According to the American Heritage Desk Dictionary, the word apprentice is defined as “one learning a trade under a skilled master; or a beginner.” I find both of these definitions to be relevant to the work I do each day, as well as the way I think about apprenticeship in relation to the remediation of autism spectrum disorders or related neurological disorders.

Apprenticeship in job training has been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the middle ages. The idea of apprenticeship itself has been around much longer than that, since the dawn of history. Humans have been learning from “masters” forever, and it is what allows the human race to survive. Parents apprentice their children who apprentice their children, and so on. This passing on of basic survival skills is not what we may traditionally think of as a master/apprentice relationship; but in reality, it is apprenticeship in its most basic and necessary form.

We tend to think of apprentices in relation to job training, or within education, or the work force. While this form of training is the backbone of most occupations, apprenticeship is used in many places, and for many purposes. If you go back to the definition at the beginning of this article, it states that an apprentice is one who is learning a trade under a master. When I think of this, I take the meaning of the word “trade” loosely. Trade could mean skill, task, or concept. When thought of in this way, apprenticeship applies to almost everything we learn throughout our lives.

When was the last time you were an apprentice or a master? I often find myself in both positions. Sometimes I am even caught as a master and an apprentice of the same task. As I continue to learn, I begin passing my knowledge and discoveries on to someone else. I’m sure you have all had this experience as well. Let’s face it, there are some things we will never completely master, but we know enough to take on an apprentice and begin guiding him or her to a new level of understanding.

In my profession, I am in the unique position to be both a master and apprentice. I spend most of my days guiding parents to carry out the process of remediation with their children with an autism spectrum disorder or related neurological disorder. But I often find myself making new discoveries as well, and expanding my abilities even though I am in the master role. This guidance and learning is all based on the master/apprentice relationship that is not unique to parents of children with disabilities, but is inherent in the act of parenting. So, I guide parents who are also in the position of being both master and apprentice.

When parents are in the master role, they spend their time guiding their child to make new discoveries within the safety of their trusting relationship. Parents support their children in learning new things, taking their teaching one step at a time until the child feels competent and ready to take on more independence. So what does this master/apprentice relationship look like between a parent and a child? The following is an example of how a parent would guide their child in learning to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, steps s/he would use to foster competence and independence.

  • The parent has all necessary materials ready, and begins by having the child be responsible for helping get the bread out of the bag onto the plate. The parent fosters the discovery of needing the bread first by talking the child through what the first step would be. The parent may then have the child choose the next item, and help to open the peanut butter or jelly. At this stage, the parent may just have the child watch as s/he spreads each ingredient.
  • As the child becomes competent with the steps above, the parent then adds the step of spreading the ingredients. The parent might begin by using hand-over-hand to assist the child, and gradually remove their hand as the child feels competent.
  • Next the parent allows the child to make his or her own sandwich, but stands by to offer needed assistance or reminders.
  • The final stage sees the child able to make his or her own sandwich independently, without the support or supervision of a parent.

Each of the above stages may be broken down into even smaller steps, depending on the ability of the child; but the idea is for the child to build competence, make discoveries, and develop independence under the guidance of a trusted parent. It should also be noted that each stage should be practiced multiple times before moving on to the next step. Guides want to build competence in their apprentice before expanding the level of independence.

Many parents do this type of guiding on a daily basis, without even realizing what they are doing. Each of these master/apprentice experiences is what fosters independence and a quality of life in our children. This same type of master/apprentice relationship is what we use in the remediation of autism spectrum disorders through the RDIĀ® program. The only difference may be the amount of support and/or time it takes to master a task.

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