Friday, August 16, 2013

Understanding the Why When Teaching Autistic Children

I have seen a theme of discussion here lately about "pushing" autistic kids. From Temple Grandin's speeches to autism pages, and blogs that I read. I have posted, and spoken about it a lot on my own personal page, even going so far as to tag educators that work with my son. I somehow feel they probably don't appreciate that. Their knowledge comes from classroom teachers, and textbooks, which is fine. There is nothing wrong with that, but the picture is not complete without the perspective of people that are on the spectrum weighing in on the subject.  After all, we once were the kids they are teaching now.

I have argued in real time with some of the people that work with my sons about the idea of pushing. What it means, what it doesn't, and when it should occur, if ever. I still don't think I have made myself clear, or come to any agreement so far with many.

I think part of the issue is what does pushing really mean? Does that mean 40 hours of ABA? Does it mean constant repetition, and hand over hand?  Does it mean do this, and get this? This is where it gets sticky, because what seems like pushing to one person isn't to another.  We're all different in how we interpret things.

I don't think there is a universal answer to the push or not to push debate.  I think when working with autistic kids one has to have all senses open, and as well as one's mind. We have to check our ego at the door, and be open to what they need, and what they are trying to tell us. I don't think this is always easy for NTs to do. I don't mean to pick on them as a group. As a matter of fact, I do see a lot of AS moms who somehow don't seem to get it, either. Either you have that way of seeing the environment, or you don't.  I don't want to toot my own horn, but I have an eye for problem solving in regards for autistic children. I can walk into a situation, and automatically have a very good idea as to what isn't working, what is working, and why. It is always so natural for me that I forget others don't possess this ability. This is where I often come as arrogant. I don't mean to, and I try to keep in mind that my mind works differently than others. I see solutions that others don't.

When I think about what the word pushing means I come up with the image of someone pushing against something, like a door, or wall. It isn't quite teaching, because resistance is involved. So, if you're feeling that you have to push a child, then you need to be open to why. Why is the child resisting? What is the cause of the resistance? Is it not being ready? Is it not understanding what is expected of them? Is it true inability to handle, or execute the task you're asking/pushing them to do? It may be that they're trying to avoid work, but you need to find out why they're trying to avoid it. Here's a hint. It is rarely out of obstinance. Autistic children rarely decide not to do what is asked of them for no reason other than to pull a power move over an adult. It is really not how our, or any child's brain works. Autistic people rarely try to manipulate anyone. It's not our nature, so let's leave that as the last theory to visit, and test. Always. We can keep it on the table as a possibility for the reason for resistance, but I would like to see adults always test every other option, reason, or guess first. Even if you do ascertain that, to you... in your mind, this child is holding out to show you they're they boss, and you're not you must investigate why they feel they need to do this.

Here's some pertinent questions to ask when encountering resistance from an autistic person:

  • Does the autistic person truly lack the ability to complete the task? I know  that many time people may say they know they can do x, y, or z, because the child is smart, but being smart doesn't always equal being able to show that in the same way others do. 

