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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.

Some Simple Strategies to Help You Go to the Park with Your Child with Autism

Many parents of children with autism run into barriers when taking their children out into the community. The park is one place where children typically enjoy their freedom and thrive, which can be a nice relief for many parents. Although, for parents of children with autism, this can be a stressful situation for many reasons. Children with autism may not have the social skills to play with other children and they may not interact in ways that are socially appropriate. Many children with autism also engage in observable self-stimulatory behaviors that may seem awkward to uninformed people. Other children may have difficulties with transitions and therefore, leaving the park is always a struggle for the parent of a child with autism, more so than that of a parent of a typically developing child.

Nevertheless, there are some strategies for parents of children with autism to practice to help relieve some of these stressors and make the park a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

First, if your child is not interested in other children but rather enjoys playing on or around the apparatus, be present if other children are around. Always be within a close distance so that any pushing or bumping can be easily and quickly dealt with. Attempt to block your child from running away and assist him with saying “sorry” or “hi” to the other child. Allow your child to leave and in a friendly manner, engage in a simple conversation with the other child such as “are you having fun at the park today?!” This way, the experience ends on a positive note instead of the memory of your child engaging in an aggressive behavior towards the other child.

Consider sparking interest in your child for other people, activities, toys, and conversations by pointing  these out in his or her environment: “Wow, those kids are going down the slide really fast, that looks fun!” or “That boy has a really cool race car, maybe you can ask to see it?” These are minimally intrusive ways to promote engagement with surrounding people, objects, and activities. With repeated exposure and positive interactions with people and activities at the park, your child’s positive engagement at the park may be reinforced over time. In other words, it may get stronger, more frequent, and trips to the park can turn into something he looks forward to.

Second, if your child engages in many self-stimulatory behaviors and they are difficult to avoid at parks, go to parks during less crowded times so you can allow your child to have fun without having to always remind him about keeping his “hands down”. If you can only go during highly crowded times, be sure to be present with your child, prompting him to engage in appropriate activities at the park such as monkey bars, swings, and slides to decrease the chances of him engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors. Keep your child “busy” with these alternative, appropriate behaviors so that engaging in undesirable or self-stimulatory behaviors becomes incompatible. It is difficult for a child to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors when he or she is having fun climbing a monkey bar, going down a slide, or playing with shovels and buckets in the sand.

Last, if transitions are difficult, let your child know from the time of arrival how much time he or she will have at the park. Have a visual countdown (e.g., boxes that are crossed off every 5 minutes) until it is time to leave. If your child prefers electronics and timers, start a timer on a phone or electronic device instead. Provide reminders when time is almost up, so your child is not “surprised” when it is time to transition. When time is up, it helps to have something positive that your child can look forward to after the park (e.g., frozen yogurt, pick up brother, dinner, or treat in the car).

We hope that these strategies may help relieve some of the stress associated with going to parks and both you and your child can enjoy and have fun!

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.

Teaching alternative behaviors to decrease or stop inappropriate challenging behaviors

Implementing a behavior intervention plan to decrease or stop a challenging behavior is one thing.  Teaching an alternative to the challenging behavior is another.  Imagine this: your child climbs on the kitchen counter to reach for a jar of cookies way up in a cabinet.  Can you implement a plan to decrease or eliminate the behavior of climbing on the counter?  Yes, but there is also a chance that your child will just learn another challenging behavior to get him the same result.  In practice, it is always best to teach and alternative behavior.  Teaching the alternative behavior, in a way, can make the “unlearning” of the challenging behavior much faster.

There are four reasons why children may engage in challenging behaviors: either to get something she or he wants (access), to get out of doing something they don’t want (escape), to get attention, or because the behavior itself feels good or pleases them (self-stimulatory/automatic).  The general theme that you will see throughout this article is that the alternative behavior that you should teach your child should still lead to your child getting what they want (i.e., one of the four reasons).

Let’s say your child screams and throws objects when they are done with their dinner.  Your child is trying to get out of something—the dinner table.  What might you teach your child to do instead of throwing and screaming?  You can possibly teach your child to “properly” communicate when they are done whether it be signing “all done” with their hands, saying “all done,” giving an “all done” laminated picture to an adult at the table, or some other mode of communication based on your child’s repertoire of skills.  At first, assist your child when you begin to see the signs of them being all done by guiding them through the physical movements of communicating (i.e., exchanging a picture or signing), or modeling the words they should use.  Gradually fade this assistance until they are doing it on their own, without engaging in the challenging behaviors.

The same strategies should be utilized for the other “functions” of behaviors, or when your child engages in challenging behaviors for other reasons.  When they want a cookie that is out of reach in the kitchen, teach your child to ask for the cookies using whatever mode of communication is appropriate for your child to replace the climbing on the counters.  It is important to give your child cookies every time they ask when they are first learning as this will be the key to decreasing the challenging behavior of climbing on the counter.  As your child gets used to this process, you can start giving him what he wants once in a while—this is a way to guarantee that the new behavior becomes stronger over time.

For attention-based challenging behaviors, one way to tackle this is to figure out what you think your child should be doing instead of the inappropriate behavior.  Of course, considering your child’s repertoire of skills first is important when figuring out what replacement behavior to teach.  Let’s say your child somehow finds the time you spend with him getting a “lecture” from you reinforcing, maybe one thing that you can do is stop or at least minimize the amount of time that you spend lecturing him and spend more time with him when he is behaving appropriately.  While doing that, also you can also do your best to spend more time with your child when he or she is behaving well (e.g., spending some time to play a favorite game, watching a favorite tv show, about talking about school/anything).

Lastly, when your child engages in challenging behaviors because it feels good, a little more thought has to be put into the alternative behavior.  It should be something that is not harmful and something, preferably, that you can control.  For example, if your child engages in repeating words/phrases or just vocalizing sounds that are not socially appropriate, allowing your child to engage in these behaviors in a particular environment (e.g., their bedroom) and teaching them to ask for “talking in my room” or something similar may help to gain control of where they may engage in this behavior.  When your child engages in this behavior anywhere else, he should be required to use the communication phrase and then go to the specified location.  Self-stimulatory behaviors can be very difficult to address on your own—more so if the behavior is also self-injurious in nature.

It will help you as a parent to practice on these concepts; however, should you continue having difficulties as to how to address you child’s most challenging behaviors, it is a good idea to reach out to a trained professional such as a BCBA as soon as possible.