I was asked recently to speak to a group of community social workers
about working with children and young people who have been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. This agency has noticed that they are working with a greater number of children and young people in school settings with this diagnosis. They wanted to know how best to work with these young people/children. Below is the information I shared which also includes suggestions for supporting behaviour and a list of helpful resources.
What are some of the features of a person with a diagnosis of ASD?
Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts. This could be:
If an individual diagnosed with ASD is having a good day they may be more ready to accept things they find difficult, if they are having a bad day they may be less ready to accept things they find difficult. Just like the rest of us!
Basic principles of behaviour do still apply. There are only two functions of behaviour, to get something or to get away from something. Teaching of new or replacement behaviours and reinforcement of desired behaviour is much more effective at bringing behaviour change than punishment and depriving a child or young person of what they need.
The key is figuring out what the function of the behaviour of the child/young person is. In other words, why are they doing what they are doing? Given what we know about the general diagnostic features of ASD we have a head start on figuring out what the function of the child/young person’s behaviour is. We can then think about supporting the child/young person in a few different ways.
We can adapt the environment so that behaviour is not causing them or others difficulty.
We can minimise or create more socially acceptable ways of coping with sensory needs.
Noise can be a problem for many children - using sound cancelling headphones at times, can help. To ensure inclusiveness use a set of headphones. Light or colour can be a strong interest or a challenge, think about this when looking at the seating arrangements in a class.
We can teach students some new behaviours which would work better for them.
Social stories can be very helpful. For example: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/social-stories/
Images of either photographs or symbols to show a student what to do or where to go or to label something can help. Schedules made up of photos or symbols are useful. A very helpful image is ‘not available’. Choose an image such as a circle with a slash through it and explain to the student what it means.
We can provide some reinforcement for behaviours which work better for the student.
For example: As soon as the student behaves in a way that is better for the environment provide praise, or access to a highly desired behaviour.
We can (sometimes) change what is happening before the difficult behaviour so that the child/young person is better able to manage challenging situations.
For example: If a child is finding the transition from home to school difficult perhaps the actions taken at home could be changed so the child is more open to coping with the school day. This could include looking at the morning routine at home, how the student is dropped at school.
We can change what happens after the difficult behaviour happens.
For example: If a child is being sent to talk to the principal after constantly shouting out in class rather than waiting to take a turn. This may be increasing the shouting out behaviour as the child may have a strong preference to talk to an adult. Adding opportunities for adult interaction within the classroom or inviting other adults to the room to chat with the child may prevent the shouting out behaviours.
To understand the perspective of someone living with ASD:
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.