Using Assignment Notebooks to Help Individuals with Autism in Classrooms and Other Settings

An effective organizational strategy for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, especially those who are older and possess the prerequisite reading, writing, and organizational skills is an assignment notebook. All academic tasks and their due dates are listed in the notebook and the student will take it to school and home every school day. The most effective support would include a sample of how each assignment should look. Ideally, it should also contain examples of completed items (math equations, definitions, filled out problems, etc.) as these would function as visual examples of the correctly completed assignment. Although, simplified assignment books are certainly acceptable and can be effective depending on the particular student. The classroom teacher would need to check the notebook at school to make certain all information and expectations are included. At home, the parents or caregivers monitor the notebook to make sure the student has successfully completed all necessary assignments or activities to the level expected of them. A signature section for each day can provide an additional layer of thoroughness. This can include a signature section for the parent who monitors the assignment book and/or the student who completes the assignments. Essentially, these assignment books function as a visual checklist to help students stay organized and on-task. These are pretty standard in schools, yet it is imperative they are used to help students with ASD succeed.

As with most strategies for students on the spectrum, the specific skills required to effectively use an assignment book will need to be taught or should already be in the student’s repertoire. In addition, motivation needs to be taken into consideration. The teacher or support staff may need to provide additional reinforcement when the naturally occurring contingencies (i.e., assignment completion) are not sufficient. For example, if a student completes all daily assignments within a specified time frame, let’s say, homework that was assigned Monday through Thursday, then on Friday, they may receive access to a special activity or item. Another way to help students “buy-in” to the idea of assignment books is to individualize assignment books so that they include items, characters, colors, or designs that are preferable to the student. Students can customize their assignment books to increase the book’s value and help boost motivation.

We hope that you find the use of assignment books as a helpful organizational tool to promote homework and academic task completion!

Using Time Warnings To Help Students With Autism

 

Now is the time? Kid and clock: preschool child preparing for the school

Giving students warnings about time remaining in an activity can provide a helpful frame of reference. Time limit warnings should be paired with an auditory or visual cue, such as a bell or card. Towards the end of the work activity, the teacher should verbalize, ‘five minutes left, ‘two minutes left’. For students requiring additional support, the verbal que can be paired with the gestural pointing to the timer and manually signing ‘finished’ using sign language. When preparing students for the end of an activity that has a natural ending point, such as a game or a timed-test, the teacher should alert students that a transition is approaching by making such a statement as, ‘only a few more cards and the game is over’. Finally, time warnings or making transitional cards as part of the student’s routine can also help students with autism develop the capacity to be flexible for change. Additionally, teaching students to put away materials in the completion of an activity can function as a natural queue that one activity is ending, and that another is beginning. For example, the teacher can say, ‘once you finish that problem, you can begin to get ready for recess. All of these simple, yet very effective support strategies are easy to use, and help both students and teachers during everyday classroom activities.

Using Activity Completion Signals to Support Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

An activity completion signal is a tool which can help students identify when an activity is over. Many students with autism have difficulty knowing how long an activity or task will last. These difficulties may also be present when students are asked to switch their focus to another task. Activity completion signals such as “Finish Pockets” or a “Finish Boxes” provide a lot of support for students transitioning between activities. Finish pockets, like other tools, can easily be created—folders or plastic containers can be labeled and placed near students’ visual schedules for students to place completed work into. When the student completes an activity, he or she should remove the icon of the current task or activity, and then also place it in the finish pocket. During this time, the teacher would indicate that the activity is over. For example, “math is over everyone, time for recess” thereby allowing a student to recognize a transition, and recognize what comes next in a visual format rather than only hearing the instructions.

There are various ways you can use activity completion signals such as turning an icon-card around so that it is facing backwards, placing an icon or object near the finish box, crossing off the name of the activity or task on a white board, and of course, the old tried and true timer to indicate the end of a task. The more creative you can be, the more variation you will have, but again, just like with visual schedules, the student’s learning rates and skill levels need to be considered when determining the type of signal you use.

In addition, it is always true that you will need to teach the student with autism how to respond to the signals and that you will need to reward (reinforce) the student’s correct responses to the signals.

Using Mini Schedules and Task Organizers to Help Students with ASD In Classroom Settings

There are many types of visual schedules that can complement children’s daily tasks and activities by providing more specific cues about those tasks and activities. Mini schedules are used to provide specific information about the task at hand. These mini schedules can be highly individualized based on the individual’s skill level to meet the requirements of a given task. For example, if a student needs support on steps necessary to complete a math task, a mini schedule would be used to help identify step-by-step instructions of the task.

A mini schedule can also be designed to provide opportunities for choice making. For example, a mini schedule for an art lesson would direct a student to the stages required for drawing and coloring an object. At specific points along the mini schedule, the student would be required to make a choice between two or more items to create the art project. In this application, the mini schedule provides both the structure and the opportunity for decision-making.

Another visual schedule – the task organizer, can be used to add more structure to a lesson or activity depicted on the mini schedule. Task organizers provide a task analysis, or breakdown, of the steps required to complete activities. In the case of a math lesson, a task organizer could be used to further describe the steps within a specific activity, such as writing odd or even numbers.

Mini schedules and task organizers should only be used when a student needs extra structure for understanding activities, or to provide opportunities for decision-making to help a student perform at the most appropriate, independent level. For example, some students require minimal external structure and would need only a daily schedule to keep on task. However, those students who need more assistance to complete a task on their daily schedule would benefit from a series of mini schedules for each major activity.

Remember that a mini schedule or task organizer is usually not enough to help the student be successful. Most often, each of the steps in the mini schedule would need to be taught by repeatedly prompting and correcting attempts by the student. Last, remember that you will need to reinforce (reward) the student’s correct performance of the steps in the mini schedule or task organizer.

Some Considerations and Strategies for Students with Autism in Classroom Settings

When creating an educational program for students with ASD, each student’s unique characteristics present unique challenges for administrators and school support staff. An effective classroom must include a physical structure that enhances learning opportunities and instructional approaches that facilitate learning, language acquisition, behavior management, social skills, and academic goals. We can apply many of the basic principles of effective instruction that are used in within the general education classroom as we work with students with autism and Asperger Syndrome, however, there are certain strategies that have been proven to be particularly effective. These strategies provide structure and predictability to the learning process, allow students to anticipate task requirements and setting expectations, and teach a variety of skills across content areas in the natural environment, enhancing the likelihood of generalization.

Predictability and sameness are significant factors throughout student’s daily lives. One way to address these elements in the classroom is with “Environmental Supports”. Environmental supports help students organize the physical space in ways that help our students predict any changes in their daily routines or deviations from typical expectations that may take place during the school day; different activities or events, a substitute teacher, or fire drills. We can help students understand expectations, and in general, make sense of their entire environment. Researchers have defined environmental support as “aspects of the environment, other than interactions with people, which affect the learning that takes place”. Examples of environmental supports are: Labels, Boundary settings, Visual schedules, Behavioral-based education tools, Activity completion signals, Choice boards, and Waiting supports.

All of these environmental support strategies are a simple yet effective way to help a student respond appropriately in their day-to-day activities throughout their school day. Environmental supports can be effectively utilized across all environments and all settings to help support individual with ASD. Additionally, environment supports have been shown to increase student independence, and help stimulate language.

The physical organization of the classroom can be a crucial element for them enhancing success. Structure and predictability facilitate the students understanding of the environment, which can help decrease worry or agitation the student might have. This is really important for students with autism who tend to react negatively or really that difficult time with changes and unsent uncertainty in their environment. Something as simple as labeling furniture and objects in a classroom can have numerous benefits for students with autism; label boxes or containers with visual representations such as icons or hand-written labels. Students can then be taught to match the label on the container to the label on the shelf, allowing independents in retrieving or returning an activity to its appropriate place in the classroom.

Again, we want to emphasize that each student is unique and the strategies used need to reflect their unique needs.

How to teach your child to wait and what you could do before and after telling your child “no”

Two common difficulties that we encounter when working with families over the years are regarding waiting and when a child is told no.  These two scenarios can be overwhelming as they are often accompanied by the most intense challenging behaviors.  We will go over these on this this post.

First off, the skill of requesting appropriately must be well-established already.  If this skill is not yet in your child’s repertoire then it must be taught first. If the skill is already there, but it’s not as fluent as we’d need it to be, then work on that first.

Let’s say your child can already ask for a cookie—this is great, but what can you do if for some reason, you child has to be told to wait?   If your first thought given that question you just read is along the lines of “oh…” then do consider the following.  There is this passage of time that happens between being asked to wait for something and finally getting that something.  The key here is working on that gap.  Depending on how your child “understands” that concept—time—you may have to be more hands-on when helping out your child go through it.   Instead of simply saying “wait,”  try giving your child something that he likes to “kill time.” This is not something out of the ordinary. Case in point: look at long lines of people at a grocery store, a theme park ride, at a bank, et cetera.  It is very rare to see a long line of people, waiting, just starting blankly at the back of the head of the person in front of them (unless you’re in the military or something similar) and just “wait” for their turn.  Perhaps you’ll notice a handful dealing with waiting in not-so-positive ways but for the most part, people will do something to pass time.  From being on their phones, talking to someone whom they are with, looking around, reading a book—we, again, most of us, can handle waiting because we fill that gap with something else.  And that is something that you can try out—offer your child something that they will not mind doing while they wait.  The more reinforcing that activity the better. When starting to teach your child to wait while engaged in something, make sure to keep the wait-time very short. How short?  It depends on each child really, but a good rule of thumb is to end the wait when your child is still behaving well (i.e., before your child starts that path to a full-blown tantrum). Let’s say that time is around one minute—great. Keep it around that time limit and systematically increase the time just a bit and stay on that higher limit (e.g., from one minute to about two minutes) until your child gets used to it.  From there, you can once again increase the limit to say three minutes.  This does not happen without any difficulty—the key here is you being consistent.  Also, avoid a situation wherein the wait time had been too long that your child “forgets” about whatever it is he or she is waiting for.  You need your child’s motivation for whatever it is he or she is waiting for for the learning process to “click.”  Once that motivation goes away, the teachable opportunity is lost so it is best to be realistic on how long you really want your child to wait.

Again, teach waiting only if they can truly have that cookie, but at a later time (or after a number of activities).  If they cannot have that cookie, then don’t say wait (after which they do) then tell them no in the end. Hence, the next topic: what can you do when you are about to tell your child no (i.e., denial).

True: a no is a no and that is something our children must learn; however, before we get to that lesson, let’s take a few steps back.  If you know that your child cannot have that cookie, give your child’s behaviors a chance to not escalate.  Offer your child something she likes instead of whatever that is she wants at the moment.  The key here is you offering an alternative that she truly wants—whatever that is given that moment.  If your child accepts the alternative—great!  If your child does not like your attempts to compromise—and if your child is capable—ask her to choose her own alternative item/food/activity.  Be prepared to honor her choice.  If your child accepts that scenario—great!   If not, time to roll up your sleeves—it’s time to teach your child that no means no.  There is no going around this.  You have offered her alternatives. You have also given her a chance to choose her own alternative.  If those fail, you have done your job but despite your efforts to teach alternatives, the tantrums will happen. As those behaviors are happening, the worst thing that you can do is give in—no.  Don’t give in as that will only reinforce all those not-so-nice behaviors.  It will be difficult, but a no is a no.

When your child’s behaviors start to de-escalate, it is still possible to offer her alternative and/or giving her a chance to select her own, but never give in.

If your child already engages in the most extreme challenging behaviors such as self-injurious behaviors or property destruction or any other behaviors that compromise the safety of others during times when he or she is denied access to something, we highly recommend that you immediately seek assistance from a trained professional.

Using Social Stories to Help Individuals with Autism in Classrooms and Other Settings

Using Social Stories is a strategy that is likely not new to teachers. However, not all teachers know that they can be used to work with and teach individuals with autism specific skills surrounding social and behavioral needs. Social stories interventions enhance social skill acquisition for many students with autism. They help individuals with autism to better understand the tones of interpersonal communication so that they can interact in an effective and appropriate manner.

Let’s take a look at social stories are and how can they be used with students with autism?

A social story is a mini book that describes a social situation and the appropriate social responses. Social stories are individualized for each student and teach a specific desired response. They are used to seek answers to questions that an individual with autism may need to know to interact with others, for example, answers to who, what, when, where and why in social situations.  Social stories can also be used to learn new routines, activities, and how to respond appropriately to feelings like anger and frustration.

Social stories are written using four sentence types. Descriptive sentences, which provide information about the subject, setting, and action; directive sentences, which describe the appropriate behavioral responses; perspective sentences, which identify the possible feelings and reactions of others; and control sentences, which describe the actions and responses of the story participants. A sample control sentence might be, a puppy barks to get its owner’s attention. Or, Ginny yelled to get the teacher’s attention. It is customary for social stories to have two to five descriptive, perspective, or control sentences in the story. Writing social stories for lower functioning students or students who have the tendency to over focus on a specific part of the story may require dropping the control sentence.

When creating a social story there are 10 steps that are used: One, identify the target behavior in the problematic situation. Two, define the target behavior. Three, collect baseline data on the target behavior. Four, write a social story using the four-sentence types. Five, present one to three sentences on each page. Six, use photographs and drawings or icons. Seven, read the social story to the student and model the desired behavior for them. Eight, collect data on the target behavior. Nine, review the data and the social story procedures and modify if they are not effective. Ten, plan for maintenance and generalization.

Social stories are written in the first-person point of view or the child’s point of view. It should also be in the present tense and the child’s level of vocabulary and comprehension should be considered.

Remember that students with autism frequently do not maintain or generalize skills that they have learned. Although you will ultimately fade the use of a social story, plan activities to assist the student in generalizing skills across content, persons, environment, and situation. Remember to transition the newly acquired skill to the naturally occurring contingencies. Social stories appear to be a promising intervention method for improving the social behavior of individuals with autism.

How Choice Boards and “Wait Supports” Can Be Used to Support Students with Autism in Classrooms

A “Choice Board” is a type of visual environmental support that can be beneficial for students, especially students with ASD. Choices should be incorporated into as many activities as possible as choice boards provide students with decision-making opportunities. As such, it can display the objects, pictures, icons, or words that would represent a menu of activities or reinforcers. These can easily be made with supplies such as poster paper, card stock, white boards, or on any surface that you can attach or write on. Choice boards are often placed next to a student’s daily schedule, and when a designated time arrives, students simply select a preferred activity from the board. Choice boards with preferred activities can be placed near the free time or break time area of the room, and provide a stimulus for independent selection of an activity.

Similar to choice boards, ‘Waiting Supports’ are another visual strategy, or tool that can be incorporated throughout the school day. As we know, waiting is a difficult skill for many children, with or without disabilities. But for students with autism in particular, waiting typically presents problems because they have limited ability to delay gratification and comprehend the concept of waiting. We also know that if a student is waiting too long or is not engaged in some type of activity, even if it is a simple activity such as putting a back pack away or clearing a desk, then more than likely, unwanted behaviors will occur. Therefore, students with ASD will typically require specific instructions to develop appropriate waiting behaviors. When developing waiting supports, we need to determine if the student has the prerequisite skills that are necessary to engage in waiting behaviors. This is easy to do. First, role-play and practice waiting using different instructions and in different settings when you want to identify this skill. Keep in mind that when you are practicing ‘learning to wait’ with your students, make sure it is authentic and in an actual setting where you would expect the student to use this skill. Again, be sure to teach waiting skills across a variety of settings to increase the likelihood of generalization. Even using a peer model or a peer buddy during waiting times can offer support for desired behaviors, and specific ‘physical supports’ such as chairs near the waiting area, setting a timer, or holding a picture representing “wait” can also help a student learn this concept.

As we know, for any kind of learning to take place, it is essential for students to have active involvement with their teachers, peers, and the curriculum. Students with autism tend to be passive learners. Therefore, it is necessary to plan activities that require students to become active participants. Creating opportunities for students to respond is a high instructional priority. Research supports a functional relationship between academic performance and how often a student is able to respond. Therefore, the more a student participates in an activity, the more off task and disruptive behaviors will decrease.

What should you do IN RESPONSE to your child engaging in challenging behavior?

Remember those four reasons why people may engage in challenging behaviors discussed in the previous post?  People may want attention from other people, may want something, may want to get out of something, or may enjoy how the behavior feels.  If you haven’t already read it, we suggest reading the prior post so the information below is as useful as possible.

This post will focus on reactive strategies, based on the reason your child is engaging in the particular challenging behavior.  In other words, what should you do in response to your child engaging in the behavior?  This is probably the most stressful for parents as they may wonder if what they are doing is right.  They may wonder if they are hindering or helping their child.  Hopefully we can provide some guidance.

If your child engages in a particular challenging behavior to get something that he/she wants, it is important for him to learn that his behaviors do not lead to getting what he/she wants.  You should avoid giving them what they want when engaging in the problem behavior, and even after the behavior ends.  The child should only be allowed to get what they want if he engages in a more appropriate behavior, which we will discuss in a future post. This can be difficult for parents as giving the child what they want quiets them down and relieves much of the stress in the home or community setting.  The problem is that your child will learn this connection and continue to engage in this behavior in the future when they want to same thing. It will become a repeated cycle.

If your child engages in a particular challenging behavior to get out of something, such as homework or eating dinner, it is important to not allow him to get out of the situation until they engage in a more appropriate behavior.  If the child hits and screams while doing homework, it is important to follow through, require them to complete a few more problems without hitting and screaming, and then they can leave.  More appropriate behaviors to get out of doing things they don’t want to do will be discussed in future posts.

If your child engages in a particular challenging behavior to get attention, you should avoid providing attention to them until the behavior is not occurring or he engages in a more appropriate behavior to get your attention.  Providing attention only teaches them that this bad behavior leads to what they want.  This connection needs to be disconnected and the child needs to be taught more appropriate ways to get attention.

Last, if your child engages in some challenging behavior because it feels good, such as head banging, it is important to block this behavior so that this particular behavior does not provide the sensory satisfaction that your child is receiving (in addition to preventing them from doing harm to themselves).  You can physically block the behavior or there are many devices created for this purpose.

Stay tuned for a future post providing suggestions for what to teach your child to do instead of engaging in the bad behaviors they currently know will get them what they want.  Just reacting how we have described above will not teach new, appropriate ways to get what they want.  Teaching a new, more appropriate behavior is the key to decreasing challenging behaviors.

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Using Language in a Clear Way for Children with Autism

If you’ve ever heard behavioral therapists speaking with children with autism, you may have noticed that they speak with very clear and minimalistic language. Some people may even think it’s too robotic. So, why do they do it?

A language impairment is one of the main criteria to receive a diagnosis of autism. Many children may have difficulties not only expressing themselves but also understanding what other people say. Adults may think that the child is just ignoring them but in reality, the child may not understand what the adult is saying. Imagine going to a foreign country with people speaking a language that you do not understand and having no means of figuring out what the people are saying. If someone says, “Hey you, come here” in their language, would you respond?  If you don’t understand what they are saying you probably would not respond. This is how your child might be feeling.

The next time you try to give instructions to your child, think about this, and try some of the techniques we’ve outlined below.

First, use clear and minimalistic language. Say, “come here” instead of “hey Johnny, will you please come here now?!”

Second, to increase the likelihood that your child will pay attention to you and hear what you are saying, try the following strategies:

  • Give your instruction while you are physically near your child (i.e., next to them).
  • Crouch down close to your child so your voice and face are closer to him, increasing the chance of him looking at you.
  • Physically touch your child to bring his attention to you.
  • Talk to him about what he is engaged in before giving your instruction. For example, if your child is playing with Legos, you can first make a comment about the activity such as, “I really like what you built!”
  • If needed, interrupt his play if he is engaged in a highly preferred toy or activity before giving your instruction.

When these strategies are combined, they may help increase the likelihood that your child will understand you and follow through with what you instructed them to do.