My name is Matthew Grier and I am a second year student at Mount Royal University in child and youth care counseling. I am doing a year long practicum at a school that works with autism and behavioral and special needs. I have been there a few weeks and still figuring out how best to approach the situation.
I have talked with fellow colleague and teachers and there has been usage of hand signals and using less words to verbally communicate to get my point across. It has helped a great deal, however I would like to know more.
So my question is what ways can I prepare myself to handle children with autism in the most effective and caring manner? And how to become more comfortable with non-verbal communicators while not crossing any lines?
Be consistent with the routine. Always tell them what’s going to happen beforehand and that usually works. For the none verbal guys most of them use pictures. You show them the pictures and they respond to it. Also ask a lot of questions. Make sure you know the schedule and what’s going on as changes set them off. Sometimes you might need to give them a body break when they cannot cope with the change.
I worked as a behavioural coach in a social group for children with autism between the ages of 7-9.
Priming the children for activities and what is going to come next is a great course of action for these kids. 10 minutes before a transition, prep the group to warning them about the change. Then again at 5 minutes, and maybe again at 2, or 1, then finish with a countdown in the last few seconds to show that the time has ended.
Explain to them what the next activity will involve and roughly how long it will take (bring it into their terms since some may not use time; such as "1 TV commercial break" to go).
Visual schedules are an amazing tool, and like you were saying about the hand signals working well for you, visual is much easier for autistic children to follow along with.
If you haven't already (your school should have done this already because it's well-known) you should setup a visual schedule on the classroom board with an arrow or a magnet that can be moved down as you progress throughout the day. If you have a child who repeatedly asks you questions like "when will we be done?" or "what are we doing next?" you can first show them the board, and then follow-up questions can be answered with "you know where to look to find that out."
Good luck with the practicum!
I am doing an introductory Child and Youth care class – I have a degree in history, but I have worked with children with autism and special needs for about four years now. Below is some information about approaches I use and lots of resources that I incorporate into my every day work with children. I also described resources that I read on my own free time to keep me in the loop and to provide me with some insight into the world of those kiddos with cognitive and behavioural challenges. Many of the children I work with have dual diagnoses, for ex. ASD, ADHD, and/or OCD, so take into consideration whatever you think may be relevant.
For myself, hand signals and using approximately six word statements seem to be very effective, as well as using visuals (schedules obviously, or big stop signs). I use the visual schedule app called ChoiceWorks. It costs money, but I believe it is inexpensive. You can also use a token system depending on the child's level of functioning.
For younger children, or children who are in the early stages of doing motor skills-type exercises, I use Melissa & Doug puzzles. They have a Wooden Panels & Laces Board, Latches Board, Basic Skills Board (zippers, shoe laces, etc.), and Wooden Family Bear Dress Up Puzzle. Mr. Potato Head is an awesome resource and other puzzles work too. For older kiddos, simple exercises like latch hooking or sorting out small items, say beads, can help practice those motor skills.
When I start educational type sessions with my higher functioning kiddos, I always begin the session with an introductory exercise (ex. mazes, dot-to-dot, cursive) and make sure the child has music available, crunchy snacks, and has breaks every half an hour or so, depending on the child. I try to find engaging educational resources, like using Khan Academy online (free), BrainPop, or the Sir Cumference series to facilitate our math sessions. With younger children, I always begin a 2 hour session by attending a nearby park for 30 minutes. I never know whether the child has had some time to be active throughout the day yet, and even though this uses up a quarter of a session, it makes the remaining time spent on academics much more productive. We keep educational type sessions at a 2 hour maximum, with many breaks scheduled throughout, depending on the child. Educational resources that I've used include phonetic awareness, the Time-Timer (to visually show how much time is left in a session), Lego, math manipulatives, and the "What to do..." series by Dawn Huebner. Inclusive stories like All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism can be positive for these educational sessions as well.
As described above, breaks are an essential aspect to facilitating children with sensory issues. Occupational Therapy-type breaks are the most effective for me, for example playing on the trampoline, going for a jog, listening to music, playing with play foam, play dough or kinetic sand, and doing yoga stretches. Sitting in a bean bag chair or using a swing, like the Ikea Ekorre hanging seat, can help too. If a child is having a tough day, a huge portion of our session may include reading story books, which I find allows the child to still remain engaged but feel less hindered by high expectations. Research sensory integration to help get more information on the importance of OT.
Transitions can be tough, so verbally prepping kiddos for these transitions can be necessary. Using social stories and visuals (like with the ChoiceWorks app) are a go to for me.
Other than the ChoiceWork app, there is also the app called ProLoQuo2Go. Check it out, but a brief description would be that it’s a symbol-supported communication tool and helps model language, similar to a "Pod". It is quite expensive, but in BC our Autism Funding Unit covers the cost with a justification from an OT or SLP. Other than that, if I have a request, say walking on the pool deck vs. running, I may say "walking please" and then if the child still continues to run, I use a sing songy voice to make my request "walllllking, walllllking, walking, walking, wallllking". Singing often helps make that connection when simply talking doesn't work. Other resources on social thinking (for those kiddos that are higher functioning) would be anything by Michelle Garcia Winner. I love all of her work and would highly recommend attending her conference if she is ever in your area. She is a Speech & Language Pathologist and provides really great information.
I am a firm believer in the importance of healthy attachments – whether between an adult and a child or a support provider and the client. When I start out with a new kiddo, it may be 50+ hours of introductory exercises to help build that bond, ex. play therapy type exercises. This helps to forge a bond and an emotional attachment without the expectation that a child should immediately be expected to respect you as a support worker. Check out Kim Barthel on the subject of attachment-theory (she has a YouTube video where you can check out her lectures, or you can check out Conversations with a Rattlesnake by Barthel and Theo Flury). I would also recommend reading up on mindfulness – I've read the book Mindful Parenting for ADHD by Mark Bertin. It can help me maintain my composure before I enter a difficult situation. I absolutely believe that children can sense an adult's feelings and body language.
You can also read up on Applied Behaviour Analysis, if you feel so inclined. Reading up on executive functioning could also be a huge help.
One quote that I always keep in mind is that "all behaviour is communication" – meaning that sometimes, if children are portraying maladaptive behaviour, perhaps the expectation for this specific day and situation is too high. Lower your expectation, and you may find that you have less melt downs and more successful sessions.
Hope this information and the above resources can be of some help (if not just adding to what I assume is already a heavy reading load). Oh, and read Neurotribes by Steve Silverman (or watch him on TedTalks). That one's a necessity.
All the best,