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An Interview with Raun Kaufman on the Son-Rise Program for Autism

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.
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Raun K. KaufmanFormer CEO of the Autism Treatment Center of America Raun Kaufman was the first recipient of the Son-Rise program, developed by his parents in response to his childhood diagnosis of severe autism. Though his diagnosis was presented by doctors as incurable, the Kaufmans, who had recently engaged with the 1970s human potential movement, remained hopeful with the understanding that if they decided the situation was hopeless, it would become so. They engaged intensively with their son, joining in and participating with his autistic repetitive behaviors (against medical advice), seeking to create rapport. As Mr. Kaufman began attending to and engaging with his parents, they then used that hook to challenge him and teach necessary interpersonal and communication skills. Today the son-rise program offers an alternative to the dominant applied behavior analysis model which seeks to treat autism by first addressing the autistic child's difficulty forming relationships rather than their odd behaviors. The Center offers intensive parent training in the son-rise intervention model (as parents - not professionals - deliver this care) from their Massachusetts campus. Having been developed by non-scientists outside the university, the efficacy of the son-rise program has not been established with clinical trials. However, Mr. Kaufman suggests that recently research has been occurring which will shortly be published.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with Raun K. Kaufman about autism and a unique approach for treating it. As the former CEO and current director of global education at the Autism Treatment Center of America, Raun K. Kaufman lectures internationally on autism treatment. At 18 months, Raun was diagnosed as severely autistic. Though advised to institutionalize Raun, his parents, authors/teachers Barry Neil Kaufman and Samahria Lyte Kaufman, instead created an innovative home-based, child-centered program in an effort to reach their son. Their work, which developed into a unique methodology now known as the Son-Rise Program, enabled Raun to recover completely from autism without any trace of his former condition.

Raun's story was recounted in Barry Neil Kaufman's best-selling book, Son-Rise: the Miracle Continues, and was also the subject of an award-winning NBC TV movie, Son-Rise: a Miracle of Love, which has been viewed by more than 300 million people world-wide. Raun's parents went on to found the Autism Treatment Center of America, part of a non-profit organization, where the Son-Rise Program has been taught to more than 24,000 parents and professionals from over 85 countries since its founding in 1983.

A graduate of the Ivy League's Brown University with a degree in biomedical ethics, Raun K. Kaufman now lectures world-wide and teaches the very techniques and tools responsible for his own full recovery. Articles and chapters by Raun Kaufman have been featured in journals such as the Good Autism Practice Journal and Autism Files, as well as in the books Silver Linings, Cutting Edge Therapies for Autism 2010 through 2011, and Son-Rise: the Miracle Continues. Mr. Kaufman has spoken at universities, conferences, and completed lecture tours in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway.

Now, here's the interview.

Raun Kaufman, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Raun Kaufman: Thanks for having me.

David: Well, I'm happy to meet you and to have you on the show. I was unaware of your story and the Autism Treatment Center of America until it was brought to my attention by one of our listeners.

Raun Kaufman: Oh, really?

David: Yes, and from her description, I thought, well, yes, this does sound - then I went to the website and I thought, yes, this would be an excellent topic for us to explore. I think the obvious place to start is with your own remarkable story. I understand that you were autistic as a child. According to your parents, your development was normal for the first 12 to 14 months of life, and then you began to retreat into autism. Now, you probably don't remember that, but what can you tell us about that period?

Raun Kaufman: Well, here's the thing. Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up. I was diagnosed as a very severe case of autism, so when I say "severe," I mean I had no language whatsoever; I made no eye contact with my parents or anyone else; I often even appeared deaf and totally unresponsive to sounds or anything else. I was really completely encapsulated in my own world, and actually I would spend my days and many hours a day doing repetitive, what many people call stimulating behaviors like rocking back and forth. I would pick a plate from the kitchen and spin it on its edge on the floor for hours and hours and hours at a time.

My parents were told I had a less than 30 I.Q., so they were told, listen, this is a really severe case. Autism is a permanent, lifelong condition. This is the way that your son's going to be for the rest of his life, and when he gets a little older, you're going to want to put him in an institution where he can be properly taken care of. And my parents did something really amazing in the face of that.

David: Before you go into that, let me just say, to me, that's an astounding story. I mean I'm a psychologist. Autism certainly is not anything I specialized in or studied deeply, but I have to say I was under the impression that it's pretty much incurable, permanent; maybe people can make slight adjustments. And yet, as I talk to you, you don't sound like anybody that ever had anything close to that. So it's very remarkable.

