National Autism Conference 2018!

Last week, Different Roads had the pleasure of being part of the National Autism Conference at Penn State. There were 1400 attendees from all over the country, from parents to educators and practicing behaviorists.

“The Autism Conference provides comprehensive, evidence-based information to assist educators, other professionals, and families in developing effective educational programming for all students with autism spectrum disorders”.

In other words, we were surrounded and embraced by the community that shares our commitment and mission.

We met so many wonderful people, from those who shared our exhibition room to those who ran the event. Thank you to Mike Miklos for his guidance and kindness. We were also delighted to see Vince Carbone and Katherine Croce among many other knowledgeable experts.

It was remarkable to be able to talk to people on the front lines of autism education, to hear their views, their challenges and their needs.

It touched us to see firsthand the dedication of the behaviorists and teachers working to help their students with language and behavior – you could see and hear their commitment to the autism community. We also witnessed parents raising their children with ASD with an upbeat sense of humor and great hope in bringing their children into the mainstream.

We were delighted to have been a part of this wonderful and educational event, and look forward to returning in 2019!

Pairing auditory stimuli in your reinforcement

            Using a consistent, auditory stimulus as part of your reinforcement strategy can be a powerful addition for improving behaviors. It allows for students to be reinforced without necessarily looking at you, which can be great if you are providing reinforcement for remaining on task or independently completing a task. Here are a few examples of auditory stimuli you may consider pairing with your reinforcement.

            Token Towers – If you are using some sort of a token system, the Token Tower might be a great option. As opposed to token systems that require the use of Velcro tokens (such as stars or happy faces) or a written system, the token tower is plastic. When a token is earned, your student hears it hitting the bottom of the tube.

            ClassDojo – There are a lot of great features in ClassDojo. Not only does ClassDojo have a specific sound associated with earning points for various tasks, it also has a different sound for losing a point. You can communicate a lot without interrupting the class, and students understand what is happening simply from a brief auditory stimulus.

            TAGTeach – This is a neutral auditory stimulus that is paired with reinforcement so the student can learn that the stimulus means “you did a great job” or “nice work!” The auditory stimulus can then be used on it’s own as a reinforcer. It allows you to reinforce at the very moment the behavior happens, which is incredibly important because positive behaviors increase when they are reinforced immediately.

            What types of auditory stimuli do you use in your reinforcement strategies?


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Managing a Home-Based ABA Program

This month’s ASAT feature comes to us from Beverley Sharpe, a founding member and Director of Families for Early Autism Treatment of B.C. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at www.asatonline.org. You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

We have a home-based intervention ABA program for our son. What are some helpful suggestions for managing the steady stream of professionals in our home?

Answered by Beverley Sharpe, parent of a 22- year-old daughter with autism

Opening your home to therapists, behavioral consultants, and other providers is part of effective treatment for your child. However, it can sometimes be difficult to supervise a home that doubles as a work environment and the many opportunities and challenges that come with that arrangement. I am humbled by the high level of energy and dedication my therapy teams, past and present, have demonstrated within my own child’s program. Teamwork and collaboration are crucial elements to make home therapy effective. The following are some helpful tips I’ve learned over the years to help make home team coordination more manageable.

Be a Good Host/Hostess

I have struggled at times to balance being a “boss” and a “hostess” within my home. At the start of a shift, I recommend a five-minute exchange to greet and debrief the provider. No matter what job one has, people deserve to be acknowledged and greeted. I typically put on the tea pot or provide a cold drink, say hello, debrief, then let the provider begin the shift. With a new provider, I allow more time for him or her to set up materials, reinforcers, and data sheets before bringing in my child.

Define Your Expectations of Those Who Work with Your Child

An agency that provides home-based intervention will have a written job description or list of expectations for employees. If you are not working with an agency but are, instead, hiring and training your own team, please take the time to put important expectations in writing. Being on time, completing data sheets, communicating about behaviors observed, being prepared for shifts (including bringing appropriate task and reinforcer materials), and respecting other family members are examples of appropriate expectations.

Get Feedback from Staff

Over time I learned to explain to the team that it is hard for me to be both a boss and a friend. I truly did want to be a good listener, and at the same time a good manager of the team. I enjoyed the one-on-one time at the beginning of a shift with each provider and would ask, “How are you?” and “How are you finding the work with my child?” Their answers inspired me to make changes to the program, address issues with the behavioral consultant, and work on team building during team meetings that became more frequent when my daughter’s inappropriate behaviors became challenging.

