Hanen's "Follow Your Child's Lead" - A Recipe For Success

By Penny Gill
President of Autism/PDD Family Alliance 

My husband and I entered The Hanen Program decades ago in the mid-1980's, but I still remember the feeling of relief it brought us during a dark, frightening time when my son's language simply was not developing. Each week I looked forward to the group sessions with other parents who tried just as hard as we did to help their youngsters to communicate. It was the first opportunity we had to mingle with people coping with the same anxieties that dominated our lives, and we forged such bonds with them during this shared quest that I felt a terrible sense of loss when the course concluded and we all went our separate ways. However, I left Hanen equipped with principles that - I realize in retrospect - guided much of how we supported our son in the decades that followed. 

The golden rule - Follow Your Child's Lead - helped us finally make some headway with Nate. It had been heartbreaking trying to engage him in activities of no interest to him, prescribed by some well-meaning professionals as essential building blocks in his development. He was utterly unresponsive to attempts to roll a ball back and forth, or to play with many toys that were suggested. How much easier was it to incorporate developmental strategies into activities he gravitated to naturally, like playing musical instruments (they were all percussion in those days), going through story books, and romping around playground equipment. I remember always repeating what he said or did, and then expanding on it a tiny bit at a time to draw him further along, adding an adjective or a phrase, building in new gestures and facial expressions. I wasn't as adept at this as some other parents, but I soldiered on, past my sense of ineptitude, doing the best I could, because (as unskilled as I was) it was clearly benefitting my son.

In helping to shape his school curriculum in elementary and high school, I realize that following his lead still shaped my thinking. I encouraged teachers not to fill his day with activities he found too challenging, but to shape his day into an inviting mix of activities he loved, with only the tiniest portion of other activities. Music, reading, cooking, and French always formed the core of his school days. He stayed on task for activities that were meaningful for him, and ended up making significant strides in them. A day that was heavy in music classes, French and reading skills - the subjects he loved - allowed him to excel.

In structuring the cooking school I run for adolescents and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders, the golden rule of following the student's lead and building on it in incremental steps continues to guide me. I only assign students recipes to prepare that they'll want to eat. This way their motivation is intact from the outset, so there's no struggle keeping them on task, even when they're having to learn how to work with an unfamiliar utensil or to perform a new motor skill. I build on their skills gradually, adding new challenges in tiny, incremental steps - just as Hanen taught me to do all those years ago. Though many of our students have very restricted eating preferences, I never force them to eat anything. Foods that are introduced to them bear a strong resemblance to other things they like to eat. Gradually, we broaden their diet, going beyond their established eating patterns in small steps.
I honestly don't have any idea where my son would have ended up if my husband and I had not enrolled in The Hanen Program all those years ago, but I strongly suspect his school years and now his adulthood would not be anywhere near as happy as they have proven to be, both for him and us. What we learned there so long ago continues to guide us to this day.

The Hanen Centre has developed two excellent programs to help parents of children on the autism spectrum learn how to promote their child’s communication development in everyday conversations and routines. 

For more information on the More Than Words® program for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, click here.

For more information on the TalkAbility™ program for parents of children with high functioning autism, click here.


Penny Gill is the mother of a now-adult son with autism spectrum disorder. She and her husband attended The Hanen Program in 1986. She now runs an innovative cooking school in Dundas, Ontario for people with autism spectrum disorder. The Autism Cooking School Is part of the Autism/PDD Family Alliance, a charity which serves the needs of teenagers and adults with Aspergers and other forms of Autism Spectrum Disorder through innovative services. For more information on this cooking school, please visit www.cookingwithautism.com