Be Thankful (And Prepared!)

Holidays can be hard for families of individuals on the autism spectrum. The change in routine and lack of structure/predictability for starters is enough to cause some serious difficulties. Add in less familiar foods, locations, and people... not to mention potential crowding and noise? You could really have a disaster on your hands! This is coming a bit too late for Thanksgiving (since your celebrations are likely already under way!), but you can take advantage of the gathering to capture photos, videos, and even begin to solicit help from your family and friends in preparing for your next holiday.

Holidays may not have to be quite as difficult if you take some precautionary steps (Disclaimer: some of these may take a bit of time and effort to complete/achieve but remember 1. There are likely MANY people who would love to help you with this, just ask family members, friends, and your child's teachers or other service providers to take part in this! 2. You can re-use the same materials each year, and some of the materials can be used for multiple holidays with a few tweaks!).

Some ideas to help everyone get through the holidays with a few smiles (or at least a few less tears):

1. Using Schedules: You know your son/daughter relies on following a structured routine and the holidays are difficult since they interrupt the regular routine. Solution? Create a holiday routine! You would be amazed what a simple written or picture schedule can do for some children. Break down the day into clear activities, but allow yourself some wiggle room (avoid having a start time if it cannot be guaranteed).

2. Going Beyond Social Stories: Social stories are used for many things, though they are not fully supported by research when they stand alone, they can still be a useful tool for showing our loved ones on the spectrum what to expect during out of the ordinary events like holiday celebrations!
How to personalize your holiday story:
  • Use photo books: Create a book your child can look at which will tell them exactly what to expect and remind them of what fun things will happen. The book can start off with a calendar which counts down the days until the event, then a picture schedule which shows what will occur on the day. Break down the steps of the schedule and include photos of your child whenever possible (try to catch them when they're happy, if you can't take pictures of familiar and preferred people who are!) Each schedule item can have it's own page(s) with photos and a brief explanation of the task and any expectations on the part of the student (e.g., We will drive to Nana's house. Nana's house is far and I will be in the car for a long time. I can bring my favorite books, movies, and snacks for the car ride. I will keep on my seat belt the whole time and everyone will be so proud of me! etc.) Whenever you can try to involve your child in creating the book, they can help write the text, decorate, etc. Making this process a fun one and associating the book and the holiday with something fun and rewarding will be a step in the right direction!
  • Use videos: Some children with autism prefer watching videos to looking at books/pictures and creating a home video for them to watch could be another great tool (or you could do both!) Some ideas for this include: Having a "mock party" and video taping you and your child walking through all the steps of the day. OR having a favorite family member tape brief clips of themselves (and your child during times when he/she is happy - let's try to capture smiles rather than tears for the purposes of this video) going through each step of the "schedule."

3. Building in Choices: If there is something you are dreading or unsure about, don't you remind yourself of ways you can make it better if necessary (e.g., bring your favorite dessert, sneak off to make a phone call, go out with friends afterwards)? Well same goes for our kids of course! Allow your child to help choose the music, the seating order, etc. The types of choices which will be meaningful to your child will vary of course, but don't forget this is their holiday too :)

4. Build in Breaks: Some children may need time away from the crowd/stressful event and that is OK! Perhaps they can go for a walk with a favorite relative, have a short movie break in an isolated room, etc. You know your child, help make this day successful for them by giving them what they need (or they may just find a way to make it known and get it anyway and their way may be less preferred for you...).

7. Have Your Child Actively Participate In The Day! Making the day special for everyone is so important which goes hand in hand with building in choice making opportunities! This can include having them help prepare meal or dessert items, having them create special gifts or cards for family members they can pass out (and receive lots of social attention for!), give your child jobs throughout the day (some which tie in social opportunities and others which allow for breaks from social interactions), etc. There is so much to do, why not show your child how important he/she is?

8. Preparing Your Family: Your families are undoubtedly always looking for ways to help, but may not know exactly what to do. This often looks like: a well intentioned family member who does EVERYTHING for your child even if he/she can do it independently, guessing what your child wants rather than expecting language, reinforcing behaviors you are looking to extinguish, etc. While it can be incredibly frustrating to have others "sabotage" your efforts with your child, just remember they have the best intentions any may simply need your help discovering what to do. Send out a mass email to all your friends and family who will be attending the party which includes information about what they can expect to see from your child, what to do/not to do, and let them know what you need from them. They are in your lives because they care about you and your family, help show them how to put their good intentions to good use! (Don't forget to tell them something your child loves that they can do to make them feel special and pair that person with reinforcement ... it could be as simple as a preferred greeting or handshake, a topic they like to discuss, etc.)

9. Preparing Your Child: You've done all this leg work for this specific day, what else do you need to do?
  • Work with your school or other service providers to develop social skills for interacting with family members. Some important ones: having a conversation, taking turns, waiting, playing a game with others ... there are SO many social skills we each use during any gathering, but try to give your child a head start with some pre-celebration training if it hasn't already taken place.
  • Build in opportunities throughout the year to show your child that schedules can change, that sometimes the answer is no, and that they will be OK! Help them develop adaptive skills for communicating their wants, needs, frustrations, fears, as well as coping skills for self soothing and calming then assist them in applying those skills when things change or do not go their way. Bring your concerns to your teacher/service provider to help them ready your child for "real life."
10. OK, it's the day of... Now what?!
  • Bring comfort items, your holiday video/ social story/ schedule.
  • Run through the expectations with your child.
  • Bring your camera and get more evidence that holidays are fun so you can convince your child next time if needed!
  • Keep calm and remain positive to show your child this is not a stressful day!
  • Hope for the best and try to enjoy your day! Accept the little victories and use the challenges as learning opportunities for yourself, your child, and your family.