  • Is the person having an off day? One of the great mysteries of how an autistic brain works (even to some of who are on the spectrum!) is that our abilities are not static. We may be able to complete ______ task on Monday, but unable to Wednesday. The factors vary for this, but sometimes it is unpredictable to ourselves, as well other others.
  •  Sometimes, when an autistic person gains a new skill, or is working on one, others fall away. Our brains tend to re-route where energy is needed the most, and for efficiency in the way our brains are wired. We are not linear learners. It's not unusual for a child to make big gains in motor skills, but regress with speech. It happens. Don't assume that just because we did _____ last week we can do it next week at the same rate. Failure to produce similar results doesn't mean that we're not trying.
  • Does the person understand what is expected of them? I know you may think that you made yourself clear, but what you think is clear may be muddy to an autistic person.  This can be very hard with a nonverbal developmentally delayed child. It's hard to know what they really are understanding, and what we think they are. I always go by the simple rule of always speak to them, and around them as if they can understand me, even if I have no evidence of it, but always assume they aren't when I'm requesting them to do something. What I mean by that us, I never speak in front of a child in a way that I wouldn't if the child, or person was not autistic. Just to be safe, I always want to be respectful of them, and if they aren't understanding me, then no harm done, but if they are, great. I have not disrespected them. However, I try to use few words, and pictures, and objects to communicate with my nonverbal son, unless he indicates to me otherwise that he can understand my speech if I spoke to him the way I normally speak. I think normal speech tends to overwhelm him from my observations, so I try to keep it tailored to what I believe he responds to.
  •   With my mildly autistic son, I often find that I need to break down steps, and only give him one at a time. He does very well with following directions, but he needs those directions to be broke down, and simple to follow. Honestly, I forget this often, and find that I feel frustrated at his lack of completing tasks, or skipping steps that to me seem very common sense. They aren't when you haven't learned them. I try to stay away from the judgment of laziness, and move toward supporting him. With many tasks I find that I have to be there to verbally walk him through at first, then fade that to a list of steps. This often irritates him, because he feels others don't need this help, so he shouldn't either. That is another part we have to work through verbally, before he is ready to do the dishes, or whatever new skill I'm introducing.

  • Is part of the routine one of resistance? This is a huge one that I caution so many educators about.  Autistic people like routine. We find crave it, and will create it, even if it's something that is unpleasant to us. I find this to be really relevant in dealing with more severely autistic children.
  • For example, if a child decides they don't want to go to the one on one work area, and throws themselves on the floor the way you react to this situation is quite possibly the new routine. If you don't want the situation to keep on going a certain way, then don't even start it. If you run up there, and decide that the kid needs to move on, and pick them up moving them to the the work area, then you have potentially reinforced that behavior to continue. Even though the child does not enjoy the interaction they will still likely repeat it daily, and sometimes even begin doing it for other things, too.

  •  Is part of the routine that the child becomes upset, or feels unsupported? I know this is a very, very common occurrence with my mildly autistic son, and even myself. If a situation leaves us emotionally upset, anxious, or feeling inadequate it is hard to break that association. What often happens is that one situation occurs where a teacher, or someone else doesn't understand that for whatever reason, an autistic person is not understanding, or able to do what is being asked of us, and instead of getting some reassurance, help, a break, ect... we are shamed for being difficult, and now we have a negative association for that task, situation, and possibly person. Now, enter anxiety into the equation. If pushed at this point, panic will set in, and a meltdown will occur, Do this a few times, and you WILL create a PTSD situation that will be very hard to get a way from. My thoughts on this, especially with staff at my son's school is this: Is him finishing every problem on that worksheet really worth the scars you're leaving him with as you shame, humiliate, and demean him when he tells you he has had enough?  Your job is to teach him, not make him be compliant, or just like everyone else. It will never happen, at least not without significant emotional damage that will take years of his adult life to undo. Try to see things as he sees them, not as a behavior issue.