Raun Kaufman: I know. It's absolutely remarkable to me as well. And, for me, my parents developed this program to help me, right? So they called it the Son-Rise Program, but they spelled it S-O-N because I was their son.

David: Right.

Raun Kaufman: And they developed this program. They really turned their backs on all these dire predictions, and they set up this program. They worked with me, going totally against conventional wisdom, for about three and a half years, after which time - as you were observing - I ultimately recovered without any trace of my former condition.

So the fact that that would be your sort of understanding of autism is not at all strange to me or unusual. In fact that's pretty much everyone's understanding of autism, and that's a lot of the reason why I travel so much and do so many lectures is because all these parents who have these kids who are getting diagnosed, they're told - when their child is three or four or five or seven - that this is permanent and that their child can only make a very little bit of progress for the next 30 or 40 years. So their children are written off ahead of time, and the problem with that is it doesn't give us a chance to actually help all these kids reach their maximum potential.

And when I say maximum potential, we've worked with kids at the Autism Treatment Center of America. We've worked with kids who've recovered exactly the way that I have, with no trace of their former condition, but we've also worked with plenty of kids who have not recovered, but who have made enormous progress that was still beyond what their parents were told that they could accomplish.

So what we try and do is basically never make a decision ahead of time about what a child is not going to be able to do, and so, for me, I'm really grateful because my parents made that decision about me. They didn't know I would recover completely, but ultimately I've lived this completely normal life with no trace of my former condition because these two people really believed in me when no one else did.

David: Yeah, I wanted to ask you. I know you were quite young. Do you have any memory at all of the autistic period of your life?

Raun Kaufman: Very, very little, and believe me, I wish I had more because I would want to have more memory of it. So if you ask me why did I spin plates or what was I thinking when I was doing that, I can't answer that. I was pretty young and also in a very different place mentally and physiologically.

David: Sure.

Raun Kaufman: However, I have little teeny bits of memory. I can remember seeing things at different points that looked very different to me; meaning walls would sometimes look like they were bubbling in, or when I would at someone's face, it would almost look like I was looking at it through the reverse end of a pair of binoculars, if you've ever looked backwards through binoculars. So I know that I did see things differently, and that's consistent with actually our current understanding of part of what's happening with autism, which is these children are processing their visual and auditory and tactile inputs really differently than we are, which is part of the reason they behave differently.

The one last thing I'll just say about this is that the little bit that I remember that was towards the end of my program - meaning when I was mostly recovered - was my mom working with me and laughing and I was just having fun and playing games. So I don't remember. I don't have this memory of I was in a special program because something was wrong with me. I just remember my mom and some other people playing with me and loving me and having a good time.

So the reason I highlight that is because that's one of the things I love about the Son-Rise Program is that that's the experience that these kids are having when they're being worked with in this way, versus having this regimented task-based experience which is the majority of the experience of most kids with autism when they're being taught.

David: Right, and now just before we move into a little bit more about treatment, let me just ask you - I think you said that there's no trace of it now, and I just wanted to test that. Is there any trace of that, do you think, in your personality or experience now? Are you sort of unusually obsessive or anything that you would identify with that earlier condition?

Raun Kaufman: Well, it's a totally fair question. I can tell you, for me, there really isn't. And that doesn't mean - I'm not speaking for anyone other than myself when I say that. I can just tell you, for me, I just sort of have this experience of being a regular guy living his life. I will say that because - and I attribute this to what my parents did with me - because they focused relentlessly for the entire time they were working with me on helping me develop socially and create relationships with people rather than teaching tasks and skills, that was what ended up being my forte and what actually now comes the most easy to me.

So when I say I have no trace, it's almost like I'm the opposite: so what tends to come most easy to me - in fact what a lot of my job is based on now - has to do with interacting with people, socialization, relationships. That stuff is really easy for me, and the irony is that the stuff that used to be what would come naturally to me as someone with autism - doing things over and over again, routine, things like that - is the stuff that does not come naturally to me, and in some ways I really stink at it.

I mean I'm definitely not the most organized person you'll meet. I tend to very much not like routines and like to do things different each day. So, for me, I sort of feel like because my parents focused on what I was missing and really helped me to build that, instead of just focusing me on doing rote tasks, that enabled me to sort of really have this totally different life experience than what I was set up for at the beginning.

David: Okay, that's a great answer. It's fascinating. Now, we've made reference to your parents. They're, by name, Barry Kaufman and Samahria. Am I saying that right? Samahria Kaufman?

Raun Kaufman: Amazing enough, you actually pronounced it right. That's awesome.

