Data Sheets Now Available for Hooray for Play!

I get pretty excited about pretend play and it isn’t unusual for me to engage colleagues at length in a conversation about how it can be incorporated into a learner’s home program using naturalistic behavioral methods. I can go on and on about all of the various play schemas that can be taught, my observations regarding which play schemas are of the greatest interest to the learner’s peer group at the moment, and regular items from around the house that can be incorporated as props.

The Hooray for Play! cards break down all of this information into a framework that is easy to reference and remember. Additionally, the simple illustrations provide visual stimuli to facilitate conversation about various schemas, to prime a student before play begins, or to help facilitate choice during pretend play. However, it isn’t long into our conversation when my colleagues ask, “What about the data?” Of course, this is where the conversation ends up because in an ABA program, all decisions are data-driven and based on observable and clearly defined target behaviors. However, with something as fluid as pretend play, it can sometimes feel a bit daunting to break the play down into smaller parts without scripting it completely.

The Hooray for Play! Data Sheets allow for the most salient elements of a play schema to be taught while still leaving room for variation and flexibility, which can be critical when generalizing to peers. Additionally, the targets are not predetermined so that they can be individualized for the learner. Below, you will find an example of the data sheet with some rows filled in to illustrate what it might look like. A blank version is also available in the set, so that it can be individualized for a specific learner.


There are a variety of techniques founded in the science of Applied Behavior Analysis that are effective in increasing and improving play skills. Research-based procedures can range from very structured to more naturalistic and should be chosen based on an approach best suited for the learner.

Some examples include:

  • Video Modeling
  • Play Scripts
  • Pivotal Response Training (PRT)
  • Peer Training

Charlop-Christy, M. H., Le, L., & Freeman, K. A. (2000). A comparison of video modeling with in vivo modeling for teaching children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30 (6), 537-552.

Goldstein, H. & Cisar, C.L. (1992). Promoting interaction during sociodramatic play: teaching scripts to typical preschoolers and classmates with disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25, 265–80.

Koegel, L.K., Koegel, R.L., Harrower, J.K. & Carter, C.M. (1999). Pivotal response intervention. I: Overview of approach. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 25, 174-85.

Stahmer, A.C. (1999). Using pivotal response training to facilitate appropriate play in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 15, 29–40.

Pierce, K. & Schreibman, L. (1997). Using peer trainers to promote social behavior in autism: Are they effective at enhancing multiple social modalities? Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 12, 207–18.

Interview with Alex Jackman, Creator of “A Teen’s Guide to Autism”

Alex HeadshotOur consultant Sam Blanco recently had the opportunity to talk with Alex Jackman about her  video, A Teen’s Guide to Autism. Alex created this film when she was in eighth grade to educate high school students about autism. You can view the 15-minute film here. For those of you in Florida, the film is going to be showing this weekend at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in the short documentary category. There will be a Q&A afterwards. For more information, click here.

Here is Sam’s interview with Alex about her experience making the film, as well as her thoughts on teaching kids about people with special needs.

Q: What inspired you to make the film?

What inspired me mainly was how people in my school, how little they knew about autism. I realized that a lot of people, because they don’t know what makes people with special needs different, they don’t take the chance to get to know them. I’ve met really incredible people with special needs and I thought it was so unfortunate for both the people with special needs and everyone else who wasn’t getting to know them because they are missing out on this opportunity. I looked up stuff, but I hadn’t seen anything that was geared towards teens about it.

Q: What kind of sources did you use to find the statistics and information you presented?

That was definitely difficult because there are different statistics for the same [information], like for how many people have autism. There were conflicting sources, and with new research, it’s changing. (All information from the film clearly states “as of 2012.”) I used very respectable, well-known, large organizations that I, or groups, like medical groups, that have really researched to get statistics.

Q: If you could narrow it down to one thing, what did you learn from making this film?

That’s so hard.  I think I’ll have to say two.  For kids, I think that teens especially, are so willing to learn and are willing to take in this information they just haven’t been given the opportunity to.  And then, the other thing was just that adults and people are so much more supportive than I thought and it’s not an uphill battle for everything.  People really want to help.

Q: Bullying in schools is a big concern for parents and educators. Do you think providing information about what special needs could have an impact on bullying?

Yes.  Because – well, I do think there are resources, but it’s not taught in schools and it’s not really thrown in their faces, which I kind of tried to do – get teens to watch. Where it’s not something they have to search for, t’s right in front of them… I think that a large part of bullying is misconception and ignorance.  I don’t understand the bullying, of course, but I understand why people would be a little bit confused and would look at someone a little bit differently, if they don’t know why they’re doing something differently from them. If they have never learned, then I can’t blame anyone for being confused and not knowing how to respond.

