Ask the Expert
The New Year is here and with it comes those New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions are the goals we set for ourselves for the upcoming year – try to eat healthier, save more money, make time to get to the gym.
This might also be a good time for families to reflect on what goals they may have for their children with autism. I frequently get asked the question, “Do you see this as something my child can do within one year?” Your child’s educational team also has to make this determination when writing goals for the Individualized Education Program.
In thinking about setting goals, take a page from the IEP guidelines and try to make them SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and time-bound. Instead of, “I want my child to communicate more with me,” think about what is the most important thing they learn to communicate. Instead of “I want my child to read”, maybe “I want my child to read 10 words, or 20 words,” or whatever makes the most sense.
As with any goal, in order to get somewhere, you have to know where you are at. It’s difficult to measure progress if you don’t have a baseline measurement to know what you are comparing to. Additionally, it’s hard to know whether the teaching you are doing is having the impact you want, without occasionally measuring the progress. That’s why data-driven decisions are so crucial. If you have an idea in your mind about what kind of goal you want to work towards achieving with your son or daughter, stop and take a measurement of what their current skill is in this area.
Moreover, in determining what goal you want to achieve, you likely need to think about the environment and what changes are going to need to be made. Who is going to be involved – the daycare, the school, the rest of the family? Collaboration with others is going to be very important, because consistency is key. Teaching a new skill to anyone, requires the environment, including the people in it who will be reinforcing the behavior, to be consistent and to provide opportunities for your child to engage in the new skill.
If you realize months in that progress toward the goal set for your child is slower than you thought, call a team meeting! In other words, touch base with everyone involved in your child’s goal and see if you can figure out the potential barriers. Perhaps your child needs more instruction on a prerequisite skill, or he or she isn’t getting enough repeated practice of the skill. You can always recalibrate that goal into something that is going to be more achievable, and if you blow past it – even better!
For the rest of us, when thinking about those New Year’s resolutions that we made last year? How many of them did we achieve? Meeting even the goals we set for ourselves entails constant work and almost always the support of family and friends. Your goals for your children will most likely entail the same. But the feeling that comes after a lot of hard work and visible progress? That can’t be measured.
Monica Fisher, M.Ed., BCBA, COBA has over 14 years of experience working with children on the autism spectrum in home, school, and residential settings. A former Intervention Specialist, she is now a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and the Director of the Behavior Department at Monarch Center for Autism, where she is responsible for managing a team of behavior specialists and BCBAs. Monica also works for ABA Outreach, providing in-home consultative services for families in the Cleveland area.
If your family is anything like ours, the holidays can be a stressful time of year. After the novelty of winter break wears off, my boys quickly become bored and irritable. Unfortunately, this happy time of year can be stressful for many children and adults diagnosed with autism. Whether it is caused by a change in routine or deficits in leisure skills, extended breaks from school can be anything but joyful.
Last year, our family decided to break the cycle of the winter break blues. I had a simple plan in mind: we do just ONE family activity per day. I picked a variety of fun things to do and created a picture checklist to guide each activity. Using this method, our son participated in so many activities that he would have previously tried to escape. What really blew me away was after painting a picture (an activity that typically evoked his most cunning escape tactics), he smiled and said “painting.” Then an hour later, he looked at the picture and said, “paint a picture.” He was so proud of his work! I then realized that this was a strategy we needed to use as often as possible.
For other parents who are looking for new tools to assist them this holiday season, I highly recommend activity schedules. Activity schedules are sets of pictures that show each of the steps needed to complete a task. They help ease the stress that novel activities sometime bring by showing a concrete beginning and end for each task. They are a great way to promote independence while also decreasing the stress parents can feel during family activities. Click here to see an example of a simple activity schedule for a fun, snowman craft.
While there is a plethora of pre-made activity schedules online, I found that looking for what I needed simply took too much time. If there is one thing that most parents of children with autism share, it is limited free time. Since there are many low-cost apps available in the iTunes store, I found that the cost was well worth the time saved. Some activity schedule applications even include daily, weekly, or monthly
visual schedule options.
My favorite apps for making activity schedules include: First Then Visual Schedule HD, Choiceworks, and iPrompts. Visual Schedule is another app that I cannot live without. It allows the user to place either pictures or short video clips right in the activity schedule, which makes it a fantastic option for visual learners. For non-tablet users, Boardmaker Online is a fantastic option. Users can use picture symbols or online photos to create schedules. Users may also obtain a free trial for 30 days without any strings attached, great for a family trying to navigate the holidays on a budget.