David: Okay, great. Well, they worked very hard with you as a child to bring you out of the autistic state.

Raun Kaufman: They certainly did.

David: Yeah, describe to us what they did.

Raun Kaufman: Well, here's the thing. I love describing it because it was so different and so diametrically opposed to everything that was being done. And actually it's still diametrically opposed to 90% of what's being done. What they did was, first of all, they realized really early on - and this is now the basis of the whole Son-Rise Program - that autism is not a behavioral disorder where we have to stamp out the autistic behaviors and train in the other behaviors. Autism is rather a social relational disorder. It's basically a difficulty in all of these kids - whether they're old or young, verbal or not verbal - the difficulty creating interpersonal relationships and communicating with people and relating to people.

And my parents saw this right away, and they saw that I was in my own world; they saw that I had difficulty connecting to people, so their job wasn't - in their own minds, was not, oh, how can we stamp out this behavior of him spinning plates; how can we stop him from doing this and get him to behave more normally. Theirs was, okay, how do we create a connection with our son, and how do we help him to really want to connect with us.

Now, one of the things I often say is that in the Son-Rise Program the children show us the way in, and then we show them the way out. So my parents decided first they were going to let me show them the way in, and one of the first things they did - which is now a cornerstone of the program; it's a first step - is called joining. And what joining is, is let's say I was spinning a plate over and over again. They were told to stop me or to take the plate away, but what they would do, every time they saw me doing that, was get a plate. They'd sit down next to me, and they would literally spin plates with me. They'd get really into it. They would do it - if I did for hours, they would do it with me. And what they found was some really amazing things. First of all, they were told that this was a terrible idea, that this was going to make me more autistic because it was going to reinforce the behaviors I was already doing.

David: Yeah, one of the things I remember from about that period of time was that one of the leading researchers in the area - I think his name was Ivar Lovaas. You've probably heard of him.

Raun Kaufman: Yes, I have.

David: He was at UCLA and I think he was actually putting autistic kids on a electrified floor to do aversive conditioning if they didn't perform certain behaviors. So your parents really were striking out in a very different, very radical direction, and it also reminds me of reports of some people who worked with schizophrenics in a very similar way, where they would try to enter their world and mirror their behavior. And there are reports that, at least in some cases, that was a powerful intervention. I interrupted you. Go ahead.

Raun Kaufman: No, I'm actually glad you did interrupt because what you said about Ivar Lovaas, who actually pioneered what's now known as ABA or applied behavioral analysis. Now, ABA is actually still by far the most common way that children with autism are treated and worked with. And although they no longer tend to do these aversives - you used the word correctly, which is - aversives is the idea of sort of basically a negative consequence or a punishment for a child doing a behavior. At the time, in the '70s, they were electro-shocking these kids to try and get them to stop. Now, obviously, parents won't tolerate that any more, thank God, but they still do very, very, very mild versions of it, like saying no or trying to get them to stop.

And what my parents saw with this - and what we've now seen over the past 30 years with a whole host of different kinds of kids and adults - is that when we join them - it's not all that we do - but when we join them when they're doing those repetitive behaviors, that the more we join them, the more they actually look at us and pay attention to us, and the less, literally the less they do whatever that repetitive behavior is, because they start to be more interested in our world and thus they don't need to do that as much.

So, ironically enough, it is precisely by joining them in this that helps these children move beyond these behaviors. And that's the first step, by the way. I don't want to make it seem like that's everything, but that's what my parents started with by doing. And then once they had my attention - meaning once I started to look at them and be interested in them - then they still had to teach me all the stuff that they were going to teach me to communicate and everything.

So they would build these games and activities based on things that already liked or was motivated by. So, for instance, if we're doing this with a child now, we may have a child that likes physical play or wrestling, or we have a child that likes Thomas the Tank Engine or Disney characters or Star Wars themes. So we build activities around what the children already like, and then within those activities we add things that are maybe a little challenging, like where we might challenge them to communicate verbally or to give us more eye contact or to stay involved in the game with another person just a little bit longer.

So it is by doing that part of coaxing me more and more out of my world and challenging me to try new things through things I was already motivated by, that my parents were then able to slowly help me cross that bridge from my world to theirs.

David: Yes, and I gather that, in large part, their work was predicated on some personal growth work that they had been doing before you were born, which might account for the fact that they were willing to strike out sort of in this unique direction. What can you tell us about the program or approach, what that personal growth thing was? Because I remember that period in the late '60s, early '70s when a lot of that sort of thing was going on.

