Early stages of development are an important period that determines the future of an individual. Children who suffer from emotional and cognitive disturbances that are common for the autism spectrum disorder require special medical attention. Scientists propose a variety of methods aimed at improving social skills and learning abilities. Medical decisions concerning the prescription of drugs allow maintaining normal life patterns but do not cure autism.
In this context, the Reflexive Network Therapy (RNT) is distinguished as one of the most efficient approaches that should be adopted in the primary care for autistic children. RNT has a number of benefits that include mental health improvement and cognitive gains. The current paper focuses on the main principals of RNT and illustrates the advantages of the therapy.
Definition of Autism
Modern society is concerned about people with autism because the disorder affects the quality of life. Scientists study autism in an effort to find efficient medical solutions that would help patients cope with the state of being isolated. Autism is a mental disorder that makes people unable to form relationships and communicate properly. According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), apart from intervarsity, the term is used to describe impairment in communication (repetitive language), problems with social interaction (absence of an emotional response), stereotyped activities (rituals), and other symptoms. Patients with autism avoid social contacts, experience difficulties with concentration, feel anxiety, may be hypersensitive to different sounds or light, have an unchangeable facial expression, and do not make eye contact (American Psychiatric Association).
Additionally, patients fail to modulate patterns of people’s behavior and do not respond properly to different stimuli. Furthermore, autism is a global medical issue that affects children from different countries. It is a matter of great importance to providing medical assistance to autistic individuals. As a rule, doctors prescribe psychoactive drugs, antidepressants, stimulants, and anticonvulsants to people with autism. It should be noted that drugs do not cure the disorder. Their main purpose of medication is to control the symptoms. RNT is more efficient because it helps to improve the quality of life and social skills of children by evacuating their state and teaching them to be a part of society.
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Definition of the Reflexive Network Therapy
RNT is a descriptive term that emphasizes how a network of different elements is used to reflect and respond to children’s emotions and thoughts. In academic sources, RNT is defined as “a deliberately synergistic combination of in-classroom psychological treatment for emotionally and/or developmentally disordered young children” (Kliman, RNT in the Preschool Classroom 6).
Currently, RNT is widely used as the dominant therapy for girls and boys. It is not an innovation but a common method of treatment. RNT was designed in 1965 and was previously known as the Cornerstone Therapeutic Preschool Method (Kliman, RNT: Summary 5). The original purpose of the method was to assist traumatized children. Gilbert Kliman and other scholars discovered that the therapy is effective in relation to children with autism who encounter many barriers in carrying out daily activities. After that, the approach has changed, increased its efficiency and techniques.
Techniques of the Reflective Network Therapy
RNT is an effective practice that utilizes different techniques for achieving results. The core principle of RNT is defined by the fact that it is a network. RNT is successful at working with autistic individuals because it takes into account connections between different members of a team. RNT “works by building “reflective networks” for the child with the adults…and other children” and reflects on “the connections between internal and external experience and behavior” (Sherkow et al. 101). RNT techniques are designed to be applied in the classroom with boys and girls and adults under the supervision of professionals. Thus, there are three components of the therapy: a classroom, a team, and sessions.
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A classroom provides an environment that is beneficial for children and helps them to perform social and cognitive tasks. The classroom creates reality in miniature so that preschoolers know how to behave and what to expect when different people start to interact with them. This approach stresses the fact that every individual has a unique set of emotions and thoughts that may be recognized and understood. Here, the purpose of RNT is to gather these individuals and teach them to be a part of something.
The educational process for preschool children also includes psychodynamic psychotherapy sessions that consist of briefings, debriefings, and parent guidance (Kliman, RNT in the Preschool Classroom 6). RNT psychotherapy sessions take place a few times a week (as a rule, two-three sessions) and continue for 15-20 minutes in the midst of educational activities in the classroom (Kliman, RNT in the Preschool Classroom 7). Sessions are held by a team.
In RNT, the team is relatively small. The figures that contribute to the therapy are as follows: a psychoanalyst (a speech therapist or other professional), a teacher, peers, children and parents (Kliman, RNT: Summary 7). According to Kliman (2014), who developed an algorithm for sessions, a team usually encounters up to eight preschool child patients (7). The net implies that each participant shares his/her ideas and thoughts and reflects on them with other children in order to receive feedback. Thus, RNT is dynamically engaged with each child and is considered to be “emotionally positively charged by interpersonal transactions,” which encourages children to participate (Kliman, RNT: Summary 7).
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Sessions are organized by a trained therapist who focuses on and “attunes to each child in turn for about a quarter an hour at a time” (Kliman, RNT: Summary 7). During this time, the therapist communicates his or her reflections about the child’s conduct and emotions. Reflections are interpreted in terms of socialization and educational responses. The network reveals information about the child in predictable and specific ways. Essentially, a session is a reflection of the child’s actions and feelings. Although in some cases, it takes the form of improvisation, there is a pattern to follow.
The parents' briefing is the beginning of a child’s day. It is an important part as it allows concerned parents and teachers to exchange information regarding the child’s life and his/ her current activities. The therapist analyses the information given by parents and modifies the therapeutic session if needed. Additionally, there are teacher and therapist briefings and meetings with parents. As a result, every individual is constantly involved in the process and the child is under professional supervision. This interaction is a key element of RNT.
