Providing Support While Building Independence!

I am so fortunate to have so much support and so many resources for my classroom of students with autism! I love my aides and truly could not be providing the same quality of instruction to my students without their help... However some days I worry about the level of support we are embedding especially for my boys who are in High School now. How can we expect these students to go home and occupy their time appropriately and have a level of autonomy if we do not give them an opportunity to learn the skills to do so in a structured setting? Better (or more worrisome??) question: how can we expect these students to leave a highly structured instructional setting in 6 short years ready for work and an independent lifestyle if we are not preparing them for it???

Relax everyone, transitioning to adulthood is an extremely overwhelming topic for educators and families alike, let's remember to take it one step at a time! All I'm talking about now is having students learn to spend a bit of time without as much supervision and having them still engage in productive and meaningful activities.

Over the past few months I have been working on different types of independent work skills and schedules with my students based upon their readiness levels and prerequisite skills. Some students are learning to read and follow written directions to perform independent skills, others are learning how to use a digital timer to perform open-ended activities in a more structured manner (who else has a few kids who could either play with the same toy for an hour OR who get off task during an open-ended activity and resort to inappropriate behaviors for various reasons?), and some students have recently learned to read and follow checklists of up to 10 activities without staff assistance! A few of the students who acquired this more complex skill are now also working on structuring their own time by creating the checklist. Side note: I have some students who actually do not need the checklist and still appropriately allocate their time to different activities during a leisure period, which I have to say is pretty incredible :)

One example of a Task Analysis I have been using to teach this skill of creating and following an independent schedule is: 
Program Name: Creates and Follows Independent Activity Schedule                                               90% Independence over 2 consecutive days
Set Up: Present Student with activity choice board. Present him with a blank checklist of 5-10 tasks (or have him retrieve a lined paper and create his own).
SD: “Make your checklist” ***Once Student’s checklist is made he should independently begin following the checklist without any additional directions.***
Response: Student will perform the chain below to complete each task on his checklist and cross them off as they are finished.
Reinforcement: Student will receive 1 token at the end of the checklist.                          
Error: Non-verbally redirect Student back to the current step in the sequence.
Current Target:
5 - 10 Task Checklist
5 - 10 Task Checklist
5 - 10 Task Checklist
5 - 10 Task Checklist
5 - 10 Task Checklist
Task Analysis:
1. Selects task and writes on checklist

2. Adds # of minutes 
(if necessary)

3. Crosses task off activity choice board

Create whole checklist before beginning to perform activities (repeat 1-3 for each task before moving on to 4 for the first task)
4. Points to/identifies first/next task

5. Retrieves task materials

6. Retrieves timer 
(if necessary)

7. Sets and starts timer for designated duration
(if necessary)

8. Performs task for duration (open-ended activity) or until completed (closed-ended activity) Performs task = stays in instructional area, manipulates materials in appropriate manner as the skill was learned for duration with no more than 10 consecutive seconds off task behavior.

9. Stops timer when it sounds within 3 seconds
(if appropriate)

10. Cleans up and returns materials

11. Checks off task

Daily Average %:

  Note: Actual procedures and steps should be modified and individualized for each student's skills and needs.
See the sample Activity Choice List included in this blog which students can use to select their independent activities for their checklists. As always, each students' list should be a bit different since the students do not have the same preferences, mastered skills, etc.

 Just a reminder, the students who are working on these skills and utilizing these checklists have the prerequisite skills to do so! They are all readers with a number of independent skills, however accommodations can be made for non-readers or students with lower reading abilities. Use a picture choice list instead of a written choice list, use a digital representation of the time instead of a time written out or a picture of the timer itself, set to the correct duration.

Best day through this process? The first day I ran this program with a student who is a real rule follower (a boy after my own heart!) selected 10 tasks in order from the top of the list. On the next opportunity I stopped him from writing and gestured for him to look up and down the list first and that was it! He found out that going in order meant missing out on video games, UNO, and lots of other fun activities. So when you are creating your activity choice lists be sure to mix up the activities so students are really making thoughtful decisions about how they want to spend their time.
Tip # 2: I have the students cross off their selections from the checklist so that they do not pick the same activity twice in the same checklist. However, for some students I have them wait until ALL the activities have been selected (throughout multiple checklist opportunities during the course of the day) so they include more of a variety of tasks.

Regardless of what step they're at or how many tasks they can perform on their own, just remember that each step is one towards independence and given the level of structure and supervision most students in specialized settings are used to, each step is a huge deal so remember to celebrate it :)


Isn't it all social??

It's an interesting world we live in as special educators. We spend so much time looking at skills in different ways, breaking them down into the smallest units possible, finding new approaches, applications and tie ins, etc.and in doing so we often find new and surprising insights into the challenges our students face. I've been doing a lot of curriculum work recently and in doing so I just came to this realization that rock's my autism-teacher world:
There really are not any skills or activities that don't at least involve some type of social skill, interaction or consequence!
Seriously. Think about it! There are many private and personal activities which you would really never consider to be "social." But if you really look at them carefully, you'll see that there really is always something social...

Let's take a look at bathroom skills for example:

  • Using the restroom is very private and often an activity which does not involve any direct social interaction. However, there are many social rules for how to approach bathroom use (e.g., Which stall or urinal to use if one is already occupied, where to stand if waiting for a stall/urinal, when it is and is not okay to talk or make eye contact, when it is and is not appropriate to remove your clothing, how thoroughly you should wash and dry your hands, what to do when you're waiting for the hand dryer, and so many more!)
  • Ok so most of that related to public restrooms. But the same goes for using the restroom in your own home! When can you leave the door open? When is it okay to unbutton/unzipper your pants before reaching the bathroom? What if your Mom is around, or your Dad, or your neighbor? If it's 7:30 and your schedule says to shower at 7:30 but someone else has to use the toilet, who should go first?
  • And the biggest challenge? Understanding why there is a difference between using a public restroom and your own private restroom at home!
There are social rules, norms and consequences for essentially everything we do. No wonder why our students with autism spectrum disorders struggle so much in so many areas! I'm not suggesting that this is the only reason or that there are not other factors at play. However, I do think it's important to consider the social skills relevant to every activity a student is exposed to or expected to perform and to be sure to explicitly teach them in context as you would any other skill! I also think it's important to identify whether there is a social barrier, rather than a motivation barrier or skill deficit at play when a student struggles to perform a particular skill.

Perfect example of a skill which would be primarily considered self help, hygiene, even health related but not social: Brushing your teeth. Yet having poor oral hygiene can lead to tooth decay over the course of time and most immediately, bad breath. There are social consequences for BOTH of these outcomes. However, if you have trouble identifying social cues, you may miss (or misinterpret) someone covering their mouth/nose, turning their head away slightly, standing further away when you're speaking, or even avoiding speaking to you all together. If a student is not maintaining good oral hygiene, some reasons could include: not recognizing or valuing this social contract of having good hygiene (especially in public when interacting with others), lack of motivation, sensory discomfort, skill deficits, etc. In order to determine how to respond and "fix" this issue as an educator, you need to first identify the cause. If it is, in fact, a social deficit, then it needs to be addressed specifically. Having a social skills lesson on the importance of hygiene when making friends, getting a job, etc. is great. So is providing reinforcement or feedback regarding hygiene during actual social interactions.

As I'm sure you have noticed, I could talk about this for the rest of the night... But I won't! I'll just leave it at this:

It's ALL social. So let's teach it that way!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend :)
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