Raun Kaufman: Absolutely, and you know it's funny you should bring that up because my parents have even said to me, "You know if you'd been born several years earlier, you would have had a really different life. There's no way we would have come up with the Son-Rise Program or worked with you, or possibly even believed that you could recover." And the reason they say that is because they were really different person like five years before I was born. A few years before I was born, they had done I guess you could call it personal development or personal growth work, but basically all it was, was they started to look at their own beliefs and perspectives and how those beliefs impacted how they felt and what they did.

So, for instance, we have a model we teach, and we teach it to parents, called Stimulus Belief Response Model, and it's in kind of as opposed to the Stimulus Response Model. So the idea is that if you call me stupid and I get upset, the stimulus response model says your insult caused my upsetness. But the stimulus belief response model says that when you called me stupid, I filtered it through a belief I had about that. Maybe I believed that when you called me stupid, that really means I'm stupid, or maybe that I made it mean that you don't respect me or that I'm not good enough, or whatever I made it, and then I felt bad about it.

So they started to realize that what they thought about whatever was happening was much more important than what was actually happening. It had a much bigger affect on them. And so they decided - they really were able to see that whether they were able to cope with something or be happy with something or be inspired about something had everything to do with how they were seeing it and nothing to do with what was actually occurring.

So they had just been developing this, and this was called and is still called the option process. It's taught at the Option Institute, which is a part of the same organization that I'm with. And they had just come into their own with this, and they were starting to work with other people and help them with this when I was born and then when I was diagnosed. So the timing was really perfect. If I had been born just a few years earlier, they would have handled it a lot differently.

For instance, they would have been really devastated by my diagnosis. When a doctor said, "This is terrible, and he's never going to recover," they would have believed that, and they would have thought, "Oh, well, that's the truth." They wouldn't have realized that they can choose how they see it and what they believe about it, and if they could see me as a wonderful blessing even if other people saw me as a terrible tragedy.

David: Yes, that's interesting because that idea of that intervening step of belief really is a cornerstone of a number of approaches these days, including going back to Albert Ellis and rational emotive therapy, which later kind of morphed into some variants of behavior therapy, but also in some more esoteric approaches as well. And it's certainly something I subscribe to. I try to look at that myself in my own life.

Now, you went all the way from being an autistic child to graduating from Brown University, which is one of the top Ivy League schools in the country, to being CEO of the Autism Treatment Center of America. That caused me to wonder if you had a particularly mild form of autism, but actually at the beginning of the interview you said no - you were diagnosed with a severe form.

Raun Kaufman: Yes, and by the way, we do work with plenty of kids and adults who have more mild forms of autism or who have what's called Asperger's syndrome, which is where they have a very high verbal competency but a lot of difficulty socially connecting. So we work with children and adults who are considered more mild, and who are considered quite severe and have no language at all. So there is a whole spectrum there.

In my particular case, I was a really severe case, but, again, there's lots of different children who have lots of different experiences. I think what I'm excited about about my case isn't that that means every child who does the Son-Rise Program turns out exactly like me, but more that it at least shows us what our children are capable of if we don't cut them off at the knees in advance.

David: Yes.

Raun Kaufman: If we don't put a ceiling on them in advance and at least give them a chance, it means there are kids that are capable of complete recovery, and even those that aren't are still capable of extraordinary change and growth.

David: Yes, yes. Now, I noted that while you were at Brown, you ended up majoring in biomedical ethics.

Raun Kaufman: That's correct.

David: And I'm wondering if somehow this set of experiences that we're talking about - did that influence that choice of a major in some way?

Raun Kaufman: You know, it did. It did. There were several things that influenced that choice, and I don't think it was any one thing. One of the things that influenced it was every course required for that major was something that I was really excited about and wanted to take. But, yes, the biggest thing about it - biomedical ethics was sort of the intersection of biology, philosophy, and sociology, and so what it had to do with was ethical and moral issues approaching different medical and biological issues that come up with people.

And one of those issues is absolutely how do we treat children with autism and with other special needs, because that's an ethical question that a lot of us are faced with, and how we answer that has everything to do with then what we actually do in the real world with our kids.

David: Okay, so in terms of what we know about autism, theories of autism, etc., are we talking about a continuum of autism that goes from mild to severe? Are we talking about a cluster of different disorders that have some similarities? What's your sense of that?