  • Is the child resisting out of obstinance, because they are frustrated? If so why are they so frustrated? Is there more opportunities for "No" to happen for them, then "yes". Try to create lots of 'yeses' in their day to offset all the things they want to do, but can't. No one likes being told no all the time.  Also, give them as many choices as possible. Where they want to sit, to eat, wear, ect.. Hold up 2 options instead of deciding for them, and ask them which they prefer. Create an environment where they feel they are in control of their own selves, just like anyone else. Give safe choices, and let them exercise their right to decide. This is usually a big reason for lots of obstinate behavior. Once they feel they have some control they will gladly follow more structure without resisting so much. Acting out is always a means of letting us know something is not right.
  • Is there lots of opportunities to feel successful during the task? Is there some guarantee that there will be something gained from it? Yes, I know many think that life doesn't work that way. A child shouldn't expect rewards for everything, but we're not talking about just any child. We're talking about an autistic child who has to work very hard everyday at things the rest of the world doesn't. We live in a world that is not made for us, and it can be a harsh and unforgiving world, at that.  Our sensory systems are taxed, we are misunderstood, and tired by the end of most days.  I'm not only talking about a positive behavior system, but natural rewards of being able to master what we're doing, and feel good about it. Find things that cater to your child's strengths. Let them do those things, even at excess. Build their confidence. Also, start a task that maybe the autistic child has already learned, and build up to where it is more challenging. No one likes working at 110% all the time. Sometimes, we like to feel like we got this. Don't make their whole IEP based off of things that will be seriously challenging to them. Challenge them some, yes, but leave some room for a couple easy successes, and showing off strengths, too.
  • For example, Bubby is still learning his address and phone number, He has always been very resistant to even trying. I finally made up some fill in the blank type of worksheets on post it notes, and asked him to try it with the promise of a star on his chart. As soon as he found out that he could get the star for trying (not for correct answers, just trying) he was right to it. He was so afraid of failing that he did not want to try.  I found the same with Beans. If you work some easy tasks that he is familair with into his work time, he is way more willing to sit, and do his work tasks. He likes to feel like he can get something right, and that helps him to move on to more challenging things. 
So, in closing I hope this gives you some new ideas as to what resistance can mean, and what to do about it. I don't think that I can say pushing is always bad, but one must keep in mind what the reason for resistance might be, and what your goal is for pushing.  If I was never pushed, admittedly I would not have tried. There are many of us that will stay where we are comfortable, unless we see a reason to do so otherwise. My anxiety makes me uncomfortable in learning new things. I must have the tools, reassurance, knowledge, and honestly a good reason to face the anxiety of trying something new. Pushing me in bad ways made my anxiety worse. Pushing me with supports toward things that I truly needed to do (not just what NTs think is valuable, but truly life skills that I need) made me grow. If your efforts aren't resulting in growth for the child you're working with, then it's time to reevaluate what is happening.


  1. Thank you for this. I feel alone in agreeing with you. I gravitate towards just letting my daughter bee and not putting her in situations with unfair expectations of who she is unless it is something she chooses to be a part of. I don't mind helping her find ways to adapt as long as she is part of deciding what/when/how/why. I can't understand pushing her to be or do anything because the message I hear screaming from that idea is that who you are is wrong and you need to change. And I can't abide by that. I want her to lover who she is exactly the way she is. I want her to be aware of the differences so she is in a position of understanding and can chose to do something about it or not. Thank you for this well thought out post. From a rather oddball NT mom loving and parenting her wonderfully ASD daughter.

    1. I think there are more of us than we realize with this view, but we aren't the loudest, so we're not as accounted for. By nature, we're the quiet accepting types. That's what I hope, anyway! Thanks for your comment!

  2. This is great! I know with my son, a lot of the time he is scared to try and needs a lot of encouragement. I too was scared of failure for a long time. I finally snapped out of it when I was 20.

    1. Anxiety plays a huge role for us, and anxiety is one of those things that can't be forced out. It needs to be coaxed with compassion.

  3. As a speech pathologist, I was taught about the "zone of proximal development." It's a balance between something being too easy and too hard. A sort of "sweet spot" where a child can accomplish something with just a little bit of help. I also found that setting up the environment ahead of time seems to help, also. For example, making a worksheet shorter than a full page so the child can complete it successfully without being frustrated.

    All the ideas you have suggested are actually some that would help any child, I think. I know I am working with a young lady with C/P right now, and I have used many of your suggestions with her. That has improved our frustration level a great deal.

    1. I had to fight, and fight my AS son's school for the shortening of worksheets, and such ahead of time. They have been doing some of those things this year, and so far it's going very well, which is in sharp contrast to last year.

      I think you're right, any kid would benefit from a lot of the behavioral methods we use for special needs kids. Thanks for reading!


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