Although I am asked to observe and consult for students with autism for a variety of reasons, one of the most common reasons is the demonstration of challenging behaviors during instruction.
Generally speaking, challenging behaviors can be driven by several functions that include sensory, tangible, attention, or escape and may often need to be addressed through a functional behavior assessment and behavior intervention plan.
That being said, when challenging behavior is occurring during periods of instruction, I believe that there is an easy to implement, often overlooked “intervention” that can be used quite effectively: offer choices.
Often, as I observe students with autism in the educational environment, I am struck by how rarely they are given the opportunity to make choices or indicate personal preference.
Now, I know first hand that structure is the key to effective programing for students with autism; but often times, the result of this structure is that there are few, if any, opportunities for students to make choices during the school day. This systematic elimination of choice in a student’s day tends to lead to behaviors that are seen by staff as being “challenging” or “non-compliant”. I believe that the reality is, many of these students are simply indicating their preference regarding the only two choices they view to be available: work or not work.
Fortunately, I also know first hand that providing students with the ability to make choices, allows them to feel empowered and in control of their environment. Time and time again, I have found that offering students simple choices throughout the school day, can not only eliminate many challenging behaviors, but can also facilitate class participation and the completion of work tasks. Sometimes, it’s the choices that seem the simplest that hold the most power for students.
A few examples of the simple choices that every autism educator can offer include:
Choice of work location (table, desk, floor)
Choice of materials (colored pencil, scented marker, blue paper, dry erase board)
Choice of work order (number 10 first, number 1 first) (math first, reading first)
Choice to sit or stand while working
Choice of reinforcer/ reward (computer time or homework pass)
Have doubts? Try it. I think you’ll not only see some of the benefits mentioned above, but will be pleasantly surprised by how little preparation and planning is needed to implement this effective strategy!
Imagine being dropped into a foreign land with no understanding of what your supposed to be doing or what might happen next, and no ability to communicate with the people you encounter so that you can get the information you need. How would you feel if everything was a surprise and you couldn’t ask questions to gain additional information about what was happening? No doubt that this would be a source of anxiety for many of us. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many students with autism who do not have access to a schedule at school. It is our belief that most students with autism should not only have access to a daily schedule, but should be specifically taught to how to independently and effectively use this essential life skill.
Simply put, visual schedules (see examples below) are tools designed to help individuals with autism organize their day that can be used in special education classrooms, general education classrooms, and at home and in community settings. In an educational setting, visual schedules allow students to understand not only the structure of their day, but also what activities will and will not be occurring, where they should be and at what time, and what changes in their routine will occur.
Additional benefits of visual schedules include:
- Simplified/ smoother transitions
- Increased independence throughout the school day
- Reduction of prompt dependency
- Reduction in student anxiety
- Increased understanding of sequencing concepts
- Taps into visual processing strengths
- Avoids some auditory processing pitfalls
Another great feature of visual schedules, is that they are essentially a modified presentation of the schedules that most adults use everyday. We may not call them a visual schedule, instead preferring terms such as calendar, agenda, planner, etc., but many of us rely on them to help as manage our daily lives. So not only are visual schedules easy to create and effective, they are a widely socially accepted support mechanism.
Visual schedules can be created from a wide range of materials and cater to diverse levels of student understanding. Objects (whole, partial, or representational), digital pictures, symbols and text can all be incorporated into visual schedules, based on individual student need. Schedules utilizing pictures or symbols can be laminated for durability. Visual schedules can be presented using a variety of formats that can range from “check-in” systems in which the student physically moves a representational object, picture or symbol from a designated location (in a binder or on a velcro strip) to a corresponding “check-in” space, to simply having the student write out their schedule in a notebook (in list format) that they can check off as they complete each activity.
Visual schedules should include:
- Objects/ pictures/ symbols/ text at student’s level of understanding
- Daily activities listed in sequence
- System for delineating which activities are finished and which remain
- Special notation of changes in typical routines or to bring attention to special activities
One key point that we feel must be made during any discussion about visual schedules, is that it is of the utmost importance that the use of visual schedules should not be frivolously discontinued. It is not unusual for staff to disregard a student’s need for their visual schedule because they feel like the student “knows the routine” and no longer “needs” it, but it is critical for staff to remember, this is the student’s “daily planner” and it’s removal can have undesirable effects for students. Have doubts? Just think about how you feel when you can’t locate your agenda or your data disappeared from your smart phone.
After a particularly trying day, I couldn’t have been more thrilled by an email update I received regarding the student featured in my previous post titled “The Principal and the Potty”. In an exciting turn of events, the student actually used the bathroom at school today! Not only did he use it once, he used it twice in two different locations on campus. Although it remains to be seen if today’s successes will continue tomorrow, I am encouraged by this monumental step and wish his team many more “potty” successes in the future!
Most of the requests I receive for individual student consultation are the result of a student’s demonstration of challenging behavior. Although there are many strategies for addressing challenging behaviors in schools, the use of visual behavior systems can be an effective and easy to implement tool in both the special education and inclusive education settings.
A key component to the successful development and implementation of a visual behavior system is the interest of the student in the system itself. The foundation for developing successful, student-engaged visual behavior systems is two-fold:
- Incorporate the student’s passion into the visual design of the system
- Allow the student to participate in the creation of the system
The below examples demonstrate how these strategies can be incorporated into the development of a visual behavior system. The first visual was created just last week for a young student who has a specific interest in the PBS Kids show “Super Why” and the second was created about a year ago for an older student who had a specific interest in archery. In the first example, the visual was designed by simply importing “Super Why” pictures into Mayer Johnson’s Boardmaker software program. In the second example, I suggested the bullseye design based on the student’s passion for archery and then the student designed and created the visual with the assistance of his classroom teacher.
In both designs, contextually appropriate behaviors are reinforced through a variety of activity-based reinforcers.
While not all stories are as positive as this one, I wanted to post about an elementary school principal who I witnessed going above and beyond the administrative call of duty to meet the needs of a student with autism.
I was asked to consult with a school regarding the toileting needs of an elementary student in an inclusive setting. The school staff reported that the student had never gone to the bathroom in any toilet other than the one at his home, and that his inability to even enter the bathroom at school was affecting his school performance. The team was unsure of how to help the student conquer his fear of the bathroom and was seeking guidance on how to improve the situation for the student. When I arrived at the school, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the school based team had created a basic behavior shaping program and that both the building principal and the student’s speech language pathologist had been working through the program with the student on a daily basis. I asked the principal if she would mind showing me the routine that they had established for the student and she was happy to oblige. As I observed the principal prompt the student through the established routine, I watched in amazement, as in an attempt to demonstrate to the student that the water in the toilet was “not scary”, she quickly and without fanfare put her hand in the toilet water and splashed the water around in the toilet bowl.
In that moment, I knew that I would be compelled to share this story. Although the shaping program that was being used with the student needed some work, and the toileting task analysis the team had developed was flawed, I don’t know that I have ever been quite as impressed with an administrator as I was in that moment. I have seen a lot of “firsts” with students and staff in the past, but this was certainly the first time I had ever seen an administrator go as far as to place their hand in a toilet in an attempt to meet the needs of a student.
Three cheers for the principal with her hand in the potty!