Visual Schedule to Improve Independent Play Skills in Children with Autism

Parents, caregivers, therapists and teachers alike work so hard to teach a variety of play skills but what happens when your child or student doesn’t make that leap from facilitated play to independent play? Independent play is such an important skill that will allow him or her to better connect with their peers, build friendships, expand problem-solving skills and structure downtime.  A successful transition from demonstrating play skills with adult support to playing independently can be impacted by a myriad of variables.

Some of my students struggle with independent play because it is difficult to move from a thick schedule of reinforcement of 1:1 adult attention to a thinner one of just having an adult “check in” once in a while.  Other learners have impairments impacting executive function, specifically the organization and sequencing of steps for meaningful and reinforcing play as well as on-task behavior, task completion and working memory. Additionally, in some cases the skill of independent play is elusive because teachers struggle to find ways to fade out prompts or to successfully thin out the schedule of reinforcement.

Below is the visual schedule with data sheets for measuring acquisition and progress that I have created.  I have found it useful with learners with very different skill sets and abilities.  Click here for a comprehensive Task Analysis on teaching independent play using a visual schedule.

Keep in mind that this is for learners that:

  • Have successfully acquired a varied repertoire of play skills
  • Do not require visual schedules that break down every step of the play
  • Are able to complete activities with delayed reinforcement

In order to prepare this for use with the learner:

  • Set up a toy organizational system that has toys bins
  • Print the materials and laminate the schedule strip and the cut out shapes.
  • Attach Velcro dots to the bins, schedule strip and shapes and to the work surface if you like
  • Identify activities that are suitable for this schedule

Remember that any open-ended activities like building blocks or coloring can be turned into close-ended activities by limiting the number of pieces or by teaching the learner to use a timer.

As you would when teaching any schedule, use a most-to-least prompting strategy, only use verbal instruction for the initial direction or S(e.g. “Go play.”), and prompt only from behind and out of view.

The schedule I have been using has a smiley face at the end of the schedule indicating a “free choice” time which all of my students understand.  However, if you are using this with a learner that requires a visual reminder of what they are working for, you could easily adapt this by putting a picture of the reward in the place of the smiley face.  Time to play!

*Don’t forget to download your free visual schedule and data sheets here!

Free Downloadable Token Board

I don’t know if it’s all of this talk about extreme temperatures, the polar vortex phenomenon or just an early itch for spring to arrive. Whatever it is, a current student of mine became interested in picnics and in turn I was inspired to find a new way to motivate him through challenging homework sessions in the evenings.

Picnic Token BoardI decided when creating this token economy to print an abundance of items for the picnic blanket token board. I did this because the particular student I had in mind when making this was struggling to even approach the homework table, let alone begin his homework. So, I thought that having an opportunity to talk about which tokens we would bring on the “picnic” as well as which back up reinforcer he would earn in exchange for the tokens before starting to earn them would motivate him to come to the homework table more easily. In fact, this allowed for a softer transition away from preferred activities to the homework table. Depending on the student you could use five tokens or ten. We’ve assembled two printable pages of these tokens and token board for you to download here. See the steps for assembly below:

  1. Picnic Tokens ButtonPrint the files using a color printer and cut out each image.
  2. Laminate them separately and then cut them out of the lamination sheets.
  3. Attach the loop side of Velcro dots to the individual images and either 5 or 10 Velcro dots with the hook side onto the picnic blanket depending on which number is most appropriate for your student.
  4. If the learner needs a visual reminder of what they are working for (backup reinforcer) you could easily print up child specific reinforcers to be attached to the picnic basket as a reminder.
  5. If your learner does not require a visual reminder of the backup reinforcer you could easily adhere the laminated picnic basket to the backside of the picnic basket leaving an opening at the top and use it as a storage pocket for any tokens you aren’t using.

*Note: This is the first in a series of fun, easy Do It Yourself Token Boards. We hope you’ll stay tuned for the next installment in this series using WIZARDS!

Wait, What Are We Talking About?

I typically work with very young learners in Early Intervention but there was a time I was working with older children, which necessitated work on conversation skills and topic maintenance. With the start of a new academic year and changes to my caseload I am currently finding myself with students who again need some assistance in this area.  Children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle in conversations because of limited or restricted interests, attending issues, difficulty determining what is relevant or salient to the topic and might also struggle with the rapid transitions necessary to shift between speaker and listener.  This change in my caseload has meant that I’ve found myself digging into old files and unearthing some ancient DIY efforts of mine that I had used in the past.  What I came across that I wanted to share was a visual support that I had used in small groups to facilitate a variety of skills.  It’s something I called Chit Chat and it helped to cue the students in shifting from speaker to listener while maintaining a balance in the conversation with turn taking and reciprocity as well as staying on topic.