Q: In the process of making the video, what was one of the more common misconceptions you found high school students had about autism.

Well, one thing I was so surprised by was how many people just didn’t know what it was.  I was really surprised when I thought about it, we never really learned about it in school…You know it’s a big part of my life now, and so I kind of assume that more people know about it, but there were just so many people who didn’t know.

Q: In the process of making the video, you talk with high school students who have autism. What type of questions did you ask them to be a part of the video?

I said, “What’s something cool about you”, “What’s something interesting about you”, “What do you want to be when you grow up”, “Do you have a favorite song.”  Kind of based on their responses, I just kind of started with one question and then I didn’t have anything planned.  I just kind of went off of their answers, and whatever they wanted to talk about, that’s what they talked about.  This was the part I really loved.  It was so much fun.

Q: For me it was very refreshing to see people interviewed who really had autism or Asperger’s and were representing themselves. Do you have any thoughts about depictions of autism in popular culture?

I think there are some good and some bad because, as the quote goes “If you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism.”  I think that’s hard especially if you don’ t know anything else about it and you don’t have any interactions or knowledge on autism and special needs.  It can be a bit misleading when the media portrays someone who is specifically high-functioning. Then everyone thinks that’s what all people with autism are like or vice versa, if someone’s low-functioning or somewhere in the middle.

Q: How has your video been used?

I’m really excited because it’s been – even though I directed it towards teens – it’s really been shown to people of all ages. People have used it for anti-bullying, people have used it for training, people have used it for class and it’s just been used in so many different ways than I expected. It kind of took on little legs of its own.

Q: When you first started this, what would you have described as your goal with it?

To make a relatable guide for teens letting them know what autism is in a positive way – something that was relatable for teens, and that kind of was very interactive and engaging. I was just thinking locally.  If I could get it shown in like Roosevelt, which was my middle school at the time, if it could’ve been shown in some classes there, that would’ve been kind of what I was hoping.

Q: It sounds still very it sounds like your video is still doing that, but it’s done more. Has the goal changed?

I just want as many people as possible to watch it in hopes that they’ll learn from it.

Q: How do you think this video might be beneficial for parents?

I just speak from what parents have told me.  One parent of a child with autism has told me that their child watched it and said “Yeah, I do that, that’s why I do that.”  And another mom said that the video helped her child understand himself, because he was just kind of coming to terms with his special need and learning a little more about it.  It kind of showed him, helped him to know why he does that and that’s it okay and there’s a reason for it and he’s not just, he shouldn’t feel isolated because of that.

Q: Do you have ideas for further exploring the subject of Autism Awareness in the future?

I’m looking at ways to kind of direct better resources on available information and events because… there are so many amazing events and there are so many people who want to go to these amazing events, but they just don’t know about it.  And I’m also doing something at my school probably starting next year, but I’m kind of getting it organized this year that would be like a peer system – some sort of club after school where kids who are in school who are neurotypical and kids who have special needs get together.

Q: Can you just tell us about the film festival? It’s showing April 6th.

It’s the Palm Beach International Film Festival and it’s going to be in the short documentary category shown with some other shorts – some other short films.  And there is a Q&A afterwards. (The film is showing on April 6th at 12:00. For more information, click here.)

Q: Do you think you’ll work with people with special needs as an adult?

When someone asks me what I want to be, I, you know, if I’m not working and interacting with people with special needs as my job, I’m 100% doing it on the side. It’s definitely going to be a part of my life.

You can also follow the film on Facebook.

Know Your Apps when Working with Children with Autism

There are very different expectations for parents and teachers when using apps on a tablet or smartphone with your learner with autism. Parents have a lot more free range on what they allow their children to engage in. As a parent, there are moments when you will have breakfast cooking, the phone ringing, and a work meeting scheduled in twenty minutes. I completely understand why a parent hands a tablet to their child with autism and lets them watch YouTube.

Luca Sage/Getty Images

But, as a teacher, this is not acceptable, unless the child has been working hard, and YouTube is a strong reinforcer for them that will be used for a minute or two. But a teacher needs to be consistently pushing their learners towards independence and thinking about the function of the tasks they are presenting to their learners.