Raun Kaufman: To some degree both of what you said. We're certainly talking about a continuum or what's called a spectrum. That's why they call them autism spectrum disorders. That goes all the way from a child or adult who has no language at all and spends his or her days doing repetitive behaviors or having lots of different, let's say, tantrums or different kinds of behaviors like that; goes all the way to someone who's more moderate, and then all the way to someone who's more mild, who might, for instance, be able to speak and communicate verbally but still might have difficulty looking at people, have difficulty communicating socially, you know sort of chit-chatting, or understanding jokes and laughing at jokes because they don't really get humor. So there's - and that's a much more mild situation.

We actually address all of that because, no matter whether it's mild or severe, the central challenge is still exactly the same, which is this social relational challenge, this difficulty relating to people. And that's a key keystone of what autism is. And what I do find baffling sometimes is that, all these years later, when there's in some ways so much of a greater understanding of autism than when I was little in many ways, and yet in some ways we're stuck where we were stuck in the '60s and '70s of looking at these kids and saying, "How do we change their behavior."

And it's not that I don't think we can help these kids with their behaviors in different ways, but that's the wrong question to be asking because that's not what autism is. If we address the social relational parts and we help these children relate to people and want to relate to people and enjoy relating to people, then the behaviors solve themselves. They're very easy to deal with and help these kids with at that point, but that's just a symptom. It's not a cause. So we want to really focus on the root challenge of autism.

Now, to answer the other part of your question, which is are there a bunch of different disorders together, that's still - the verdict's still out on that one because it definitely does seem that there's not one single cause, for instance, of all children and adults with autism. We do know that there's been a staggering increase. You know, when I was little, it was less than one in 10,000 kids. Now it's more than one in 100, and actually about one in 68 boys because 80% of people with autism are boys.

So there's been a staggering increase, so clearly something is causing and contributing to the increase, but it doesn't look like it's one magic bullet. It looks like it's a number of things and that there's maybe a genetic predisposition that makes a child susceptible that then combines in some cases with some environmental trigger in the first couple years of life that may be what pushes some kids over the edge. But, again, the verdict's still out on that. There's still a lot of research being done, and we're trying to figure that out.

David: Yes, and, boy, there are just so many environmental toxins that we're exposed to these days -

Raun Kaufman: That's for sure.

David: That I have to believe that somewhere in that mix that that's certainly going to emerge as part of the issue. Well, as you've indicated, your parents went on to kind of generalize from their experience with you to create a program which has become the Autism Treatment Center of America. You've told us a little bit about the Center and described the first step or two. Maybe you can just tell us a little bit more.

Raun Kaufman: Sure, sure, absolutely. Well, yes, I was just giving you like a little - sort of dipping our toe in a little bit. There's several other things that are part of the program. I'll just highlight a couple very briefly. So, for instance, one of the things we see is that children with autism tend to be very over-stimulated and overwhelmed by their environments. So one of the things that we do is we help parents and sometimes professionals set up what's called the Son-Rise Program playroom, which is basically an environment that's free from distraction and over-stimulation. So we find that that's very helpful in helping children be more interactive.

We also have this whole thing called the Son-Rise Social Developmental Model, which tracks these kids according to these five stages of development in four different areas, which have to do with interactive attention span, flexibility, eye contact, non-verbal communication, verbal communication. So we help focus kids on what we call the four fundamentals of socialization, and then we help track them according to this model. And the cool thing is that this model has, for parents and professionals, what the next goal should be depending on where their child is, and then what are the activities that they can do to help their child reach that goal. So there's that piece as well.

And there's also things like - you mentioned it before: we spend quite a bit of time helping parents with their own attitudes and their own emotions, and that's not only to help parents feel better - which is great - but more importantly than that, because these children are in this state of they're constantly overwhelmed and they're constantly almost in a sense looking for threats, things that might be overwhelming or threatening to them, then when a parent or therapist is stressed out or frustrated with the child or overwhelmed by their own day or feeling emotionally harried or scared, then the child doesn't understand all the reasons for it. They just know that this person's uncomfortable and stressed, and they see that as a threat, and that actually makes them withdraw more or become more aggressive, and then it's harder to get them to connect and relate to people and learn new things.

So what we find is that addressing the attitude as well is a crucial component, because when someone is comfortable and is relaxed and isn't scared and is delighting in their child, these children then view that person as safe, and so they will do a lot more with that person. They'll communicate a lot of more. They'll try new things. And so we see that's a crucial part that is probably, if I were to say, the most overlooked area of autism.

David: We know that the approach worked for you. How successful has it been for other autistic children, and have you done any outcome research?