The idea was that we would all sit down for a “chat” and initially I would go first in order to model how the board was used rather than providing explicit instruction until the group could use the board on their own and I could fade myself out of the conversation.  The first speaker would choose a token corresponding to a topic of interest, make a statement relevant to the topic chosen and then pass the token to a friend.  The token would provide a prompt for the speaker to maintain the chosen topic as well as cue the rest of the group to visually reference the child whose turn it is to be speaker.  Depending on the level of the group I would individualize the number of conversational exchanges on one topic required before bridging to a new topic. The group I was working with at the time was able to talk about more general topics but this could be individualized to more specific topics depending on the group of students you are working with.

I’m excited embarking upon a new academic year with all it’s unique challenges and successes and am happy to dust off Chit Chat and give it another whirl this year with all new students.  I would be curious to hear from other educators and therapists what tools they’ve created that they find themselves going back to year after year.  You might be surprised what you find at the bottom of your file cabinet!

Also, check out this great link I stumbled across from POPARD Provincial Outreach Program for Autism and Related Disorders in British Columbia, Canada.

http://www.autismoutreach.ca/elearning/social-skills/conversation-and-topic-maintenance

Tips for Making a Move More Successful

I’ve recently moved from one apartment to another one only two blocks away.  The funny thing is that it has left me completely discombobulated.  I leave the house improperly dressed for the weather because I have no idea where the hats, scarves and gloves are.  I’ve fallen behind in several tasks and generally just feel a bit ‘out of it’.

This started me thinking about what families with a child on the spectrum most likely experience when moving.  Many children with autism are disrupted by change and any variations in the daily routine can dramatically impact their level of functioning.  It would be important when moving, like most predictable events, to prepare your child ahead of time.   I only have one first hand experience working with a family who moved.  It went pretty smoothly because they were relocating in the same city and had family close by where therapy could take place while the new apartment was being set up. Additionally, this particular child is pretty easy going and isn’t as bothered by change as many of my other students.  However, I have a feeling that this is the exception to the rule rather than the norm.

Clearly, all children are different and this should be taken into consideration when preparing them for the move but in general there are some things to consider for all children.  I would suggest the following ways to try and lessen the stress and help facilitate a smoother transition.

Prepare your child for the move. – This one goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway.  Just because you think your child might not conceptually understand a discussion about moving doesn’t mean you can’t begin to prepare them for the change.  There are many great children’s books about moving and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start reading these together several weeks before you move.  You can create social stories about what changes can be expected and even talk about some of the “what if’s” that can be encountered when moving.  If you are moving within the same city or town you can become familiar with the new neighborhood before hand by going to the new playgrounds or any other place you might frequent.  If you are not able to visit the new places you can put pictures of them in a photo book to review and discuss.  You can also count down the days until the move on a calendar so that the arrival of the actual day is predictable.

 

Keep the schedule the same as much as possible. –  This is always a safe starting place when unsure about how your child might react to change.  Whether a holiday or moving to a new apartment if you’re able to keep the schedule the same it will make everyone’s life a little easier.  It might also be helpful to reintroduce a visual schedule for a few weeks surrounding the move if you don’t have one in place already.

 

Keep favorite and comforting items accessible. – If there is a particular toy or item that plays a critical role in your child’s ability to self soothe when upset you will want to make sure you know where it is during the move.  The location will be changing but you want to make sure that it still feels like home by having familiar items available.  It is also a good idea to have the child’s room set up in a similar way in the new house so there isn’t too much of an adjustment in their personal space.  This isn’t a good time to update furniture or purge old toys as you will want to keep things as similar as possible.

Use Positive Reinforcement. – Moving is one giant transition but you can be sure that within that there will be a lot of little transitions and adjustments too.  It’s important to not lose sight of any success your child experiences with these smaller transitions up until and even after the move.  When your child transitions smoothly REINFORCE it!  Reserve a favorite toy or snack as reinforcement for transitions so that it remains powerful and meaningful to the child.  Even if these are transitions that no longer require reinforcement you can use it as an opportunity to emphasize their ability to transition and remind them up the upcoming move.

What is your personal experience with moving?  Were there things that were crucial to your child transitioning smoothly?  Are there things you tried that you would do differently if you had to move again?  What tips would you share with other families who are preparing to move? We would love to hear your story!

President’s Day

President’s day is on Monday and it is likely that there may be some gaps in your child’s home program or perhaps they are home without therapy because school is closed.  Either way we all know that structure and the maintenance of routine play a big role in a child’s success.  Your best bet is to not leave anything to chance.  Create a picture schedule of the planned activities for the day substituting any gaps with activities that your child has had success with independently or activities you can facilitate.  Depending on your child’s abilities and his or her individual interests this schedule may include some new activities mapped out by using pictures of each step involved.  I’ve really enjoyed simple cooking activities with my students lately.  The simple act of making lemonade together provides so many opportunities to expand language, turn-taking, following directions and sequencing.  The best part is that when you are done you have delicious lemonade to drink.  Whenever I include kitchen activities I like to draw up a pictorial recipe before hand that the child can follow along with.  It is also important to keep in mind that not everything has to be explicitly therapeutic or educational.  You can have structure without it necessarily including direct instruction.  In fact I think that holidays are the best time to mix in some more varied activities.  Try printing out images of your child’s favorite storybook character and paste them into a journal while writing your own story to go along with the pictures.  Parents and caregivers sometimes shy away from incorporating novel activities into a schedule but with some preparation and guidance it can be an enjoyable “day off” for all.