When conflicts of any kind arise, talk about it and clear the air so that tensions or misunderstandings do not fester. Speaking about problems factually, face-to-face, with a hot cup of tea or coffee is a strategy that I have used. Also, I would make sure my daughter was engaged in an activity before starting the conversation. Remember, you can control yourself, your communication style, and the environment when you address an issue. Being respectful, honest and kind are great ways to be sure you have done your best to address issues. In my experience, new directions have come from allowing members of the team to share their perspective with you. Your child’s quality of life depends on effective intervention, and a home that is warm and inviting to the hard working providers who share your vision will help your son realize his fullest potential.

Keep in Touch with Former Providers

Email has enabled me to keep in touch with some of the former providers who have worked so hard with my child. One of Allison’s former providers is now professionally trained in hairdressing. Every year before Christmas this provider comes to our home to gift Allison a Christmas haircut! I love the expression, “Friends are like stars, you can’t always see them, but you know they are there.” I think of all past and present providers as being Allison’s stars, not all providers will maintain relationships with the family. The reality of employing people in your home is that some will choose, for reasons of their own, not to stay in touch with you or your child. Don’t take it personally. Life happens to everyone! Also, keep in mind that agencies may have policies forbidding contact outside of the current professional relationship.

Acknowledge Other Siblings in the Household

Shortly after putting together my first therapy team in 1997, I realized I had to address the issue of acknowledging siblings in the household. My daughter, Allison, who was receiving services in the home, was 3 years old at the time. She had a big brother, Jackson, who was 5 years old. Jackson came to think of it as normal that he would have to move from one room to another when Allison’s therapy sessions were in progress. He was always good-natured about this. I wanted to keep big brother Jackson involved with sessions, as appropriate, to help him feel more involved, instead of just frequently displaced. For example, turn-taking was a wonderful way to involve Jackson, as was the “Go Find” program.

I also reminded providers to acknowledge Allison’s brother whenever possible. I reminded them that a simple and genuine greeting will go a long way with his cooperation in the house! This helped to make Jackson’s cooperation more likely when he was asked to move to another room during a therapy session. Also, Jackson was taught to ask a provider, “What can I do to help my sister today?” when a provider started her shift. This simple act facilitated Jackson’s knowledge of his sister’s abilities, and gave him a lot of pride when he was able to tell his friends that he was helping his sister to learn! Big brother Jackson then became a big help during sessions by moving and sharing his play toys, games and puzzles and allowing space for his sister and her therapy team. Always remember, siblings are part of the household that supports the learning of the child!

Recognize That Housekeeping Is Important

Remember, your home is a provider’s work environment. I do my best to clean and tidy the therapy area before tackling any other room in the house on cleaning days. I also do a quick check of the bathroom area before sessions, as everyone appreciates a clean washroom! I make sure therapy notes, bulletins, communiqués are all neatly on their clipboards. I also make sure that my child is clean and presentable for the shift. Finally, I make sure that there is an “outing fund” with money for community activities. If my child worked towards a reward of an outing to the zoo, Dollar Store, or movie theatre, I wouldn’t want the lack of funds to delay the delivery of that reinforcer. Make sure your team knows to keep receipts for outings which are approved by the behavioral consultant and yourself. Also, remember to reimburse bus fare or gas money for a provider. Agencies will likely already have a policy in place for travel expenses as well.

Be a Good Employer, Which Means Advocating for Your Staff

Therapy time does not equate to babysitting. I had to correct a few well-intentioned neighbors who referred to my providers as babysitters. When my child is in the community, grocery shopping, at a gymnasium, or at work experience, these hardworking men and women are providing therapy, not just watching or transporting my child. Providers are important members of your child’s medically necessary treatment team. Correct misconceptions by family and friends along the way. Many family and friends may not be familiar with this type of therapy or treatment and may need some educating about the purpose and format of a home-based intervention based on applied behavior analysis. This education can help preserve the dignity and respect of your child, your team, and the discipline of applied behavior analysis for autism.

Stay in the Home During Therapy Time

For insurance purposes, many agencies require that a provider not be left alone in your home. Providers work in your home and deserve a safe and respectful environment. This means that a parent must remain in the home during a therapy session. This can be helpful for routine questions and support as well as in case of any emergencies.