Raun Kaufman: Great question. Well, first of all, couple things. Number one, so we've been doing this for, like I said, just about 30 years. And the organization itself was founded in 1983. It's located in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Oh, and by the way, it's on this 100-acre campus that is seriously gorgeous. I have to tell you, I never appreciated it when I was little, but once I moved away and moved back, I cannot get over how gorgeous it is. So it's really kind of an oasis for parents.

But, anyway, they come there and we help them. Most of our programs are about five days long. For instance, the key one, it's called the Son-Rise Program Startup. The Startup's like a Monday through Friday program, includes all food and lodging, and parents come for that time to learn the techniques that they can then go home and use with their child. So the child doesn't come to that program.

The reason I highlight that in answer to your question is just to explain to you that what happens is parents go and they learn and then they try it at home, and parents do all sorts of different versions of the program. So the outcomes often vary and the programs themselves vary. So, for instance some parents will do a full-blown 40-hour-a-week Son-Rise program. Some will do a part-time 20 hours a week, and some will do 8 to 10 hours a week, and they'll just do it for an hour or two a day after school or something like that. And we let the parents make that decision because we really feel like the parents are the - they're the best resource for their children, and they're the ones who need to be making that decision.

So, as a result, there's all sort of different outcomes. Now, for a long time, because we're a nonprofit organization, we didn't have the funds to be doing these intense longitudinal studies with outcomes and everything like that, so all that we knew was we did know that many, many, many children had recovered completely like me. We knew that thousands of others had made incredible progress that literally was double or triple what their original prognosis was. So we knew that that had happened, and we knew that the vast, vast majority of kids that we worked with had made progress that their parents were really excited about. But the exact nature of progress for each and every person and what the numbers were we hadn't totally figured out.

Now, a couple of things that are really exciting. One is we have a study that's just been submitted for publication to a journal, and that was done through Northwestern University in Chicago and also Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. And they did look at some short-term outcome determinants, and I don't want to get into the details because the universities don't like to talk about it until it's officially been published.

David: Right.

Raun Kaufman: But what we're now seeing is that when we do - when we use these principles with kids, their amount of social connections that they do per hour, per day, etc. dramatically increases, and so that has all sorts of long-term consequences later on, because if a child connects more socially, then a lot of what you would call autistic or autistic behaviors then ends up no longer showing up or being relevant any more.

So we really want to help these parents and professionals help these kids to be really successful with other people. We see that that's so much more important than a child learning to count or to name their colors or to say thank you because they've learned that they're supposed to say thank you. It's much more important that they have friends, that they enjoy people, that they're able to be spontaneous.

And if you ask parents what their ultimate wish is for their child, it's never to be better at math or naming colors; it's always been like, "I want my child to say 'I love you,' and really mean it," "I want my child to have a best friend or a girl friend later on." And so that's what we're seeking most of all. So we also try not to get too wrapped up in "the child must fit this outcome." We're just trying to get forward movement and have these kids have better relationships - and have these parents have better relationships as well.

David: The dominant model, as you mentioned earlier, is the applied analysis of behavior, and so this program is radically different. And I would expect that, because it's radically different, it might be controversial. Are there any critics out there? And if so, what are their complaints?

Raun Kaufman: Well, first of all, if you would expect that it would be controversial, you would expect correctly.

David: Okay.

Raun Kaufman: So, yes. It definitely is controversial, although much less in the last four to five years. But, yes, definitely in our history, it has been very controversial. I used to be really baffled by this, because I used to say it's not like we're trying some new drug on these children that has some terrible side effect.

David: Right.

Raun Kaufman: Nothing we're doing has any negative side effects, so I never understood why it was so controversial, even with the people that disagree with it. I mean I don't have this feeling like everyone needs to agree with this or they're doing something bad, but I was always hoping for more openness, I guess. But what I realized is that it was inadvertently kind of threatening to the kind of established way of doing things, and so people felt uncomfortable or threatened by it, especially if they'd spent many years or decades doing it the other way.

And so, to answer your question, there are a few things. So, for instance, I still do hear sometimes this idea that joining's going to reinforce the behavior and make kids do it more. Again, that's not what we see, but I still hear that from people who haven't yet tried it. Another one is this issue of it's too much - it's too much relying on parents. Really, the professionals need to be the ones doing this, and the parents don't really have the knowledge, etc., to be able to do it. We feel really differently about that because we feel like it's the parent that's there with their child for the long term, that loves their child like nobody else loves them, and they're the ones that can really make the biggest difference. So that's another piece.

