Changes, Why WOULN'T this be hard??

Do our students need to be more flexible? Or do we?

Very often when we discuss challenges faced by individuals with Autism, we note rigidity and the need to adhere to a strict schedule or routine. Is this the truth? Yes, this is an ENORMOUS challenge for so many children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. But really... how many typically developing people do you know who react favorably when they have a sudden disruption to their plans?

Perfect example:
Yesterday morning I arrive to work slightly later than anticipated (Hint: setting event... I'm already stressed), as I walk up the steps to the high school I scroll through my email and BOOM. Our principal has emailed the entire high school announcing a training for the afternoon. Hold on...I didn't know about this training... I thought we had parent conferences again today!? Wait, did I get the dates wrong and schedule parent appointments for the wrong day??  This parent had a very specific schedule and we struggled to fit her in, I can't believe I did this!

Ok, so here we have it. Clearly not a calm, rational, flexible response to a sudden change to my perceived schedule for the day. Opposite really - full on panic, frantic, disorganized thoughts about everything I had to do to fix this. I mean no, I didn't throw a chair, hit my head on the front door, or even run screaming into my principal's office, but I was not responding well to this disruption, even though it was the way most people I know would... and the way many of my student's would. (In the event that you are interested, everything worked out, the email was not intended for the entire high school faculty, phew!)
So we have established that accepting changes to our schedules, routines, and plans are generally not preferred for most people. Still the question remains, are we being too rigid and holding our students with Autism to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?

Here are two things to consider:
  1. Above I mentioned some of the behaviors I did not display, property disruption... aggression... self injury ... throwing a tantrum in the main office... that's where the problem really lies. Yes, many of our students with Autism may be reacting in a very typical manner to a major change by becoming upset or stressed, but what happens next, engaging in maladaptive behaviors as a response to these changes or emotions, that is why it is a "big deal" that our students are rigid and that is where our efforts need to be focused. Generally people learn different strategies to manage their emotions, stress level, and are able to regulate their emotional responding as a result. However, someone who lacks the communication skills I had when I asked my principal for clarification about the training email, or who is unable to develop or research coping strategies and put them into practice in times of distress really won't fare as well. These are the kinds of skills we need to assess and teach early on. Don't wait for a problem to arise before teaching students to request help or clarification, to express their frustration or other emotions appropriately, or relaxation strategies for times of need! Some of our learners may need support in identifying when to use these new skills (though ideally you are teaching them within the correct context) so be prepared to give that support through visual cues and reminders!
  2. The change I described above, was kind of a big deal for me. It would have entailed quite a bit of work for me including contacting parents, rescheduling meetings, etc. not to mention that phone calls at 6:30 am to reschedule a meeting for later that day would probably not be well received and let's be honest, no one likes getting yelled at... If I had described an example where someone else took my unofficial, self-assigned parking spot, or where someone switched all of my pens from black to blue (Note: I have a very serious distaste for blue pens so I would NOT be happy about this), then a panicky reaction would be much less typical or appropriate. Or if I said my principal emailed us in the morning and said there was a special surprise breakfast for staff or we did not have to arrive until 12pm, most of us would be pretty excited, there would be no panic, no frantic thoughts. For our students, starting work at 8:07 instead of 8:00 or having a different breakfast...these minor changes or even in some cases favorable changes, they are met with the same degree of rigidity, the same level of agitation, and often the same display of maladaptive behaviors.
As you can probably tell this is a topic I could seriously write a book about... There are so many types of challenges, warning signs, approaches to interventions, etc. and it really can't all fit into one blog post!

Sample page from my upcoming curriculum!

However, the key points are:
  1. GET SOME DATA!!! I'm working on creating an assessment tool for Accepting Changes, Delays, etc. It's still a work in progress but look for it in my TpT store soon! But seriously, write down what the change was, other possible setting events or environmental factors, the method of communicating the change, how much warning was given, and exactly what the student's response was (not to mention what your response was afterward). This will all be very useful to you in determining your next steps.
  2. Remember that like any other time you are assessing or treating an individual with Autism, any approach you take should be one geared towards that specific learner's needs and with their safety, and well-being in mind!
  3. Let's not call it sabotage... but really you should plan for changes and disruptions to your routine! By incorporating these changes naturally, preparing your learners for truly unplanned disruptions, and providing yourself with opportunities for observation and evaluation, you will be on your way to helping students become more flexible, as well as finding out sooner (and within a controlled, safe setting) rather than later if deviating from the routine is problematic for your learner.
  4. (Seriously do this one!) Before you move forward with any type of intervention or even more systematic assessment, just think: Would I or another person without a disability respond that way? How would it be the same/different? What is it about this learner's response that needs to be addressed? And finally: Who is being too rigid, Is it the student.. or is it me?

Have a wonderful weekend everyone, and I hope there are no traffic jams, unexpected storms, or other undesirable changes to your plans!
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Happy Friday (The Saturday Morning Edition)

Whew, what a Friday! Our first Community Based Instruction outing, first High School Pep Rally, best day ever :)

If you have ever taught, raised, met someone with Autism, you know how many challenges you face entering an unstructured setting filled with the unknown. The "unknown" is pretty terrifying for us educators, service providers, family members... We are the best planners really, always making lists, schedules, visual aids, social stories and videos, making sure we know the best ways to get in and out, going to the setting in advance to prepare ourselves and our children/students for possible challenges and triggers. But we can never fully prepare for an outing, for a stop somewhere outside of our controlled environments. There are many unknowns...