Set Clear Expectations Around Cell Phone Use

The abundance of cell phones means that providers and families can be in real-time communication for shift or program issues relating to the child. However, they can also be a distraction from active treatment and supervision of my child. This has occasioned another hiring criteria for being on my child’s treatment team: Cell phone use for anything other than communication about the child, on their shift, is not acceptable. Cell phone games, texting, social media, and other social messaging are not acceptable. Even the ten seconds (as stated by one provider) it takes to text back to a friend means you are disengaged, not observing, and not “on” with your client – my child. Cell phone use expectations must be made clear from the very beginning and reiterated as needed.

Gift Giving

Holiday time was always a tough time at my home. In British Columbia, there was zero funding for autism treatment when I started my daughter’s program in 1997. I wanted to give tokens of appreciation to my daughter’s home treatment team for the holiday season. My budget was beyond tight, but homemade cards were always appreciated. One family I knew put together a cookbook of favorite home recipes for their home team; another family made a huge holiday dinner, in conjunction with a team meeting, to thank their team. There is always a way to say thank you to your team that is respectful of one’s budget.

Please note that many agencies and ethical guidelines for behavior analysts have strict policies around gift exchange and it is often not permitted. Check with your agency and your providers if you have any questions around this topic. And please do not be offended if a member of your team is not able to accept a gift.

Use Different Cultures and Celebrations as Learning Opportunities

We took the opportunity to learn about different religious holidays when one of our providers shared that she was Jewish. This was a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone on the team. We even made a card for the start of the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah. Over the years, my daughter’s providers brought the wonderful gifts of sharing their religious holidays, culture, and favorite recipes that have enhanced our lives!

Making birthday cards for therapy team members gave my child the opportunity to use pencil and coloring skills, printing skills, and to sing the “Happy Birthday” song. All of these skills took a long time for acquisition. However, after all the hard work, to see my daughter use her skills to put a smile on her providers’ faces was priceless. To hear my child use her voice (she was non-verbal for the first 6 years of her life), and to hear her sing Happy Birthday – well, it is a win-win situation!

With a therapy team, it is a wonderful opportunity to have a simple celebration for each of the several birthdays throughout the year. My child learned that birthdays are for others as well as for herself. This learning extended to teaching big brother Jackson that every time we celebrate a birthday, he does not always get a present!

As our programs progressed, our behavior consultant added a cooking and baking program to help include both children in all household birthday celebrations for family members and members of the treatment team. The beauty of a cooking program was that skills, such as: counting, measuring, mixing, pouring, baking, decorating with icing, and washing and putting away dishes, were all “taught” in a fun way. This was a very detailed program with the huge reinforcer of getting a tasty item to eat at the end of completing a recipe!

In Summary

Managing an ABA treatment team in your home can be challenging but can be rewarding as well. There are many things you can do to help the team work well together and be effective in providing your child with the services he or she needs and deserves. Remember, it’s a learning process for all!

Please use the following format to cite this article:

Sharpe, B. (2017). Clinical corner: Managing a home-based ABA program. Science in Autism Treatment, 14(3), 17-20.


About The Author 

Beverley Sharpe is a founding member and Director of Families for Early Autism Treatment of B.C. (FEATBC). Bev’s daughter Allison was diagnosed with autism twenty years ago and Bev became an advocate for effective autism treatment. She was a member of the Legal Steering committee for the Canadian landmark decisions (Auton and Hewko) regarding autism treatment. Bev participates in new parent intake, political lobbying, fundraising, and speaks regularly with parents regarding advocacy in the school system. She also helps new parents access funding for autism treatment.

 

 

The ABA Tools Of The Trade Kit!

While data collection is a cornerstone of ABA, and essential for providing effective interventions, there are many obstacles to collecting accurate data. My colleague Val Demiri and I have focused a lot of time and attention to addressing these obstacles and working to make the data collection process easier.

The new ABA Tools of the Trade Kit includes some of our most-used tools, from low-tech tools such as the abacus bracelet to high-tech such as the GymBoss. The tools included here allow you to take a variety of types of data. Here’s a peek at what’s inside:

Tally counters: This is one of the simplest tools available, but incredibly useful. Put it on a lanyard around your neck or keep it in hands-reach to easily tally the number of instances of a target behavior.

Time Timer: I use this tool all the time with my clients. It provides a great visual for them to see time as it is elapsing. I use it for teaching children to wait for a preferred item/activity and to remain on task while the “red bar” is showing.