I'm sure I've said this too many times already in my other posts, but since every person with autism is so different, just remember that these are simply suggestions and that they may help some of your children more than others, and some of these suggestions may not work at all for your child! The important thing to do is to look at how your child is currently participating in holidays/celebrations, identify the challenges and start there. Find out how to make those challenges easier, how to avoid them altogether, or how to teach your child to cope with them. Remember, you are not alone so don't forget to ask for help!!

I hope you are all having a wonderful Thanksgiving and best wishes to you all!

Curriculum? Benchmarks? How do you plan ahead when every student and every day is different?

There is a saying; if you know someone with Autism... you know one person with Autism. Plain and simple. Are there common characteristics which can be observed? Of course, otherwise there would be no way to determine the diagnosis. However making any generalized statements about what individuals with Autism need (unless they are extremely broad and/or basic such as: individualized instruction, social skills training, speech and language therapy and/or instruction, etc.) is generally inaccurate and at times could even be called inappropriate.

Here's the thing: if I make a statement such as "students with Autism are great at math because it is very logical, concrete, and the rules are constant," some people would say "Yes, that is my child/student," while lots of other parents and/or teachers would find that to be the opposite for their child/student. We simply cannot make these types of claims as educators and professionals in the field because no two individuals on the spectrum present with the same needs.

Now, to get off my soapbox and back to the topic at hand...

The fact that our students with Autism have more differences than similarities, leaves us as educators with a predicament. How can we establish a curriculum to be used for our classroom, school, or program in general if all of our learners have different skill sets and needs?

Could we create a very basic functional curriculum which would allow us to teach students the skills they absolutely need (e.g., basic functional math, reading, and writing skills, a range of basic to advanced language, communication, and social skills, self help and daily living skills, job readiness skills, etc.)? Well we could try, and yet we would need to find a way to account for how different even those "basic skills" would look for each child, and determine how much or little each skill would be broken down within our set curriculum.

Let's take the skill of brushing your teeth for example. Well, first we need our baseline, determining where we are starting. Some students may refuse to allow a toothbrush or toothpaste in or around their mouth. Some students may consume large quantities of toothpaste. Some students may perform the sequence but do so without applying adequate pressure needed to effectively clean their teeth. Other students may only thoroughly brush some areas within their mouth or brush all areas but for too short a time. Others still may perform the whole sequence, but forget to clean up the materials afterwards and leave toothpaste residue on their mouths. In considering this comprehensive curriculum you are writing, let's select just one of these above listed skills to target and see how it can be broken down.

Tolerates and complies with an adult brushing their teeth.
Within this "skill" here are some of the considerations and possible variations and sub-skills:
  • Remaining seated for 2 minutes (or standing appropriately at the sink/in the bathroom for the same amount of time)
  • Following verbal directions related to brushing teeth (e.g., "Open your mouth," "Spit," "Turn your head,"etc.)
  • Tolerating toothbrush without toothpaste near face/mouth
  • Tolerating toothbrush without toothpaste in mouth
  • Tolerating toothbrush without toothpaste on tooth surface
  • Tolerating brush in mouth with flavored toothpaste (use a shaping procedure for beginning with a small amount and gradually building up to whole length of bristles)
  • Tolerating toothbrush in mouth with any toothpaste 
    • Note: This is not an essential skill, as flavored toothpastes still provide the benefits of oral hygiene. If this skill is worked on, it may be better to do so once the individual is further along and is already brushing his/her own teeth.
  • Tolerating brushing one surface x amount of times or for x seconds
  • Tolerating brushing all surfaces x amount of times or for x seconds
  • Note: these next two sub-skills are optional, the same benefits could be acquired using a mouthwash.
    • Tolerating toothbrush on tongue
    • Tolerating brushing tongue x amount of times
So, there we have it, that is how one skill could be written into your curriculum in a comprehensive manner so it can meet the needs of most of your learners. The problem? It is still only addressing the needs of most but not all learners. It seems an impossible task to develop a truly comprehensive curriculum for individuals with this spectrum disorder, why? Because there is a wide spectrum of needs as well.

So where does this leave us? There are plenty of options and here are a few; you could instruct without a set curriculum and just make individualized educational decisions every step of the way, you could use assessments for each basic skill as a way to develop an individualized curriculum, or you could choose to create a set of curriculum as your guideline allowing for goals to be added or skipped over for each learner as appropriate.

Beginning my own Autism Spectrum Disorders high school program this year, I have been faced with this dilemma, and to be honest, over the last 3 months I've tried each of these options. Ultimately I've decided that writing up a curriculum checklist with as much detail as I can have and creating blank "extension" charts where I can add on additional skills to each instructional area is the best way for me to ensure that I'm taking systematic and logical steps toward long terms goals. It's also the best way for me to stay organized and keep a running record of skill acquisition for each of my learners.

Below are a few samples of the curriculum checklist I have been developing:

Sample page from Functional Math Curriculum

Sample skills from Money Skills section of Functional Math Curriculum

  1. Don't reinvent the wheel. There are lots of wonderful resources, programs, and sets of curriculum out there which you can reference in creating your own!
  2. Try to avoid establishing "levels" of learners and grouping skills based on those levels. Each student progresses in a different manner and with the likely reality of splinter skills, you will still be unable to compare your learners as they may have high/moderate/low level skills in each area. It is often best to just sequence the skills based upon which is a prerequisite for the next skill.
  3. Don't ever be "finished." Like anything else in the field, this should be an ever growing-changing document which you improve as your knowledge base grows.

Have any of you had success writing their own curriculum for teens or adults with Autism? Please share your tips :)

Happy curriculum writing everyone!
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