"Will it be noisy?", "Will there be a crowd?", "Will there be small children or infants nearby?", "Will someone approach my child/student?", "Will my child/student wander off?", "Will we have to wait long?", "Will there be a traffic jam?", "Will we have to drive a different route?", "Will everything we planned for be available, or will something be missing/broken/out of stock?"...

"What will I do if something doesn't go according to my plan?"

Despite the stress and challenges we face as the planners, we need to remember to pack that up silently and be our most enthusiastic and positive selves for our kids. Never underestimate how your own worries and stresses can impact them. If we create a fearful, stressful environment that can increase anxiety for our perceptive learners. Parents know this better than anyone, it's truly amazing to watch a parent put on their brave face when walking into a challenging situation, knowing well the emotions happening inside of them.

One of our biggest fears as planners, is that we will miss something, something will go wrong and there will be a meltdown, and people will not understand. Over the years I have run into this often, but for every 9-11 call, judgmental onlooker, unsympathetic comment, threatened lawsuit over an exploding container of cottage cheese, there are those few understanding strangers who offer their help, move others out of the way, or even just pretend nothing is happening as you carry a crying child/adult through their checkout aisle, not to go unmentioned are the store managers who order a clean up of the crashed olive oil display case and refuse any reimbursement for their damaged products.

Through it all we know how essential these experiences are, for our learners and children to become members of their communities, to open up their worlds..

Yesterday? One of those great days where all the planning paid off, all the unknowns turned into positive experiences, a success over all :) Not only did we have a wonderful outing and make a few new friends and connections in our local shops and library, but later we conquered my greatest fear - a pep rally with 1,800 students attending! Our boys cheered on all their classmates, one student even gasped and cheered through the suspense of the egg race! We even had our first PBSIS winner with a CiCis Pizza gift card :)

Fantastic Friday, and looking forward to a restful weekend (full of course of developing programs, data sheets, materials, and plans for the upcoming week)!

Never forget the days that go well, when we are pleasantly surprised. Never let the days that don't go so well deter you from making some changes and trying again.

Best wishes all, and as always if you need any suggestions please feel free to comment or email me directly!
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Don't underestimate these teens!

As some of you may have read, I have recently started a BRAND NEW self-contained Autism classroom in a public High School. Fitting into a school with 1,800 students has certainly been a challenge for myself and my students. Loud, crowded hallways, lots of unfamiliar faces, a giant maze-like building, and of course SO MANY anxiety-provoking changes to our routines since we are all arriving to the school for the first time.

In spite of all of the challenges, there have been so many amazing victories! While my boys are thrilled each time they make a new adult friend around the building, the days that I count as victories are those in which other students make an effort to get involved with our classroom. So far we have had 3 wonderful victories:
  1. Two High School seniors have socialized with and eaten lunch with our students at least once per week since the second week in school :) and P.S. this is seriously ALL my boys chat about when they return to class. Little charmers constantly updating me on who is the prettiest girl they saw in the lunch room, who they "almost love like a girlfriend," and which girl gave them a high five in the hallway!! Love them!
  2. I have been interviewed on three occasions by members of the school paper, two of the interviews have been with the same student who told me helping my students fit in is a task "near and dear to his heart!" This student has since coordinated with myself, two other teachers of special needs classes at the High School, as well as our principal to begin setting up a Buddy Program (all his idea)!
  3. Today, following a meeting with my case manager, I reached out to various arts and music teachers to find out if anyone could help me find students who may be interested in doing some fun, artsy groups with my boys. BOOM! Before I knew it one teacher tracked me down with a previous student of hers looking to make a difference during her independent study. She completely blew me away with her enthusiasm and intuition into helping learners with special needs despite no previous experience! Such a wonderful day to be in public education :)
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Welcome :)

Hello everyone!

I'm so pleased to welcome you to my new blog: Autism, the Teen Years.

I have been working in Special Education, teaching adolescents and adults with Autism for the last 8 years. Like many people I know, these students have truly changed my life. My Mother was a teacher, so naturally I grew up knowing I would never become a teacher (let's be honest... what teenage girl really wants to turn into her mother? Mom - I love you and of course I want to be just like you now that I'm a little wiser!) In my junior year of college, after the shoe store I worked in closed and I sought out some practical experience in the social work world (one of the many careers I dabbled in throughout college) an experience in a center for children and adults with Autism opened my eyes and my heart to exactly what I had been searching for.

After 8 years in a specialized setting, I took on a new challenge and fantastic opportunity to start a new self-contained Autism Spectrum Disorder program in a public high school. Truth? Changes to our routines are pretty terrifying for everyone, not just our kids... Luckily for everyone I've been relatively melt-down free so far :)

Anyway, so welcome to my page. Over the years I've had many challenging, comical, and rewarding experiences with  my students, their families, and my many interesting colleagues (again, we should probably be honest and say many of us in the field are as quirky as they come... quirky and awesome of course). I can't wait to share my stories with you all and hope that some of my posts can help you in your own experiences as well.

Look for my next post coming VERY soon!
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