GymBoss: This interval timer is one of my favorite and most-used tools. I’ve used it and similar items in a variety of ways, for helping parents and teachers provide more positive reinforcement, teaching clients self-management skills, and keeping track of interval schedules of reinforcement when I’m implementing an intervention.

Audible Timer: While this is a basic tool, having something with an auditory stimulus is invaluable!

Token Tower: Speaking of auditory stimuli, this is one of my favorite token systems simply because the plastic token makes a sound when it drops into the tower. I also love that I can move the ring up and down the tower to indicate how many tokens the client must earn.

Abacus Bracelet: This is one of the best low-tech tools around. It’s especially great for classroom teachers who are trying to count a target behavior while teaching. Simply move a bead from one side of the bracelet to the other, and then at the end of the lesson count how many beads were moved. I love technology, but sometimes you can’t beat simplicity.

ABA Tools of the Trade: The book is also included in the kit, which provides much more information about these and other tools, as well as dozens of examples of real-life scenarios.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Growing Up: Supporting Teens On The Autism Spectrum

Growing up is exciting and challenging for kids and parents alike.  Teens on the autism spectrum may face difficulties in socializing, planning for their futures, and enjoying independence.  Parents may find it hard to know how to support their children through the rites of passage of adolescence and adulthood, but there are some things to keep in mind to make this time a little easier and more enjoyable for everyone.

First, just like any teen, every teen with autism is an individual and should be treated as such.  There are no one-size-fits all solutions at any age, including adolescence.  Parents and teachers should be aware of the strategies and supports that helped their child in the past as possible sources of information for the present and future.  For example, a child who did really well learning from video models may grow up into a teenager who can learn quite a lot from YouTube videos (under the appropriate supervision, of course).  It’s important to make sure that supports are thoughtfully updated to be age-appropriate, too.  Individuals with autism do not need to be stigmatized by being associated with materials and activities that are typically seen as more child-like.  For example, a teenager with autism who requires a reinforcement system would hopefully be able to use a system that is age-appropriate like actual money, or discreet enough like points awarded in a phone app or on an index card, instead of a colorful token economy with stickers or pennies.  Many children with autism benefit from activity schedules, which can be updated for older children using the same organizational strategies that other teenagers may use, including smartphone-based apps for scheduling, reminders, and to-do lists.

Another important consideration in supporting teenagers with autism is that their goals may need to be updated as they get older.  Hopefully, the “5-year rule” has been observed, in which goals are carefully selected according to what the individual will need to be able to do in the next 5 years.  This means not waiting until the child is in the midst of puberty to teach the self-care routines associated with that time, and not waiting until the child has become an adult who is interested in having a romantic relationship to teach some of the social skills associated with that part of life, in addition to many other examples.  If not, then it’s never too late to work on these skills, but it’s definitely easier and less stressful to address them earlier rather than later.  Keeping this in mind, teens with autism may need to be thinking further ahead than typical teens.  For example, if college is going to be a goal, it’s helpful for parents and school supports to know and be preparing for this from the beginning of high school.  Similarly, if the young person is aiming more towards a career path, the skill set needed for work should be addressed well in advance of the time that he or she is expected to start to work. 

Finally, adolescence is a time to celebrate and enjoy independence.  For teens with autism, independence should be approached as a goal for every area of life, with the careful assessment of safety and readiness.  Independence can be achieved at the right level for each individual, given the appropriate goals and supports.  For example, many teenagers enjoy learning to travel independently, from taking public transportation to eventually driving independently.  If a teen with autism is able to safely navigate these skills, that can be a great achievement.  For teens who may not be ready for this level of independence, alternatives can be focused on, such as learning to map out public transportation routes that will be traveled with a parent or support person, or being responsible for one’s own money when traveling with supports.  For individuals with autism at any age, there are always new levels of independence to strive for.


About The Author

Dana Reinecke, PhD, BCBA-D is a doctoral level Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and a New York State Licensed Behavior Analyst (LBA).   Dana is a Core Faculty member in the Applied Behavior Analysis department at Capella University.  She is also co-owner of SupervisorABA, an online platform for BACB supervision curriculum, forms, and hours tracking.  Dana provides training and consultation to school districts, private schools, agencies, and families for individuals with disabilities.  She has presented original research and workshops on the treatment of autism and applications of ABA at regional, national, and international conferences.  She has published her research in peer-reviewed journals, written chapters in published books, and co-edited books on ABA and autism.  Current areas of research include use of technology to support students with and without disabilities, self-management training of college students with disabilities, and online teaching strategies for effective college and graduate education.  Dana is actively involved in the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA), and is currently serving as President (2017-2018).