You know there's other pieces as well, like the idea that ultimately these children are never going to be good at the social stuff, so what we need to do is we need to help them compensate by getting them really good at these tasks and in academics and at things that they can actually learn to do. So that's another criticism of us, because they don't really believe that us focusing on this piece, this social piece, can help these kids overcome it because these kids will never be able to overcome that. So there's also a lot of that.

In fact, I even still get criticism about this issue of - I get told, "Raun, you really want to be careful. I feel like you might be giving parents false hope."

David: Yes, I was going to ask you about - yes, I would think that would be a criticism.

Raun Kaufman: Sure, and I half understand it and half find kind of ironic and a little bit funny, because the idea that hope can be false - like it's basically saying, okay, if a parent hopes for their child and believes in possibilities for their child, that can be a bad or dangerous or detrimental thing. And that part is confusing to me because in order to help any of these kids, we need to take action, and hope leads to action. The hopelessness leads to inaction and leads to our kids not getting help no matter what method they're using. And so I feel like, regardless of whether anyone is doing a Son-Rise Program or not doing a Son-Rise program, I don't feel like any parent should have to apologize for hoping and believing in their child.

It's not about - you know I would never - I do a lot of lectures. I would never go in a lecture and say, "Hey, listen. If you do these seven principles I just talked to you about, I'm telling you, I promise you, your child will recover. Your child will turn out like me." First of all, I would be just as against saying that as anybody else would be. I don't believe in making those kinds of promises because nobody's psychic, nobody can predict the future for these kids.

All that I'm saying, and all that we say at the Autism Treatment Center of America, is let's not decide in advance what these children are not going to do. All we mean by having hope is saying let's not decide in advance what these kids aren't going to do. Let's give them every chance and then they'll go as far as they go, but at least we'll know we've given them every chance instead of us deciding what the children aren't going to do. Then, of course, they're not going to do it.

David: Well, you're very passionate, and well you should be, given your own experience, and that really comes through what you're saying. Certainly makes sense to me. You know, earlier you talked about a possible genetic component, and I was struck to learn that you have an older sister who ended up having an autistic child herself.

Raun Kaufman: That's true.

David: And then I guess your sister - and your sister is now - is it the child or the sister who became an executive there at the center?

Raun Kaufman: No, it's my sister and actually her husband. They ended up meeting here. He's from England. They are senior teachers in the Son-Rise Program. Bryn's the executive director of the Son-Rise Program. That's my sister. They did have a daughter with autism. They worked with her and I was lucky enough to be one of the volunteers in that program. They worked with her for just about five years - not full time that whole time, but they worked with her for five years.

She also ended up fully recovering. She's 15 years old now. She's like - you would never, ever know that she had autism. She's super social and fun and has lots of friends, and she has a few learning challenges in areas like math, but that has nothing to do with her ability to socially connect with her friends. And actually her latest report card got - I believe she got pretty much straight A's, so she's even doing well in that area now.

And here's the craziest thing about that story, and I'm glad you didn't give it away because it's the craziest part of all. So when most people hear this story, they think, "Oh. Well, it's not that surprising that his niece had autism. Maybe there's a genetic link. And you know what? It's not that surprising even that she recovered, because maybe Raun's genes gave her a better shot at recovery and that's why his niece recovered." Except for one thing. She was adopted.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Raun Kaufman: So she shares not a single gene with me. She was adopted about a month old, and then two years later turned out to have autism. And I still can't really believe it. It's like this little girl chose her parents. It's unbelievable. But, yes, so we don't share any genetic similarities, but she had autism like I had autism and ultimately also recovered and is living a great life right now.

David: Well, that's wonderful. That's really great. Now, what are you doing right now? Are you still like the executive director of the institute? Or what's your involvement?

Raun Kaufman: I was the CEO of the Autism Treatment Center of America until this past February, and then I switched to part time working with them, so my position shifted. I'm now the director of global education, so I'm no longer the chief executive. I needed to have some more hours to do some other different kinds of projects that I'm working on that aren't in the area of autism, but it was - I mean I spent just about five years spending that role in the chief executive. I got to tell you, it was the hardest thing I ever did, but it was also the most satisfying, and I think also sort of shows - like when I think going from, say, autism to CEO, again, it just shows, look, let's not write anyone off ahead of time. It just keeps coming back to that for me.

And the other thing I would tell you that's kind of neat - and you've touched on it a few times before - is the Autism Treatment Center of America is a division of a nonprofit organization called the Option Institute. That's O-P-T-I-O-N Institute. And it's all part of the same organization, so you come to the same place - we have the same 100-acre campus etc But what's really neat about the Option Institute part of what we do is if you have no children with autism, no experience with autism - that's not your challenge or whatever - it's a great place to come because we have programs at the Option Institute - those are also five-day programs - that help people to deal with other challenges in their lives not autism related.

