This is a conglomeration of preferred strategies, I have learned in classes & workshops, interspersed with my own preferences for effective programming.
Children with autism are individuals, first & foremost. Each one of them comes to us with an array of cognitive abilities, learning styles, sensory irritants & impairments, need for routine, visual or auditory preferences, movement disturbances, varied & intense communication disturbances, difficulties with social interactions & or commingling conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, dysphasia, hyperactivity, opposition defiance disorder, psychosis, acute anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome — the list goes on. No one program will best meet the needs of all children. Intuition, flexibility & a willingness to use a variety of approaches will best insure progress of each individual child.
I prefer a combination of incidental teaching, child-directed activities, & a modified discrete trial format. I attempt for errorless teaching, prompting where necessary to keep the child from floundering. I use backward chaining of motored & visual prompts. All of these are to be ramped down as acquisition of skills develops. Communication, social skills & behavior are taught at different levels during all activities, dependent on each child’s communicative level & individualized motivational factors.
I start by addressing attending behaviors. I often attempt to make a connection with the child by sending out a dominant rhythm in hopes of establishing a relationship. I often elect to take a submissive role — I do this in an attempt to show the child that he has influence over his environment & that action creates reaction. I allow the child to use me as a tool; or, I might mirror his activity. Any communicative attempt to have his needs met is rewarded.
If he continues to have difficulty, I continually analyze what I might change to increase attention. Are there too much environmental stimuli? Are sensory irritants overwhelming him? What can I do to make him more comfortable in his body? Can he attend to preferred activities? Can he attend during one-on-one interaction? Is he having difficulty switching attention? Does music help? Can I use a particular toy to engage him? What suggestions do his parents have? I keep asking questions until I have a feasible answer, & then determine an intervention. If that is ineffective, I remain flexible & attempt again.
The next major concern is the child’s ability to imitate. If he were unable, I would attempt to determine why. Is it a problem of attention? Is it a movement problem? If it were a problem of attention, I would attempt to go one on one with him in a quiet space devoid of sensory distraction. If it were a movement problem, I would attempt to have some one motor the child from behind during gross & fine motor activities. I would do the same when expecting the child to perform actions with objects. I would sit facing the child & attempt to engage him as I mirrored his movements. In time, I would attempt to entice him with the needed level of prompts to mirror mine.
Communication would be evaluated. Does the child demonstrate communicative intent? What is his communication mode? Does he demonstrate verbal capability? Does he respond to visual strategies? Does he respond to signs? Is he able to imitate them? When appropriate, I would incorporate either PECS or prerequisite adaptations as soon as possible.
Social skills would focus on interactive skills. Is the child seemingly aware of others? Does the child interact with me? Does he interact with other students? Does he give rote responses? Are his responses echolalic? I would use myself as the initial interacting agent, for it is easier to control my own responses than the behavior of another child.
Movement is a large component of my personal methodology. It gives needed sensory input & facilitates an organized use of their bodies. I feel strongly that there is a body-mind link to this disorder. An organized body leads to an organized mind; even language is dependent on motor skills. Exercise should be a combination of free play & motored prompts of designated body postures. I prefer exercises that cross the mid-line & engage both brain hemispheres.
I like to take the children on nature walks, as these tend to force them to attend to their environment & stay present. They follow trails; they walk, climb or run on uneven terrain, attempting to avoid or conquer nature’s obstacles. The sights & sounds of nature appear to have a calming effect — as opposed to the artificial sights, sounds, noise, & smells of the classroom environment.
Plays skills vary depend on the level of interaction with toys & peers. Does he interact with toys? Does he use them appropriately? Does he take part in parallel play? Does he engage in a shared activity? I would serve more as a facilitator than a teacher in these interactions, removing prompts as acquisition of skill develops. I would suggest working with him from the back, motoring his body as an extension of your own.
As the child gets older, it is vital to see how he operates in a home, school or community, & in vocational & recreational environments. It is important for schools & agencies to provide information & assist families with guardianship, financial planning, advocacy, outside therapies, peer relationships & counseling. If you are floundering, please contact the ASA for help or an advocate.
Keep asking yourself questions. Are his goals still effective or should they be changed to suit current needs? Do his classes have long-term significance? Does his participation enhance social relationships? Does he have friends or social activities outside of school? How are sexual issues being dealt with? Is the pace & scope of instruction adequate? Are sensory issues, motor adaptations, interfering communication challenges, transition & generalization issues being addressed in all environments. Are his social & emotional needs being met? What are his needs for predictability, repetitions, direct instruction, & generalization? What are his strengths & weaknesses? In short, what changes & adaptations need to be made?
Visualize where you would like to see him at 21. Match the work environment to his needs & style. Determine the level of support he will need & who will be responsible. Each individual is a completely unique blend of strengths & weaknesses. It is not easy to find the right fit. Remain flexible & keep trying. If the child is not suited for a typical work environment, continue to advocate for stimulating experiences to insure that he will be a life-long learner
1. Make sure the child is comfortable.
2. Let him know he is safe.
3. Address movement & sensory issues.
4. Form a relationship with the child.
5. Engage him in activities of joint attention & cause & effect.
6. Teach him to imitate, motor him when necessary.
7. Set up situation that encourage him to initiate.
8. Provide visual strategies.
9. Continually reassess behavior, learning rate & style 10. Stay flexible
I have served as a teacher of individual persons with autism for 18 years. What they have taught me was to be sure of nothing, & open myself to the extraordinary. It has been & continues to be a remarkable ride.
Mary Ann Harrington