What does at day off look like in your household?  Maybe you can share a fun activity you’ve recently tried?

Free Downloads

I’ve never been busier during the start of a new year than I have been in 2011.  It seems like many of my students were off to an ambitious start this month as well.  Some students made such significant progress that the revisions seem to never end.  Other students have required a lot of creativity and extra effort in finding ways to reach them and facilitate learning.   I found myself re-evaluating many program books, behavior plans and strategies.  I won’t further bore you with my lengthy “To Do” list but I will share some of the rewards of my work.  The end result is that there are new and improved versions of the free DRL data sheets and graphs along with brief descriptions for each.  I hope you find them as useful as I have. You can find them under the “DRL Downloads” tab underneath the Different Roads to Learning banner.  Now off to work!

The Holidays Are Here?!

The fast approaching holiday break can be stressful with therapists away, a school break and big changes in your child’s schedule making it difficult to maintain a routine.  Why not use the time to expand general knowledge and play skills?

Try to maintain the schedule as much as you can by replacing therapy or school time with activities based on one particular theme.  Take space travel and astronauts as an example and incorporate activities to address all developmental domains and have different “sessions” throughout the holiday vacation.  Depending on the length of the vacation you might choose more than one theme.

I like to start by using short videos to introduce a play schema.  This gets everyone excited about playing by becoming familiar with the specifics of the theme and making it “real”.  You can find videos on the Difflearn YouTube Channel.  Like this one showing a space shuttle lift off!

Next, you could use materials relating to the theme to work on building cognitive skills and expanding the general knowledge base about the topic needed for play.

Here are some ideas:

Parts of Whole – given a picture of an astronaut or space shuttle can the child identify parts both expressively and receptively?  This becomes important when expanding the comments used  during play.  A couple of examples include, “Don’t forget your helmet” or “I think the rocket blasters are broken, let’s fix them!”

Wh Questions – after reading short passages of a book or informational page related to the theme present various Wh Questions for the child to answer.  This improves comprehension and listening skills as well as providing more content for the space play.  You would be surprised at how well a child can do given a new and motivating topic!

Other sessions can include coloring sheets related to the theme you have chosen.  This provides an opportunity to work on task completion, graphomotor and fine motor skills.  You can find countless coloring sheets with a simple search on the internet. Like the ones found here: coloring sheets.

Additionally, you can have an arts and crafts “session” and use up some of those holiday gift boxes and gift wrap tubes to make helmets or space shuttle controls.

Last, it’s time to play!  Gather the whole family or some friends, line up chairs for the space shuttle and put on your gear.  Watch as all the information shared during your “sessions” comes alive during play!

Happy Holidays to All!

Fire Safety Resources

There is no one piece of advice that I offer more than “Prepare your child.”  We all know that children with autism tend to be inflexible in their adherence to routine.  Any unexpected change in their daily schedule can present emotional and behavioral difficulties for all involved.  That is why it is important to prepare your child for any  potential disruptions.  This includes fire safety and it just so happens that the National Fire Protection Association has created some great resources to help you.  Check out the social story that can be customized to include your child’s personal information below!

National Fire Protection Association Fire Safety Flip Book

Sparky the Fire Dog Website

Thinking About All the Parents Out There…

With the holidays approaching we all know that gift giving will soon be in full swing.  This undoubtedly means that your families will be generously bestowed with electronic cause and effect toys.  These types of toys help to stimulate development as your child discovers the function of the toy and how to elicit certain responses from the object.  Children with special needs tend to have a longer relationship with these types of toys as they often serve as powerful reinforcers, meet ongoing sensory needs and continue to provide opportunities to address language and motor development.  Additionally, it may take a special needs child longer to master this type of play before moving onto more imaginative and creative play.  What I’m getting at is that these toys are going to be in your house longer and some of them are LOUD.  So when I came across the following post on Apartment Therapy the other day it jumped out at me as a piece vital information for all of you special needs parents out there.  We are always thinking about adaptations for toys and games for the kids but what about the parents?  A former sound engineer for children’s sound books shares a secret on how to turn down the volume on these toys.

Check it out and Happy Holidays!

Bringing Down the Volume on Electronic Toys

Children helping children!

I am always moved to learn about inventive developments in the fields of education and intervention for children with autism.  But how often do you hear about interventions being designed for children BY children?  Well that is exactly what Zak Kukoff did when he developed Autism Ambassadors.  Zak, a typically developing 15-year old, created a curriculum that “will engage typical children and children with ASD’s in a mutually beneficial relationship.” There is research that supports the efficacy of using peer models to facilitate observational learning with children with autism but how often have you seen examples where it has been successfully implemented?  We would love for you to share your stories regarding peer modeling or your experience with Autism Ambassadors!