When I started as a speech pathologist working with student’s with autism no one ever told me I should have gotten a degree in behavioral techniques as well! Thank goodness I have been able to work alongside teachers and aides skilled in applied behavioral analysis and structured teaching so I could pick up lots of their tips and tricks. Here are some of my favorite strategies for getting the most out of my kids and preventing tantrums:
- Relinquish control (but not really): Provide the child with two choices that are both acceptable to you (i.e. Do you want to get dressed or brush your teeth first?). Children with autism (and really any child or even adults!) like to think they are in control. By providing choices instead of giving a direction or asking a question that is sure to get a “no” answer, the child feels they have control and is more likely to move forward in the activity.
- First…then: When I run up against a child resisting an activity, I always back up to the “first…then” strategy because it is so simple and frequently effective. To implement “first…then” you need to identify a reinforcing activity or object then either verbally and/or paired with visual supports state “first (fill in non-preferred activity)…then (fill in preferred activity or reinforcer)”. Make sure your description is short and clear so the child has a clear idea of what they must do prior to getting their preferred activity or object.
- Show me the schedule: Visual schedules can be helpful to reduce anxiety and help a child with autism anticipate what is coming next. I use visual schedules in a variety of ways that have proved helpful in reducing behavior issues.
- Activity Schedule: pictures of each activity we will be completing, can be predetermined by me or collaboratively with the student to take turns picking activities
- Within Activity Schedule: pictures showing the steps of an activity or craft (i.e. first color the picture, then cut the picture, then glue the pieces)
- Momentum is your friend: Pair a hard task with a few easy tasks to take advantage of positive momentum. I think of this of tricking the child into providing the desired response before they can think “Hey! I don’t want to do that!” or “That’s too hard!” For example, to get a child to follow the direction to sit down, first give easy/fun directions then give the direction to sit down as the final direction (i.e. “Clap your hands! Tap your head! Sit Down! Hooray!”)
- Everyone can use a little reinforcement: Using a reinforcement chart or “penny chart” can help a child visually see what they can earn by doing a certain behavior. Make sure that the desired behavior is clear to the child by providing visuals and other prompts. One of my favorite forms of behavior charts for kids is printing a picture of the desired reinforcer and cutting it into puzzle pieces relating to the amount of pieces the child will have to earn to get the reinforcer. Each time the child performs the desired behavior they get a puzzle piece to glue or velcro and when all the puzzle pieces have been earned the child gets the reinforcer. (Update: the puzzle piece reinforcer is shown here)
I am still a work in progress when it comes to being a behavior expert but using these strategies have helped my speech therapy sessions become more peaceful and productive! I think with a little bit of practice they can be easy applied by parents, teachers, and speech pathologists alike!