter your world and learn how to live in it. The Son-Rise Program emphasizes human interaction and social development over academics. After all, if a child with autism can’t socially connect with people, then how can he or she learn? The program also addresses toilet training, eating and sleeping problems, tantrums, increased communication, among others. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Defining recovery 

At first look, the Son-Rise Program seems too good to be true. Can autism truly be cured? Raun acknowledges, “I have absolutely no trace [of autism]. Not just that I act neurotypical, but on the inside, I’m neurotypical.” After his “recovery” at age five, Raun ended up graduating from the prestigious Ivy League institution, Brown University, with a degree in biomedical ethics. 

Raun admits, “I actually never use the word ‘cure,’ nor does anyone I work with, just because I think what that does can create a connotation, a sort of magic pill, just do this with the kid and then, poof, no more autism.” Not every kid on the Son-Rise Program has completely recovered like Raun, but he assures, “In most cases, they have made changes that are pretty earth-shattering, that are far beyond their original prognosis. They can relate to people, they can have friends, have joy being with people, and communicating.” 

So for parents with high expectations, Raun cautions, “The first thing we address with parents is, starting from the point of learning, to really be at peace with where your child is and enjoy where your child is before they make an ounce of progress, because you don’t know how much they’re going to make. You want to enjoy your life with that kid for the rest of their life wherever they turn out.” 

So what does he say to parents who want to know if their child can recover? Will their child go to college? Hold a job? Lead a neurotypical life? Raun gives the most honest answer, “I have no idea. Anyone who says they know is lying.” He adds, “We feel like the only ethical position we can take is to treat every child as if they’re capable of recovery.” And this applies to two- year-olds and 30-year-olds as well—it is never too late to learn and be capable of growing, no matter one’s age. In fact, Raun cites many adults with autism making significant progress with the program. 

Coming out of Raun’s lecture, I realize that it’s not about trying to convert your child into some idealized version of “normalcy,” but rather allowing him to be the person he has the potential to become. It’s a non- judgmental and optimistic attitude centered on the child. In essence, Raun says that whatever you do has to feel “right” for your child. And that’s what I—and I imagine every parent who attended that lecture—will set out to do. 

This article was originally published in Working Mom December 2017-January 2018 issue.