Using simple tools and a little prep work can help you navigate the holiday season with a little less stress. The time spent planning upfront will allow you and your loved one with autism to experience the joy and love that truly represents the holiday season. You may just have a little fun along the way too!
Sarah Glass, BA, BCaBA, is the owner and operator of Oh, Hi Social Skills and Innovative Behavioral Consulting. She returned to college and became a behavior analyst after her oldest son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and a half. She is a mentor and Skill Corps Leader for the Global Autism Project.
In 2010, overwhelming devastation strained governments and humanitarian agencies following the earthquake in Haiti. Our teens and young adults saw the troubling images of toppled buildings, ravaged neighborhoods and despondent Haitians. They asked me, “What are we going to do to help?”
My first thought was Haiti is more than a thousand miles away across an ocean… and we know nothing about earthquake recovery or disaster relief. My second thought was YES! Our program is achieving its mission of encouraging our young people to accept responsibility to help the community both near and far. So, we went to work! We signed up to volunteer at MedWish International, a non-profit agency that sends medical supplies to third world countries such as Haiti. We also planned and hosted our first philanthropic event. We performed our play as a fundraiser for earthquake relief and collected $400, which the group chose to donate to Save the Children Haiti.
The Horvitz YouthAbility program of JFSA Cleveland empowers youth with disabilities and at-risk individuals by engaging them in volunteerism. As a YouthAbility coordinator, my team and I encourage our young people to help themselves by helping others. Our days, evenings and weekends are filled with a wide range of philanthropic activities. We garden, maintain a trail in the Metroparks, assist Holocaust survivors, create artwork, perform original plays with positive messages, help the homeless and more. We want our ambassadors to know that they have the responsibility and privilege of representing YouthAbility, the Jewish Family Service Association and all of the other wonderful people like themselves.
Most people referred to YouthAbility were only on the receiving end of services before entering our program. YouthAbility flips the paradigm. Our ambassadors are expected to be community helpers — and nothing less is accepted. Everyone has a gift to give. Everyone has the ability to help. Everybody has the responsibility to use their strengths to do what they can to support the community. It is important that we at YouthAbility volunteer because we are part of “everybody”. Once we had a lovely teenager who dearly wanted to help at her local swimming pool. She was visually impaired, non-speaking and used a wheelchair. We gave her a few bottles of sunscreen and her aide programmed her assistive talking device to ask, “Do you need sunscreen?” In hardly any time, she was off helping the pool guests protect their skin.
Communities that hope to be inclusive reach out to exceptional people and give them help. Communities that achieve inclusivity reach out to exceptional people and give them opportunities to be helpers!
Since our first fundraiser in 2010, our group has raised close to $25,000. Our ambassadors participate in social entrepreneurship projects such as delivering lunches, selling homemade cookies and making handmade greeting cards. Most transactions net between a quarter and a dollar but it all adds up. Our ambassadors keep track of the revenue, cost and net revenue. About three times a year, we host a mini-grant meeting to decide which agencies should receive our monetary donations. In the past, we have given to local, national and international programs. For example, in 2015, we raised $4,500 to support peace-building programs for orphaned refugee teenagers in South Sudan. This past summer we donated money to start a college scholarship fund for students pursuing careers in social work, psychology, special education or a related field. Our YouthAbility ambassadors helped to create the application and they will interview the scholarship finalists.
In the past few months, YouthAbility has been busy with the slew of hurricanes that affected the Gulf this fall. We did a fundraiser for victims of Harvey, collected supplies to send to victims of Irma and Maria, and hosted puppies rescued from Hurricane Nate. Each of these acts are just a small gesture but they are small gestures in the right direction. Our ambassadors are proud to be moving in the right direction with the larger community.
Just last week, I received an email about a school building for students on the autism spectrum which burned in the Santa Rosa fires. It is touching that the sender felt our group could make a small, meaningful gesture to support those students who are struggling without their school building. We are in conversation about what we might do and we are looking forward to helping.
At YouthAbility, we strive to instill a passion for volunteering in everyone we meet. Our ambassadors must know that we all have a duty to serve when we are a part of a greater, connected community. When want our young people to seek out the options in which they can give back in their own way.