So we have a program for couples; we have a program called Calm Amid Chaos in dealing with really serious things that happen to people in their lives. We have program called Optimal Self-Trust, which is all about sort of turning up the volume of your inner voice. We have a program called Fearless that helps you overcome your fears. And the reason I highlight those is it takes the attitudinal components that enable parents to handle autism successfully and it applies them to everything else in life.

And so what I feel very privileged to do is I spend about half my time - maybe a little more than that - in the area of autism and working with families and parents and lecturing and seeing them come to the Autism Treatment Center of America, and then I spend another big proportion of my time teaching in the programs at the Option Institute, as do my parents, and helping people who are not related to autism but who want help with other challenges in their lives.

David: Well, that's fascinating. Well, as we wind down here, is there any sort of last message that you'd like to deliver to our audience?

Raun Kaufman: Sure. Well, first of all, I would say this. For anyone who wants to follow up with any of this, whether they're a parent of a child with special needs or they're just a person that wants help with another life challenge, I would just say a few different things. So, first of all, you can always go to our website, which is for the autism part. Or they can go to for the non-autism piece of what we do. And by the way both websites are great, and they have full-length, hour-long webcasts that people can watch for free to learn more about it.

They can also get - I always recommend people, if they have a child with autism, to get the book Son-Rise: the Miracle Continues by my dad, Barry Neil Kaufman, because it tells my story in very, very clear detail as well. And that book was also made into an NBC television movie, which people can call us up and get for free. We will send it out to them for free. So they can do that. Of course, any parent, the first thing I'd recommend if they do want help this way, they can come to the Startup Program, which is offered four times a year for five days. And if they want help with that or they want to get a book or anything like that, if they want the free movie, they can call us at 1-800-714-2779. And they can actually get a free consultation with a family counselor who can sort of help answer their questions and stuff. And that's 800-714-2779.

So I just want people to know that there are additional steps that they can take if they wanted more help with this kind of stuff.

David: Okay, well, that's great, and I'll put links to those websites on our site.

Raun Kaufman: Oh, terrific.

David: Yeah, Raun Kaufman, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.

Raun Kaufman: Hey, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Raun Kaufman and that it enhanced your understanding of autism and autism treatment. What an amazing story. As you heard in this interview, though, this innovative program is not without its critics, and it should be clear to you that neither I nor the people at are endorsing their program or any of the other approaches we cover in this series.

Once again, the two links that Raun mentioned are - that's singular - and If you do a search on YouTube for Raun Kaufman - and Raun is spelled R-A-U-N, an unusual spelling, and Kaufman is K-A-U-F-M-A-N - if you do a search on YouTube for Raun Kaufman, you'll find a bunch of clips featuring him, his parents, and descriptions of the Son-Rise Program that they developed. In fact, there's a 12-part series there on the Son-Rise Program and I think you'll get a lot out of watching that whole series.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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About Raun K. Kaufman

Raun K. KaufmanAs the former CEO and current Director of Global Education at the Autism Treatment Center of America, Raun K. Kaufman lectures internationally on Autism treatment.

At 18 months, Raun was diagnosed as severely autistic. Though advised to institutionalize Raun, his parents, authors/teachers Barry Neil Kaufman and Samahria Lyte Kaufman, instead created an innovative home-based, child-centered program in an effort to reach their son. Their work, which developed into a unique methodology now known as The Son-Rise Program®, enabled Raun to recover completely from Autism without any trace of his former condition.

Raun's story was recounted in Barry Neil Kaufman's best-selling book, Son-Rise: The Miracle Continues, and was also the subject of an award-winning NBC-TV movie, Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love, which has been viewed by more than 300 million people worldwide. Raun's parents went on to found the Autism Treatment Center of America, part of a non-profit organization where The Son-Rise Program has been taught to more than 24,000 parents and professionals from over 85 countries since its founding in 1983.

A graduate of the Ivy League's Brown University with a degree in Biomedical Ethics, Raun K. Kaufman now lectures worldwide and teaches the very techniques and tools responsible for his own full recovery.

Articles and chapters by Raun K. Kaufman have been featured in journals such as the Good Autism Practice Journal and Autism File, as well as in the books, Silver Linings, Cutting-Edge Therapies for Autism 2010-2011 and Son-Rise: The Miracle Continues. Mr. Kaufman has spoken at universities, conferences, and completed lecture tours in the U.S., United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway.