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How to Teach Children with Autism How to Play Independently

Do you ever wonder how you make it through each day, getting your child dressed and to school?  What about shopping, laundry, house cleaning, and dinner? Somehow you do it, and that is enough for anyone to be proud of.  We want to provide you with some additional techniques that may help with the time when your child with autism is home and needs to be looked after, but you also have things to accomplish.

Preparing dinner is a great scenario that many parents have difficulties with.  The solution for many parents is to put a movie on, give the child the iPad, or to allow the child to engage in whatever self-stimulatory behaviors they enjoy most (e.g., running around the house repeating phrases, flapping objects up and down, or rolling cars back and forth on the floor while lying down staring at them).  Although these may be activities that make your child happy and allow you to get dinner ready, there are additional techniques that foster appropriate independent engagement by your child with autism during times you cannot provide your full attention.

Activity schedules work wonders for this purpose. Activity schedules are visual guides that lead a person through a series of activities, leading to an ultimate prize.  Visual schedules help with transitioning from one activity to another with minimal prompting.

There are some pre-requisites to being able to utilize schedules although these can be worked on in the meantime if your child does not have them.  Your child should be able to independently play with some objects, even if the object is as simple as a peg board, or as complex as a 100-piece Lego structure.  Laminate pictures of these activities and velcro them to a vertical strip hanging on the wall.  At the bottom should be a picture of what your child really wants to do in the moment, even if it’s dinner!  If your child has never had experience with an activity schedule, guide them through the process of pointing to the first picture, finding the activity, playing with the activity, putting the activity away, taking that picture off the schedule, pointing to the next picture, and so on and so forth until the ultimate activity or item is achieved.

Some tips: start with only one or two activities until your child can independently utilize the schedule and transition from activity to activity.  Also, remember that the activities should be somewhat preferred by your child, as this is their independent time and we want to increase the success of them playing independently.  If they dislike activities, this increases the chance of challenging behaviors and the need for more of your attention.  It may take a few days, or even weeks to develop this skill. Over time, your child will be able to complete this task with increasing independence, practice decision making and pursue the activities that interest him or her and it will give you some much needed time to get things done while at the same time knowing that your child is being productive.

What approach should caregivers take with challenging behaviors?

Managing challenging behaviors can be quite stressful.  Most of the time, parents just do what they can to get through the situation with as little fuss and fighting as possible.  Unfortunately, this often times involves strategies that may be counterproductive, increasing the chance of these behaviors occurring in the future.  If the goal is to decrease these behaviors in the long run, there are specific strategies to use based on why the behavior is occurring.  Not all behaviors should be treated the same.  These strategies that we will discuss below and in future posts may not always be the first strategy a parent would think of, we do recommend consultation with a behavior analyst who can provide a treatment plan and provide support for you and your family along the way.

In general, it is important to plan for a) alternative behaviors to teach your child to engage in instead of the behaviors they currently engage in during specific situations, as well as b) how to handle behaviors in the moment when they are occurring.  When planning for these strategies, it is crucial to always think about why your child is exhibiting the particular challenging behavior.  There are four reasons that people engage in maladaptive behaviors, to get something they want, to get attention from someone, to get out of a situation, and to get sensory feedback from the behavior itself.  We will briefly review these four reasons in this post.

Children often engage in maladaptive behaviors to get something they want.  For example, a child may want a cookie out of reach in the kitchen, so he screams in the kitchen, hitting his head until someone comes in the kitchen and offers what they can until he or she gets what they want.  The child learned that screaming and hitting his head is an effective way to get a cookie.

Children also engage in maladaptive behaviors to get attention from others.  Have you ever been talking with your partner and your child starts screaming or engaging in other bad behaviors?  This may be because he or she wants your attention, for you to pay attention.

A very common reason why children engage in challenging behaviors is to get out of things.  Imagine a child eating dinner and he starts throwing his food and hitting their caregiver.  The caregiver says, “okay, okay, all done,” and allows the child to leave.  The child learned that throwing and hitting is an effective way to get out of eating.

Lastly, children diagnosed with autism engage in challenging behaviors sometimes because they like how the challenging behavior feels.  Screaming, pinching their bodies, pulling their hair, banging their heads on hard surfaces are all behaviors that may serve some sensory need.  It is important to distinguish this from any of the other reasons previously discussed before determining how to react and what to teach instead.

Take some time to think about your child’s challenging behaviors and why he or she may be engaging in them.  Stay posted for future posts outlining strategies for how to react to these behaviors and what to teach your child instead, based on why they are engaging in the behavior.

What have been your specific challenges?

Using Visual Schedules to Support Students with Autism

Visual schedules can be used to support students with ASD in classrooms. They are a very common support that we’re sure that many teachers have already used or may being using in their classrooms currently. Visual schedules can be an extremely important element to provide students with an overview of the day’s activities and events, by identifying specific tasks that will occur at specific times. Visuals can present an abstract concept such as time in a more concrete and manageable form. The use of visual schedules for students with autism and Asperger Syndrome has many benefits. For example, visual schedules allow students to anticipate upcoming events and activities.

Visual schedules can help develop an understanding of time and they can really help facilitate the ability to predict change. Additionally, visual schedules can be used to stimulate communication exchanges by discussing past, present, and future events, as well as to teach new skills such as health care and grooming. Finally, visual schedules have been used to successfully increase on-task behavior, as well as enhancing the student’s ability to be independent and to make transitions from one activity to another. Visual schedules are effective because they capitalize on the visual strength exhibited by many students with ASD.

When creating visual schedules, consideration of each student’s level of understanding, that is if a student can read, of course we want the schedule to be handwritten, and if a student is at a pre-primer level, or just learning to read, the use of pictures, icons, or actual photographs, can be created. It’s important to make decisions based on the strengths of each of these students; Construct visual schedules to correspond to a student’s ability to understand visual representation. For students who require concrete visual schedules to understand upcoming events, an object schedule that uses the actual materials for each of the activities can be used. For example, if the student is expected to brush his or her teeth after lunch, put a toothbrush on the schedule to indicate that it’s time for the student to brush his teeth. Photographs of students actually completing the target activity can also be used with the visual schedules for students who require concrete representation.

The important thing to keep in mind here is to determine the appropriate level of visual representation. If a student is functioning at a photographic level, a color drawing can be paired with the photograph to induce the higher-level concept. Similarly, if a student is functioning at the black-and-white drawing or icon level, written words can and should be paired with that icon; clock faces can be added to the visual schedules to begin to introduce the concept of time. Schedules can be arranged either a left right or top to bottom format. Schedules can be constructed in a variety of formats, and so when you are developing the schedule, consider the length of time the schedule will be used, how durable the materials must be to meet the demands of the student, and whether the schedule is going to be permanent or if it needs to be mobile.

Additionally, student participation in creating visual schedules can allow a student to feel more comfortable when they’re allowed to participate in preparing their visual schedules. The participation can occur first thing in the morning, as the student enters the room, during morning routines; students can assist in assembling the schedules, copying it, or even adding their own personal patch in some manner. This interaction can be used to review the daily routine, discuss changes, and reinforce the rules. Be creative; have fun developing the visual schedules! And again, these schedules promote independence by identifying student expectations.

Why Is Following Through Important When Giving Instructions

One of the biggest concerns that parents have when raising children living with autism is that “their children just don’t listen.” Besides making instructions very clear and giving instructions only when the child is paying attention, the biggest most important thing a parent must do is follow through when the child does not respond.  Not following through when your child does not respond only teaches your child that there is no need to follow your instructions in the future.  This pattern, if not addressed, can be very frustrating and stressful.

Following through; however, can be difficult because many times parents are multitasking on a daily basis: cooking dinner, cleaning up the house, talking on the phone, and telling their kids to clean up in the other room et cetera.  Think about this before giving instructions: make sure you have your child’s full attention before giving your instruction and once you give your instruction, make sure you can immediately assist your child with completing the instruction you just gave.

Imagine this situation.  Mom gives Sally her clothes in the morning and tells her to get dressed.  Mom then leaves the room and tries to get lunches and other kids ready as well.  She comes back and Sally is still in her jammies playing with her dolls.  Mom tells Sally again that she really needs her to get dressed, this time making sure Sally is looking at her while she gives her instruction, points to the clothes, and then leaves again to finish getting things ready for school.  When she comes back five minutes later, Sally is still in her jammies playing with her dolls.  When Sally’s mom tells her to put her jammies on in the future, do you think Sally will comply?  Probably not.

Try this instead.  Mom tells Sally she has three more minutes to play with her dolls then it’s time to get dressed.  She sets a timer so the beep becomes a signal to transition to another activity (dressing).  When the timer goes off, mom is right there to take the dolls and give Sally her clothes.  She tells her “get dressed.”  Instead of leaving the room, mom stays to make sure Sally starts getting dressed.  If Sally just sits there, within about 10 seconds mom tells Sally again to get dressed but this time mom helps Sally start taking off her jammies, gradually backing away as Sally does more and more of the task herself.  Mom does not leave the room and does not repeatedly tell Sally “get dressed” without helping and making sure Sally does get dressed.  Once Sally is done getting dressed, Sally’s mom gives her the dolls back for 5 more minutes of play before school as a reward for getting dressed.  Here, Sally will learn, over repeated times of Sally’s mom following through, that when her mom tells her to get dressed, she cannot continue playing with her toys unless she does what her mom says.

Again, one of the most important factors when increasing your child’s compliance is follow through! How easy is this for you to do?

IS ABA therapy covered by my insurance

Applied Behavior Analysis

A sub-field of psychology that focuses on the implementation of evidence-based interventions or instructions. Numerous ABA-based interventions include, but are not limited to, Discrete Trial Training, Incidental Teaching, Pivotal Response, Training, Functional Communication Training.

autism puzzle

Why do you teach action labels to individuals with autism?

Because this program teaches the individual to engage in and identify common everyday actions/activities and can be used to facilitate the individual’s ‘commenting’ on other’s activities. It may be helpful to take pictures of the individual and family members or other important people in their life engaging in discrete actions and use these pictures to begin teaching the program. Once the individual has learned some actions, be sure to generalize this learning objective.