By the same token, a teacher should not be handing a tablet to a learner and trusting that an app is useful simply because it’s labelled as educational. Teachers don’t give a book to a learner without having read it themselves. Teachers don’t provide materials for a science experiment without having tested it out and fully read all directions. But teachers frequently hand a tablet to a learner without having a full understanding of how to use the tablet or how to use all aspects of the apps. This is a problem if the learner has a question the teacher can’t answer, and it’s a problem if the teacher hasn’t carefully chosen apps that meet the needs of his or her individual learner.

To avoid these problems, it is essential to take the time to fully explore an app that you have chosen. Below are questions you can ask yourself while going through the app to decide if it is appropriate for your particular learner.

Questions to ask when you’re exploring an app:

  • Does the game or activity get more or less difficult based on the user’s performance?
  • If the app is billed as an “interactive story,” in what ways it is interactive?
  • What specific skills does the app practice?
  • Is the user easily able to navigate the app? Is there a back button or clear organization about how to move from screen to screen?
  • Are you able to have more than one user for the app? Some apps only allow one user, which is not useful for a classroom environment.
  • What kind of noises does the app use? Some apps have sounds for incorrect answers that your learner may find highly reinforcing, which is counterproductive to say the least.
  • How long is the playing time for one round? Or how long is the story?
  • If the app is a game, is there a natural end to the game or would you have to stop it mid-game?
  • Does the app keep any data or records about the user’s performance? If so, are you able to easily view this information?

Once I have determined if the app is good as a reinforcer, tool for generalization, or tool for introducing a concept, I make sure that I am fully able to use the app on my own. Then, I’m ready to introduce it to my learner!

Best Kept Secret – An Award-winning Documentary About Students with Autism Transitioning Out of School

We excited to let you know about Best Kept Secret, a new award-winning documentary about special education students, opening in NYC September 5-12. Directed by Samantha Buck, the film follows Janet Mino, a spirited and dedicated teacher in Newark, NJ as she struggles to prepare her students with autism to transition from safe and protective environment of school to the daunting and sometimes harsh realities of independent adulthood. If you’re in NY, we hope you will attend. To learn more about their outreach campaign, visit

At JFK High School, located in the midst of a run-down area in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, administrators answer the phone by saying, “You’ve reached John F. Kennedy High School, Newark’s Best Kept Secret.” And indeed, it is. JFK is a school for all types of students with special education needs, ranging from those on the autism spectrum to those with multiple disabilities. Janet Mino has taught her class of six young autistic men for 4 years. They must graduate from JFK in the spring of 2012. The clock is ticking to find them a place in the adult world – a job or rare placement in a recreational center – so they do not end up where their predecessors have, sitting at home, institutionalized, or on the streets.

Best Kept Secret is playing at the following locations in New York:

UPTOWN: At the New MIST Harlem Theater
46 W 116th St  New York, NY 10026
Premiere 9/5 7pm and Q&A with filmmakers
Screenings 9/7 4pm & 6pm with panel discussions
Facebook Event Page

DOWNTOWN: At the IFC Center
323 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10014
Playing 9/6-9/12

Volunteer for Autism-friendly performances of The Lion King and The Nutcracker in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, with support from ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA, is bringing autism-friendly performances of The Lion King and The Nutcracker to Pittsburgh.

These presentations will be sensory-friendly performances that allow families with members on the Autism spectrum to experience a regular Broadway production with several alterations that meet the needs of the audience. Pittsburgh will be the third city to offer this type of program.

The Lion King performance is on Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 2:00 PM
The Nutcracker is on Friday, December 27, 2013 at 2:00 PM

Autism Connection is currently seeking professionals who work in the field, to volunteer for both of these performances. They will be needing assistance on numerous tasks, including guidance from the parking garage to the theater, quiet room and activity room aides, and in-theater support.

Interested professionals and individuals with experience in the field should fill out their Volunteer Questionnaire. Accepted volunteers will be contacted to attend an orientation session.

For more information about volunteering, please contact ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA at, or call (800) 827-9385.

Reactions to the Proposed Changes in the DSM-V

There have been a lot of strong reactions to the proposed changes to the criteria for an Autism diagnosis in the revised DSM-V. We wanted to present some thoughts from some of the people we rely on most:

From Julie Azuma:

We’ve all known for some time that the DSM V is going to exclude some children on the spectrum as in the Asperger’s Syndrome student. Everyone has been asking what we think about it.  The article in last week’s NY Times, alarmed many of our families.