The principles of work may be illustrated using the following example. Parents of a two-year-old child inform a teacher and a therapist about a trip that they plan to make. This information is used to construct a session in a way that can help the child (a boy) to express and understand his emotions regarding the matter. A therapist chooses a particular direction for the undertaken activities. For instance, the boy may play with a pretend pie and cut it into pieces. The therapist comments on separating the parts of a pie and explains that a person may not feel good when separated and divided into pieces.
The child is absorbed in a situation and starts to understand the concept of not being together with someone. Later, the boy plays with a pretend mailbox and focuses on an icon of a flag that appears to be broken. The therapist concludes that the boy notices broken items and things because of the broken feelings that he experiences (Sherkow et al. 101). Here, the picture of the inner state appears. The therapist and the teacher help the boy to overcome sadness. Such attention to detail is the major principle of a successful therapy that aims at improving children’s social skills and learning abilities.
Why RNT is Distinguished among Other Practices?
RNT is considered to be a unique approach for several reasons. Firstly, it may be safely applied to preschool children, and it is accessible. Unlike some drugs, RNT does not have negative effects on the body. RNT is children-friendly. It should be noted that in comparison to other medical treatments, RNT is not expensive. For example, the Applied Behavioral Analysis method is a type of early intervention that requires more resources than RNT. Secondly, RNT is a therapy developed for a school classroom setting and recreates real-life situations. Thirdly, children are not separated and are interacting with peers, teachers, and parents. A therapist uses various combinations in interaction to multiply the benefits of communication between children and adults.
Finally, RNT sessions may be organized several times a week. These short sessions are developed to assist children in comprehending their worlds and develop ways to organize social activities and two-way communication. These advantages make RNT “an essentially practical therapeutic modality” (Sherkow et al. 101). In other psychotherapies and educational approaches, preschool patients do not directly take part in the learning process and are not involved in group activities. Individual treatment is the main characteristic of such programs. In this regard, RNT is more effective as it develops a child’s social skills. RNT is also distinguished among other therapeutic and treatment methods as it has positive results that may be measured by different tests.
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Health and Cognitive Advantages of Reflective Network Therapy
RNT is a proven method for preschool children with autism. As it was mentioned above, during forty-five years of its existence, RNT has evolved and increased its efficiency (Kliman, RNT in the Preschool Classroom 7). Studies show that children undergoing RNT have behavioral changes and cognitive improvements. RNT helps children on different levels. The major improvements that follow RNT are listed below:
- RNT helps to develop cognitive abilities and general intelligence.
According to the Children’s Psychological Health Center (2014), the IQ of autistic children raises after RNT. Studies tested 1,700 disturbed preschoolers and 680 children with autism (Children's Psychological Health Center). Tests were administered to identify IQ of 79 children “including 31 who were on the autism spectrum, at the beginning of treatment and again a year later” (Children's Psychological Health Center). It was concluded that approximately “95% of IQ testable children have sustained IQ rises” (Kliman, RNT: Summary 13).
- RNT makes children more adjusted to receiving and giving affection. Girls and boys learn to express their ideas and feeling and understand the emotional reactions of others.
- RNT helps patients to increase their vocabulary and learn new concepts.
- RNT teaches to control impulses and transform different emotions into states that enable children to establish dialogues with others. Thus, RNT allows overcoming resistance to learning and helps to focus on educational activities.
- The architecture of RNT provides conditions that make it possible for children to receive treatment a few times per week.
This accessibility enables the successful cooperation of a team and enhances the process of learning. A therapist can observe children, witness their progress, and address some social issues in case of a problem. The therapist’s input is of considerable practical importance as he/ she is able to evaluate patients’ status and design strategies for future work.
- Teamwork guides parents and helps siblings of autistic children to connect with each other.
These are the most prominent features that make RNT productive therapy. RNT has already been implemented in more “than 20 teacher-therapist teams in a variety of preschool settings from New York to San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit, Boston, San Mateo, Oakland, and Buenos Aires” (Kliman, RNT: Summary 5). Kliman and other scientists continue to develop the therapy and adopt it to the educational and social needs of autistic children.
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Conclusion on Reflective Network Therapy
Reflective Network Therapy is a unique method that has a positive impact on preschool children with autism. The fundamental principle of work finds its particularization in the fact that RNT is a network that combines several elements. RNT is distinguished among other treatments as it does not separate patients that already feel emotionally isolated. The role of parents, therapists, and teachers is important as they work together with children and help them learn to develop. As a result, preschoolers are able to express their emotions and share ideas with other children and adults. It should be emphasized that preschool children are at the center of the network that focuses on providing motivation for performing social and cognitive tasks.
Considerable improvements and positive outcomes follow the therapy. RNT is effective as it develops a child’s social skills and modifies the perception of other people. RNT integrates the child’s emotions and knowledge about the world into an interactive setting that compels children to learn more and develop. The advantages of RNT include the improvement of behavioral patterns and IQ results. Thus, RNT should be applied in various preschool classrooms as a method for early innervations in autism treatment.