This BLOG is the third of a three-part series about some of the efforts and techniques that helped my son, Andy, and me as we lived with his successful struggle with autism. Perhaps reading about them will encourage others to try them (if they have not already done so). Even better, perhaps others will turn to the Suggestions page on this website and share their successes with others.
When (I thought) Andy and I had finished the first complete draft of our book about life with his autism, I sent a small sample of it to Temple Grandin, the well-known advocate for people with autism. I asked for her comments. As soon as she received the sample, she called me. She told me several things she thought might improve the book. She repeated one suggestion again and again. I must include loud and clear information about “what worked.” Without that, she said, all the rest of the story would be useless. I reviewed the book with her suggestions in mind and agreed. Indeed, I really must include specific information about actions and techniques that clearly helped Andy. I needed another chapter. As I wrote that chapter, I realized the information in it belongs on this website. I present it in this, the third of three BLOGs.
Of course, what I present here cannot be a complete guide to all attitudes and behaviors, all techniques that work for all people with autism. There can be no such guide, because—like all the rest of us—all people with autism are unique individuals. No two are exactly alike, and no two can be treated in exactly the same way in every situation. These are things that worked for Andy and me. As we walked our walk, I saw they often worked for others. I hope many, if not most, work for you.
BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION is a well-known, long-practiced method of one-on-one teaching used in many situations where traditional styles of teaching do not work well. Simply put, behavior modification rewards successful learning and (usually) ignores failure to learn. Some practitioners employ a negative reinforcement when the student fails to learn. However, most of the time simply ignoring the failure and rewarding success not only is sufficient for the task at hand it gives the student increased self-confidence in general. The reward for success may be so small as to seem insignificant: an M&M, a piece of a cookie, a penny (although monetary rewards usually are not a good idea), part of a toy the student wants—anything the student values. Sometimes, a smile and a “Thank you!” are all it takes. Once the reward has been given, the next task is introduced without pause.
Here’s an important “what worked:” It doesn’t matter at all what name or title is given the school or class your child with autism attends. Not at all, although the title is sometimes useful in locating an appropriate setting for his or her education. Sometimes. What matters is the way the teacher interacts with the students, particularly with your student. The teacher must enjoy the job. She or he must believe every student is unique and deserves to be treated as an individual. Your student, as well as every other student in their classroom, should be welcome there, special in some way, and important to the teacher. Each student should experience a special connection with the teacher. Every teacher in the world should create this atmosphere, of course; it is especially necessary for students in every special education class.
Ideally, your child should be able to see and learn from the daily activities in his or her classroom, especially how they are relevant to their future life. Trips to the grocery store, cooking classes, sewing hours and the like not only provide valuable experience in and of themselves, they provide real “data” for spelling, math, reading, social studies, health and other parts of daily education.
As primary advocate for your child, you should communicate often with the teacher or tutor. Doing so, even if you spend only ten minutes a week “checking in,” indicates your interest in both academic and social aspects of your child’s development.
Also, as your child’s advocate, you should daily query about his or her progress and about events of the day. It is not useful to ask, “How was your day?” Such a question almost always evokes a non-answer. Instead, try something like “Did anything exciting (or bad) happen, today?” or “What did you learn, today?” or, if there’s been trouble recently, “Was Sheila mean to you again, today?” Ask specific questions. Try to ask questions that require more detail than a “Yes,” “No,” or “Fine” answer.
Last, but definitely not least, if you see or sense your child is in a situation harmful to them (academically or otherwise), do everything you possibly can to locate a better school/class/teacher for them. This search for the right person can be a life career, or so it may seem. It is certainly the biggest, most challenging, and single most effective task you will encounter. Don’t give up; the reward is worth the effort.
The short form of all I’ve said, above, about “What Works:” is this: Love is the best answer. Pay attention to your child or person with autism, and honor as much of their individuality as you possibly can, within sensible reason. Encourage them, but don’t push them too hard and don’t give them the idea they really can go to the moon. Reward them for good behavior and help them learn about not good behavior by not rewarding such behavior.
I repeat: You are the most important person in your child with autism’s life. Be sensitive, be sensible, be sensational!