 When Different Roads started participating in the autism community back in 1995, Asperger’s Syndrome was little known.  Somewhere around the year 2002, there was an answer to so many parents who questioned the behaviors of their kids.  Michael John Corley, an advocate of adults with Asperger’s Syndrome said in the NY Times last week, and I paraphrase…”some people needed to give it a name and to understand. ”

For those parents of children who are more classically affected by autism, they will continue to get services; those without language, academic or daily living skills.  And we want them to continue to get support.

Even if Asperger’s Syndrome or PDD NOS in no longer in the DSM V, we think that the cat is out of the bag.   Awareness has already set in.  Parents will continue to advocate and fight for services, classes and programs for their children. One way or another, this will not be a setback but a new road of discovery on ways to support all of our kids.

We know our parents, and we know that they won’t give up getting whatever their children need.

 From Justin DiScalfani, Clinical Director of The Elija School

The proposed changes to the DSM-V for the Autism Spectrum Disorders would have a profound impact on those dealing with this disability. These changes would greatly reduce the rates of people diagnosed with autism. The primary question is: What will happen to those that would have received a diagnosis under the old criteria but no longer receive the diagnosis under the new criteria? The biggest concern with combining the different diagnoses from the current DSM-IV (Asperger’s, Autism, PDD ) into one category with only three different levels is that it may exclude thousands of children and adults from obtaining crucial services that are necessary for them to become functioning members of society. Policy makers and school districts will be able to use this change as an opportunity to restrict services to those in need. They may also use the proposed level system of severity to allocate more services to the more severely impaired individuals while more mildly impaired individuals may not be given adequate services. Another extremely important area of concern surrounding this change is that it may restrict insurance coverage for people with Autism that many families and advocates have worked so long and hard to reform and recently pass across the country.

Combining the diagnoses of Autism and Asperger’s may also have a negative social impact for these groups. Many children and adults have formed identities for themselves to help cope with their disabilities and to advocate for services for themselves and others around them. People diagnosed with Asperger’s will often refer to themselves as “Aspies”. People with this diagnosis have also formed social groups during which they meet others with the same diagnosis to discuss difficulties that they face and ways in which they are able to integrate into society. By combining all Autism Spectrum Disorders into one category, people such as the “Aspies” could suffer a great loss of personal identity.

Finally, another major issue with the proposed changes concerns the research that has been conducted on the etiology and treatment of these disorders over the past decades. Many studies select subjects based on their diagnosis. With the combining of the diagnoses into one large category, it will be difficult to compare any research that has been conducted in the past to research that will be conducted in the future.

Finding Good Apps for Children with Autism

It’s amazing that a whole new market of educational tools have popped up in the market for educating individuals with ASD. In the last few months, there have been so many apps for autism to choose from that it’s difficult for parents and teachers to navigate and find the ones that will work best for their particular child. There are now entire sites dedicated to showcasing various Apps and describing them in detail to help you narrow your choices. Check out today’s Gadgetwise column in the NY Times for the list of 4 sites so you can make wiser choices for your student.

Apps for Autism on 60 Minutes

CBS just aired an interesting segment on apps for individuals with autism and communicating with the iPad. You can watch the entire segment here:

There’s also an interesting follow-up segment interviewing teachers who feel the apps for people with autism are “overblown”:

Are you using apps with your students with ASD? If so, which ones? What do you think the value of the iPad and other tablets is to the learning needs of the autism population?

Autism, Vaccines and Andrew Wakefield

The current media storm surrounding vaccinations and autism is one that, I’m sure, we’ve all been following with great interest. The initial study that linked autism with vaccinations has been dismissed and retracted by the majority of the original authors. Currently, there is speculation that Mr. Wakefield may have falsified data. Many parent advocates are claiming this is a smear campaign being conducted in the name of protecting pharmaceutical companies to the detriment of children.

We know that this is an incredibly sensitive issue with opinions strong on both sides of the fence. We do think it’s an important issue to discuss, respectfully, within our community. For parents, do you believe that the MMR vaccination contributed to your child’s autism? What is your opinion of Andrew Wakefield and his study?

Here’s some coverage of both sides of the issue from CNN, if you’d like to see more on the reporting.

Enter to win a free iPad from the HollyRod Foundation

The HollyRod Foundation is raising money to provide free iPads to families in need. Applications are being accepted until December 31, 2010. In trying to donate to the those in the most need, the guidelines stipulate that the child is non-verbal or minimally verbal and that the family falls below a certain income level. We applaud the HollyRod Foundation for trying to make a real difference in the lives of families in our community.