Sticking to Clear Sds and Planning Error Correction Procedures

Recently I was supervising a session in which the current goal was for the child to identify cards by category. The teacher was placing three cards in a messy array, and asking “Where’s the animal?” or “Point to the food.”

When the child got it right, the teacher did a great job of providing reinforcement. However, if the student didn’t respond correctly, the conversation might look like this:

TEACHER: What is this? (Pointing to zebra)

STUDENT: No response.

TEACHER: Come on. You know this one.

STUDENT: Horse?

TEACHER: No. You know this one. Remember we did a puzzle earlier with this animal.

STUDENT: Animal?

TEACHER: What animal? Remember the puzzle?

While the intention of the teacher is understandable, this is not an evidence-based error correction procedure. We don’t want our student practicing errors. Often, you might see your student is making the same error over and over. This means there has been in error in our teaching, and we need to make adjustments. Many times, the error is in how we correct errors.

The example described above is one that I commonly see when supervising. Many of our students don’t have strong listening comprehension skills, so continuing to give clues isn’t teaching our student to respond to “What is this?” but is actually teaching them to respond to some other stimulus. The very first recommendation I had as this teacher’s supervisor was to be clear with the discriminative stimulus.

But how should we correct the student’s initial error? There are several commonly used, evidence-based error correction procedures, but the most effective procedures vary from individual to individual. It’s valuable to assess the evidence-based procedure that is most effective for you individual student prior to beginning teaching procedures. This will make your teaching more effective and efficient.

There is a lot of research about error correction procedures for individuals with autism. Carroll, Joachim, St. Peter, & Robinson (2015) clearly outline four commonly used procedures and explain how to assess an individual’s response to each procedure. Carroll, Owsiany, & Cheatham (2018) utilized a short assessment for determining which of five commonly used procedures may work best for a specific individual. Starting with these two articles can clarify how to best move forward with your students or clients.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

Autism Awareness Month Is Over…Unless You’re A Parent

Autism Awareness Month is over, but for many parents of children with autism, awareness is a daily battle. You would think that after decades of research, awareness of what autism  would be more prevalent. But I still talk with parents who are struggling with relatives, friends, or strangers on the street being unaware, (and often incredibly rude,) about Autism.

             One parent I work with recently asked me if I had a stock response for such rude responses. The truth is that even after seventeen years of working with people with autism, I am often at a loss for words when I encounter statements such as “I don’t even think your child has autism. This seems like a discipline issue.” OR “Why aren’t you working on _______ since you’re spending so much time on all of these other behaviors.” So, I turned to some of my colleagues for help.

            Below is a list of some “stock responses” to help out in these awkward, and possibly offensive, conversations.

Response to statements like “Autism isn’t a real thing.”

“Autism is a real thing in our house. We’d be happy to have you come over and see first hand what it is and how it effects our family. In many ways, we need to live differently than we expected, but we have all learned to grow in ways we never expected. “

I think the best answer is probably to refer the person to a resource like Autism Speaks or ASAT. “Thanks for expressing an interest in what we’re doing.  Our strategies are based on scientific principles and are supported by trained professionals.  If you’d like to learn more about what it means, here’s a website you can look at.”  

“Autism is a tricky disorder because sometimes people who have it have strengths in some areas but weaknesses in others.  I know my child may seem just like any other kid, but he’s worked hard to get to this point, and he’s still working hard.”

“It may seem to you like my child is crying/tantrumming/etc. because he’s spoiled or just wants to get his way, but his ability to communicate with others is really impaired, so he gets easily frustrated.  Thanks for your concern, but we’re working on helping him to overcome this.”

I think my response would depend on the day and my mood.  On a BAD day, I might tell (yell at) the person to be thankful they are not faced with the same challenges in their children.  On a more level day, I would attempt to use it as a learning experience and provide a logical response that Autism is a genetic disorder recognized by the Surgeon General and defined in the DSM-V.  That it generally impacts the child’s social and communication skills and can often result in stereotypic motor movements like hand-flapping.  I would go on to tell them about ABA and that there is no known cure.

