Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Fall 2009

Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Helping a Child Means Helping a Family

by Nicole B. Murillo, PhD
Assistant Clinical Director, Lovaas Institute – Los Angeles

I remember vividly sitting in Dr. Lovaas' class as a sophomore psychology student at UCLA twelve years ago. I looked forward to the stories he told in class – and every story was a real-life example, most often about his family. I remember him talking about being in love with his wife and how love was a powerful reinforcer or how he quickly shaped his own children's positive behavior by creating a token system to earn a new bike.

As I began working with children directly, I realized that my work was not only with an individual child, but an entire family. It was most fulfilling when a parent told me that she was so excited that they were able to go grocery shopping and stay in the store the whole time because we had been working on waiting and asking to look at things. Or when a parent told me with tears in her eyes that she's sure her child has generalized categories because when he was opening Christmas presents, he said, "Look mom, I got clothes from Santa," "I got three different vehicles," "Thanks for the animal toys, Mom!"

It's impossible to separate a child from the context of his family. With this in mind, I became more interested in family and parenting dynamics, which prompted me to return to school to pursue a degree in clinical psychology. I wanted to learn as much as possible about families and how they work, and how families with children with special needs function differently (or the same) as other families.

What I've learned in my clinical training is that families of children with autism experience stress, anxiety, fear, doubt, joy, elation, and pride, much like families without children with special needs, but in different ways and with different experiences. As a clinician, it's important for me to remember that while helping a family understand the functions of a behavior, how to reinforce a behavior, or how to take data are important and essential goals within that family, empathizing with all of the normal emotions one experiences as a parent is just as important. So, my work involves taking into account a stressful day and how that affects mealtime behavior. My work requires that I remember the importance of teaching a child to generalize identifying colors to different colored shirts so he can help his mom with dressing him in the morning.

The most fulfilling part of this job is making a difference in a family's life. My experiences in college and time at the Lovaas Institute have shown this sentiment is also fundamental to Dr. Lovaas' life of work.

The names of all children in this newsletter have been changed in respect for family confidentiality.


Motor Cycle Racer! Put the child on your lap, facing away from you, for a motorcycle ride. Use your fists as handlebars and rev up. Go around curves by leaning the child left or right with all important motorcycle sounds. Then crash!

Media Player! Work with the computer on, and Microsoft Media Player turned on. Set it to a song or punch line that the child likes to hear, and click start to play it while the child watches the light show.

Happy New Year! Blow and shake New Years Eve noise makers.

Tower Disaster! Set up a tower ten feet away and let the child run at it.

I've Got a Secret! Tell the child, "I have a secret," and when they listen up close, blow quiet raspberries to the ear.




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