A Thing with Feathers: Using Parrots to Teach

Hope for autistic children comes from an unlikely source.

Hope for autistic children comes from an unlikely source.
a thing with feathers
Credit: Hugh D’Andrade

Alex knows seven colors, five shapes, and the names of about fifty objects. He understands the concepts of bigger and smaller, and same and different. He can tell you if there's one item in front of him, none, or six (that's as high as he goes).

Not bad for a parrot.

But Alex is more than just a clever pet. If his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, has it right, the techniques she invented to make Alex such an avian ace could be used to teach autistic children to better interact and learn.

Testing of the idea that certain kids could benefit from Alex's regimen started in the early '90s. That's when Diane Sherman, who teaches autistic children, heard Pepperberg, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MIT Media Lab, describe how she'd trained Alex: First, the bird watches a trainer give instructions to another person, who models correct and incorrect behavior; then Alex gets a chance to mimic the behavior. The model and the trainer frequently reverse roles, which helps Alex connect the sounds with the concepts. Sherman thought the system might help some of her students.

In May, Sherman and Pepperberg, who have worked together for several years, presented their latest findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research. But therapists have been slow to act on their results, they say. For one thing, the training regimen is perceived as too intense. "People want something where you can have one therapist for six children," says Pepperberg, "not two per child."

Sherman decided to try the two-trainer model anyway, and found that her autistic and autistic-spectrum students at New-Found Therapies, in Monterey, California, learned more, and more quickly, than most experts believed possible.

Her students were even learning empathy, says Sherman. "That was a surprise to everyone. You're not supposed to be able to engender sympathy in autistic children." One alienated and unmanageable ten-year-old girl learned to stop interrupting and take turns. A four-year-old boy, unable to respond appropriately to basic pleasantries like "How are you?" began to spontaneously greet parents and peers and inquire about kids' health if they were absent.

Usually, when one person observes another performing some task, neurons in the observer's brain actually mirror the activity necessary to perform the task. This year, Harvard Medical School researchers found that the brains of autistic children lack this ability. Sherman and Pepperberg think two-part modeling might restore or reroute brain activity so such information is processed.

Robert Hendren, executive director of the MIND Institute at the University of California at Davis, praised Pepperberg and Sherman's research as innovative, saying it offers children the chance to learn through both observation and direct interaction.

Alex performs for food treats and attention, but children seem motivated primarily by the ability to belong to a group, a surprise to observers who think of autistic kids as being solipsistic. This group dynamic has unforeseen benefits: At the research meeting in May, Pepperberg and Sherman showed that children can serve as models for each other and seem to benefit from doing so. Groups of children can now work with one therapist, making it likely more professionals will flock to the technique.

Monya Baker is a freelance writer and former science teacher.

This article originally published on 6/1/2005

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