Monday, July 28, 2008

Helping Kids Get Unstuck--Tell Kids What TO DO

The common strategies that parents and teachers do automatically to help children learn to behave in a socially appropriate way can be spectacularly unsuccessful with children who have autism, as you may have experienced. Using visual communication supports can be very effective, and should be used, but even these can backfire if you don't understand how your child thinks.

Here is an example: In one classroom the teacher made a written sign that said Don't Hit and emphasized the point by putting a red circle with a line through it over the written words--similar to the picture at the top of the page. So everyone was disappointed when four-year-old David kept on hitting and even seemed to hit more frequently than he had done before the sign intervention. The don't hit sign was presented right after David hit and it appeared each time he hit with a little discussion about how it was not nice to hit our friends. When that did not work, they put the sign up in the room and it became one of the Classroom Rules. The teacher or the classroom assistant would take David over to the sign often to read the sign together. Sometimes, David would leave that little discussion abruptly in order to hit one of his friends. Spectacular failure of visual supports, right? Well, no--the visual support worked but it did not convey the right information. A visual support is a good way to tell a child what to do and in this case, the visual support told David to hit.

So why did this not work? Well, first of all, the classroom staff thought correctly that David would love the sign--he loved all road signs and this was close enough to a road sign to be pretty thrilling for David. So David was paying attention to the Don't Hit sign. In the beginning, from his perspective, the best way to get to see that cool sign was to hit a classmate. That was probably why he started hitting more often. But then, in an effort to be proactive, which is a good idea, his teachers were drawing his attention to the sign before he hit. I think that this worked kind of like a Dairy Queen picture with a red circle and red cross bar over it might work for me as a dieting strategy. I would look at that picture and think Dairy Queen? Hmm! Peanut Buster Parfait might be good right now. I had not thought of that but where are my car keys? In other words, the sign reminded David to hit in the same way a Don't eat at Dairy Queen would remind me that there was something I liked at Dairy Queen.

What about the fact that David was only four years old and the sign was written--was that dumb? No, for another nonreader it might have been but it was probably fine for David. He did not read but he loved letters, numbers, and, as I said before, road signs. I think that for one or two messages, this might have worked find for David. I have had very good results when using written visuals even for children who can't yet read. For example, I wrote,

on a big yellow card and David quickly learned that this meant that we are going to stop the activity soon. He did not need to read it to understand it. (I think I heard about this visual from Dr. Patrick Rydell and it is so useful!) So, while you do want to use pictures and pictures that your child really understands for most pre-reading visual supports, it is fine to use written words sometimes so long as the words are understood and they help your child remember what to do. Ah, here we come to the real problem with David's Don't Hit sign. All it did was help him remember to hit. It could have said, Say High Five and had a picture of a hand on it and this would have helped David substitute High Fives for hitting. It could have said, Tap your friend's shoulder lightly and this would have been tricky to teach but it could have, ultimately, worked.

The point is, regardless of whether you are using visual supports or verbal reminders, tell your child what you do want him or her to do.

NOTE: Am I the only one or do other people find the No Left Turn signs a little hard to mentally process? A little confusing? I can feel the slowness of my mental processing with this kind of sign, particularly under traffic pressure. The sign requires me to think of the other options on my own after being told that the one option I need is prohibited. OK, I think. That means, Turning Right is allowed. But which way is right? People are going to honk if I don't figure this out soon! I will just go straight. That will work. Whew! That was confusing! How am I going to go left, then?


Casdok said...

No your not the only one! I find it confusing too.

JoyMama said...

Wow, that reminds me so much of a "Don't kick" story I heard from an autism consultant who has autism herself... Thanks for the reinforcement!

Gayle said...

That's good common sense that you're conveying. I learned in psychology that with our kids, we often tell them what we don't want them to do but they mentally omit "don't" and do exactly what we don't want them to do. Common examples: we tell our kids "don't run into the street!" and we learn that our brains process a positive statement much better. So with our kids, we say: "Stay in the yard." Because that's easier then using a negative statement that causes our brains to think of the thing we don't want to do. So don't think of a "big pink elephant" and we do. Great article Tahirih and it works for kids, with or without Autism.