I like to play video games! They relax me, but also appeal to my competitive nature. I play a game, check my score, and set that score as the one to beat the next time I play (even if it is by just one point.) I rarely look at the scores of the other players. I consider my greatest competition to be... ME. Sure, I like to win. Doesn’t everyone? More importantly, I like to improve. I apply this attitude toward most things in my life.
Kids with Autism need to be pushed, tiny step by tiny step, in this same way. Each day, a new block needs to be laid to the foundation of their learning. But it needs to be done in a gradual and systematic manner. This applies to academics, social communication, and behavior, as well.
In college, I worked in group homes as a caregiver and educational assistant. The greatest thing I learned through this experience was the skill of task analysis. Every task can be broken down into individual steps in a process. For example, tying a shoe can be divided into as many as 15 steps. I like to start my instruction for such a task, with the last step. This way a child is experiences the “final product” with pride from the very first attempt. I complete and talk a child through all but the very last step. The child finishes it off. When that skill is mastered, the child becomes responsible for completing the last two steps. This sequence is repeated until the child is able to independently complete all steps in the task. This is backward chaining and it is very effective! (Reversing the process is called forward chaining.)
Teaching math or reading requires a great amount of task analysis. Generally, students come to IDEA House at different stages of the task process. It is important to accurately measure where instruction should begin. Because children with ASD have such variations in their academic achievement levels, age or grade equivalent becomes almost irrelevant. For me, instruction begins where the child “lives” in mastering the process.
A child with ASD may be reading at a first grade level, but understand science at an eighth grade level. So we accommodate. Reading remediation can occur simultaneously with science enrichment. Those “peaks” in performance, also called splinter skills, are most likely where future employment exists. A child must be provided the opportunity to advance as far as he is able to in those areas of strength.
The same theory can be applied to social communication and behavior. New expectations must constantly be added (the next step in a process!) If a child is able to sit quietly for 5 minutes today, we set the next goal at 6 minutes. We keep moving forward!
Parents and teachers must learn to move past the “Aha! Moment.” We should not assume the child has reached his peak potential just because he has reached one goal or mastered a small part of a process. Keep teaching. Keep inching the finish line forward, even if by only centimeters.
The “Aha! Moment” is when you discover something that works for your child. Should that small step be praised and celebrated? You bet! Should you allow the child to get “stuck” there? Absolutely not. A two year old who will only eat dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets is not a problem. A fifteen year old with the same restriction is going to struggle in social situations.
The longer a habit (or fear) exists, the harder it is to overcome. Those comfort zones need to be gradually expanded. If you want your child to swim at the deep end of the pool, you cannot let him sit on the steps year after year. Take his hand and ease him into the water. Support and encourage him in all things, but always remember the goal is for our children to swim through life independently.
As a competitive swimmer, growing up I was always going against the clock. I remember when I was about ten-years-old and I was close to breaking that minute for a fifty free. Most might not know what that means, but in swimming, breaking that minute is a huge milestone. Every swimmer wants to break their first minute and get the high-fives from coaches, parents, and peers. Every tenth of a second improvement, meant that I was going to aim for a tenth of a second faster, the next time. My eyes were always on that clock. My coach trained me to know how fast I was going, in the water. I could literally feel if I was going slower than my best. I would look up at that clock the second I hit the wall and just feel defeat come over me, if I hadn’t even gone slightly faster than my last swim.
In life, we are always aiming for improvement. A baby goes from scooting to crawling to walking. Kids go from tricycles, to bicycles, to eventually cars. Adults grow from their college dorm room, to a small apartment, starter home and finally graduating into a house large enough to fit their family.
Growing and pushing is what we all do. It is the same for people on the spectrum. We all have a natural instinct to push one step further than the last. Having Autism is just a part of who I am. Using it as an excuse, to not be my best, is not ever going to be an option. I want to be pushed. I stretch myself each and every day. I break down the steps to a goal and find myself constantly analyzing how I am going to get there.
I was not very coordinated, when I was very young. I couldn’t even button my own shirt until I was well into elementary school.
I had a hard time learning how to ride a bike, but like anything in life, I was determined. When I was about 10, I got a unicycle. I had seen one and I wanted it. No one told me I would not be able to do it. I looked at it and said, I’m doing it. I would take it out on my back patio and practice for hours a day. I taught myself how to get on it without falling. I went a few inches, then a few feet, then I was going down the street. I joined a local unicycle club and eventually started riding in parades on the six-footer.
I have told this story many times, but it is one that needs to be told. I taught myself how to learn. I do not retain or comprehend very well a lot of what I read and some of what I hear. I taught myself how to make it in school, regardless. I knew I couldn’t understand the text when I read it. I knew I couldn’t understand when someone read to me. I somehow figured out, at a very young age, if I looked at the text while listening to the tape recording of the text I had just read aloud, I could write down a simpler version of the text. I would study that until it was easier for me to understand. I stretched myself. Sometimes it would take me hours to do these steps. I just, simply, was never afraid of hard work.
When I started working at IDEA House, Angi put me on filing papers and organizing the office. I wouldn’t even come out of the office, for the first few weeks. I eventually stepped out during a staff meeting. I stood just outside the door. Then, I gradually stood closer and closer and closer. I eventually sat down, in a chair that was by the staff meeting and moved closer, week by week. I went from just interacting with the kids, by taking pictures, to slowly complimenting or helping a student. There were times, that Angi flat out pushed me from small steps to feeling like I was just pushed off a cliff into something completely out of my comfort zone, but I gradually acclimated to those situations, as well. Now, as her assistant director, I empathize with the fear of growing, but agree with every small to somewhat large push, we give the students. After all, we expect everyone in life to stretch and grow. Having Autism shouldn’t make us any different than anyone else.