“Autism is a neurological disorder so his brain works differently than other people. I can send you some info through email if you would like.” (Or end it after the 1st sentence and walk away)

“Thank you for your concern. It really takes a supportive community for us to manage each day.  We prefer to not discuss this with people who don’t understand autism as our time is best spend with our child, rather than explaining ASD to others.”

“Autism isn’t a ‘thing’ – Well, it really is, but it’s a wide spectrum so almost every person with autism is different from any other one you’ve met. That’s why it can be hard to diagnose and treat, because of the wide range of the disability and variability across it.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather not discuss this with you” can go a long way, too!

 

Response to statements like “Why aren’t you working on _______ since you’re spending so much time on all of these other behaviors?”

“We are working tirelessly everyday to improve social behavior, we target the most interfering behaviors first and will systematically work through the list. “

“While _________ is important, there are other things that are more important at this time- _________ won’t matter if the child can’t tell you what he wants or needs. We’ll get to it eventually but only once it shows to be important and interfering with other things. “

“Or, we ARE working on it, but it takes a long time to change behaviors.” (maybe even insert a “You could help us by…”  line)

“Yes we are working on that too. We still have work to do. And how is your…”

 

Response to statements like “What’s his problem anyway?”

“He just learns some things differently and a bit slower than others; but you should see how smart he is in (describe an area of strength).”

“There are some things that really get him mad, but he is getting better and is learning to tell us what the problem is.”

 

Responses to “I’m sorry, but I don’t think my kids can be around your kid. I’m worried about them picking up some of his problem behaviors.”

“I’d say that’s too bad, he’s a great kid and really helps other people in ways that he can; he’s never had a problem with anyone.”

I tried to think of something good and positive, refine to say/write…but you know me…I would give them the middle finger :)”

 

More general advice:

I have worked with a parent who had business cards printed that had 2-3 websites listed on it. When the person started up, the parent handed the card to them and just said something like: “That is a big question that would take too much time to answer here so here are some resources for you to check out.” This allowed them to shut it down but in a way that was not confrontational. 

Remember that you don’t have to say anything, especially when it’s to a stranger. It is perfectly okay not to share personal details about your child’s diagnosis.

So you can see I try to not directly contradict someone saying something; I downplay the concern, reflect back, gently push back, and then stop talking and redirect the conversation if I can.

 

Thank you to Cheryl Davis, Michael Dorsey, Kari Dunlop, Dana Reinecke, Krishna Ruano, Sarah Russell, Erin Stone, and Tom Zane.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.

How to Avoid Over-Pathologizing Behaviors in Kids with Autism

A diagnosis of autism can be very challenging for a child and for his or her family. But one of the most difficult aspects of autism is that it is not clear cut what behaviors are related to autism, and what behaviors are related to just being a kid. Every child tantrums sometimes. Every child talks back sometimes. Every child engages in dangerous behavior sometimes.

When I look back on my own childhood, I think of several behaviors I exhibited: in third grade I cut my own hair while my teacher’s back was turned, in fourth grade I got mad at my brother and threw an alarm clock at him, and in seventh grade I loved Agatha Christie books so much that I frequently refused to go outside and sat in my room reading by myself for hours on end. If I had autism, any one of these behaviors may have been pathologized instead of being considered as just a part of growing up.

So how do you parse through all the behaviors your learner is exhibiting and figure out which ones you should actually be worried about? Here are a few questions to ask yourself in determining behaviors to address:

  1. Is the behavior dangerous?
  2. How often and for how long does your learner engage in the behavior?
  3. How different is this behavior from the learner’s same-age peers? For example, does your three year old cry for a couple minutes when told that she can’t have her favorite toy, or does she cry for two hours and refuse to engage with any other toys for the rest of the day?
  4. How is this behavior interfering with the learner’s ability to learn?
  5. How is this behavior interfering with the learner’s ability to engage with peers and family members?
  6. Is the behavior related to a skill? For example, pacing the room and flapping your arms is typically not related to a skill, but building Lego models can be related to a skill. If it is related to a skill, think about ways to provide opportunities for expanding that skill.

The answers to these questions should be able to inform the decisions that you make in intervening with behaviors. And we should remember that above all else, kids with autism are still just kids.


WRITTEN BY SAM BLANCO, PhD, LBA, BCBA

Sam is an ABA provider for students ages 3-15 in NYC. Working in education for twelve years with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental delays, Sam utilizes strategies for achieving a multitude of academic, behavior, and social goals. She is also an assistant professor in the ABA program at The Sage Colleges.