Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Second List for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Here are the five skills that I often start with as I teach parents to become better communication partners to a child with Autism Spectrum Disorders:

  1. Learn to read your child's behavior as communication and respond to what your child is trying to communicate rather than to what your child does.  Example:  You take a toy away from your child and he or she hits you.  You respond by saying "That makes you mad.  You can say "Don't take my toy, Mommy!"  This is just as important for older children as it is for younger children.  If all parents (and teachers) of children with autism learned this one skill, the number of behavior problems in children with autism would decrease by half.  Focusing on the child's behavior when it is socially inappropriate almost always causes the child to repeat inappropriate behavior.  Ignoring it completely may not be helpful either because behavior really is communication.  Responding to the communication intent and then, if necessary, showing your child how to communicate more effectively next time is usually the best response to socially inappropriate behavior.  
  2. Learn to model specific skills that you want your child to learn and to choose skills that are possible.  If a child is not yet verbal, model just a few single words that are easy to say.  For example, you might focus on the word "up" all week providing many, many opportunities for your child to see how the word "up" might be useful.  If you want your child to notice and say something nice about others, you might sit with your child and look at a photo album, commenting positively about each person.  E.g.  "Grandma is such a good cook!  Daddy is very good at swimming.  You are a fast runner.  Sissy is a good singer."  In other words, focus on one specific thing that you want your child to learn and stay with that one thing for long enough that your child can, actually, learn that one thing.  It is often the case that parents will be trying to teach a new word, for example, but in nearly the same breath, the parent is trying to correct some behavior like nose picking, adding in admonitions to use polite forms of language like "please" or "thank-you" and changing the specific word that was the target a minute before.  This is confusing for the child and ineffective for the parent.  Hold off on teaching other skills or even mentioning them so that your child can focus on one thing at a time.
  3. Use sentences that are just right in every way to capture and hold your child's attention.  The number of words you use and the intonation in your voice are very important tools for engaging a child with autism. If you want your just barely verbal child to listen, use short sentences and lots of drama.  And use words that are concrete--meaning you can show your child exactly what you mean if your child seems confused.  It is easy to show your child what you mean when you say "Blue train" and hard to show your child what you mean when you say "Be good!" "Be good!" is abstract and typically a child with autism has no idea what you mean when you say things that are this abstract.  Vary the way you talk so that sometimes you speak with a serious tone of voice and sometimes with a playful tone of voice.   For children who are able to talk in long, complex, original sentences, you might need to use interesting vocabulary to capture and hold your child's attention.  For example, the careful use of a scientific word will sometimes rivet a child's attention--particularly one who is interested in science. Silly words can capture a child's attention.  Slightly unusual phrases might capture your child's attention. 
  4. Learn to use Key Phrases.  For children who have trouble comprehending language, you teach Key Phrases so that your child understands some of what you say.  Key Phrases might include what you say 1) when you are going to start something, e.g.  "Ready, set, go"  2) when you end something "all done", 3) when your child get's hurt "Are you alright?!" Key Phrases are said with the exact same intonation or melody so that even if your child can't understand the words, he or she will recognize the melody.  For children who have stronger language skills, Key Phrases will be useful because they are familiar and predictable and will help your child pay attention to you.  Think of them as Your Family Jargon--little phrases that your family habitually says.  These phrases can be used 1) to help your child stay calm "We've gotta little problem here!"2) to help your child understand that you really mean business  "No Way, Jose!" 3) that you want to share a giggle "Did you eat my toothbrush?"
  5. Learn to create a playful, joyful feeling between you and your child.  We all know what playfulness feels like and looks like but it is hard to describe and actually kind of hard to teach.  A parent who can become playful often and authentically, is 3/4 of the way there in developing a tool that will engage a child with autism and keep that child's attention.  Think of play as an important state of being, like sleep, and realize that like sleep, it is hard for many children with autism to achieve this state of being.  Just like sleep, play is very important to learning, to mental health, to happiness. As a bonus, it turns out that play is very good for grown-ups too.

1 comment:

Deb said...

Thanks so much for this. It's very helpful. Both lists are wonderful!