A former YouthAbility ambassador described this need for volunteering in her life perfectly. She had a position at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center at the time and on a particularly frigid winter morning, her mom questioned if she wanted to brave the temperatures and still go. She answered emphatically, “Of course I do! Most of the time I feel like a disabled person, but when I volunteer with YouthAbility I feel like a person.”
YouthAbility is young people volunteering. It is simple. It is necessary. It is beautiful.
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Q: How can mindfulness benefit children with autism?
A: Children are more susceptible to their environment through their senses, due to lack of practicing healthy coping skills to help self-regulate and manage their environment. Mindfulness can help to alleviate some of those stressors. Children diagnosed with autism are very sensitive to energy and are attuned to energy that others may not even be aware existed. This sensitivity can make coping with the excessive stimuli/energy of things such as: technology, chemicals/additives in food, fluorescent lighting, ambient noise, perfume/laundry detergent/deodorant, etc., which can be over-stimulating. This can contribute to feelings of anxiety, stress, and feeling overwhelmed. When teaching a child mindfulness practices, we are teaching them how to reduce stress, feel more connected, and how to relax, in order to navigate this intense world in which they perceive.
An example of a mindfulness practice that can be incredibly beneficial to individuals with autism is meditation. However, prior to being able to teach meditative practice, the basic skill that needs to be taught (as ultimately any meditative practice focuses on this) is how to breathe deeply. Some various techniques in teaching deep breathing can include using items such as: bubbles, pinwheels, straws and pom-poms to blow, placing a stuffed animal on their stomach to watch it move up and down, etc. At our center, we have also utilized the phrase (with visual supports) “smell, blow”. We have our students “smell” (flower, lotion, etc.) and “blow” (bubbles, candle, etc.). This assists in slowing down the breath. The use of the breath in a tactile, mindful way, is an excellent way to help these young people have a focus.
Movement is also incredibly important and beneficial to children diagnosed with autism, especially in regards to self-regulation. One can become emotionally balanced through flexibility and a good example of this is through practice of yoga. Practicing yoga not only exercises ones’ physical body, but also assists in processing emotions and thoughts.
Yoga has been suggested to be utilized, especially among individuals with attention issues, that may not be able to sit still to meditate. Studies demonstrated that yoga helped to settle their energy, thereby helping them to be able to meditate more peacefully following this practice. For some children with additional support needs, issues with balance, movement, and sensory processing has built up a state of chronic stress. Yoga and meditation helps to reduce this. Working with the body and helping them to relax is the best way to focus the breath in to the body and help it de-stress through relaxation. When children are relaxed, children are ready to learn.
Mindfulness is all about asking children to pay attention to how they feel, what they are feeling, and how their body feels in the moment. Using their five senses (what you see, smell, taste, touch, and hear) assists in helping to bring them into the “here and now”, the present moment. One of the beautiful things about mindfulness practice is that you can adapt and modify it to be as individualized as each individual child. However, it is important to note that in order to teach mindfulness practice, you must be able to teach from your own practice, and through repetition.
If you want to learn more about practicing mindfulness, here are some recommended websites, books and videos:
American Mindful Research Association
The Center for Mindfulness
Picture Books That Introduce Mindfulness and Meditation to Kids
Mindful Games: Sharing Mindfulness and Meditation with Children, Teens, and Families
Asanas for Autism and Special Needs: Yoga to Help Children with their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness
Connected Kids: Help Kids with Special Needs (and Autism) SHINE with mindful, heartfelt activities
Yoga for Autism Education Program
Teaching Yoga to Children with Autism
Adaptive Yoga for Kids
-Stacy Blecher and Natalie Copleand
Stacy Blecher, MA, ATR, CMP, is an Art Therapist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She received her Master of Art Therapy from Ursuline College and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism for the past 13 years.
Natalie Copeland, ASISC, is a Behavior Support Specialist at Positive Education Program (PEP) Prentiss Autism Center. She is currently completing her Master of Science in Social Administration at Case Western Reserve University and has been working with individuals diagnosed with autism and their families for the past 12 years.
Stacy and Natalie jointly presented a workshop titled, “Train Your Brain: Keep Calm and Practice Mindfulness” at Milestones 15th Annual Conference this past June.