“In spite of the diligent efforts of many people at school and at home, it sometimes feels as if our son is swimming upstream,” commented parents of a youngster with autism. “We are pleased with the work of his teachers and therapists and we have been successful in implementing lots of strategies at home, but it is difficult to see that he is making progress in the face of all the challenges he faces.”
It can certainly be discouraging when our friends with autism seem two steps backward for every one step forward. Sometimes it might appear that we are fighting rather hopelessly against a flood of challenges related to communication, social interaction, adaptive skills, and behavior issues.
One principle that can help maintain focus while fighting against a flood of challenging issues is to begin each day with a reminder that “success” is a gradual process. Actually, “progress” is on a spectrum, not a “pass-fail” or an “all-or-nothing” outcome. So, for example, if our youngster throws every single item (including food) that he touches, we would naturally prefer that throwing stopped immediately. But, actually, we need keep a close eye on the situation, and notice when he eventually holds an object for just two seconds before he throws it across the room. Granted, that doesn’t feel like progress, but every step forward, no matter how insignificant it seems, needs to be recognized and acknowledged. Eventually he will start holding objects for five seconds, then ten seconds, and longer. It may take him two weeks or twenty years, but he will eventually stop throwing objects.
If a person with autism ALWAYS screams the entire time he rides in a car or ALWAYS bites her arm when we close the storybook, we need to keep an eagle eye for a slight change in the pattern. And we must systematically teach a more appropriate response and patiently provide lots of opportunities to practice these new skills, setting things up for that ONE success. So, for example, when a youngster bit her arm and screamed EVERY time I finished a storybook and closed it, I followed this strategy. I always planned story time just before one of her favorite activities e.g. going to recess or enjoying snack. Before I opened the book to tell the story, I said, “We will read a story, then we will go swing at recess.” As I turned the pages toward the end of the book, I reminded the kids that the story would soon come to an end and we would go to recess. At the end of the story, I left the book open and said, “Yipee! We get to go play on the swing at recess. Line up, please.” Leaving the book open removed the automatic trigger for her screaming and biting. We did this day after day. VOILA! One day she jumped right up and walked to the door for recess. This youngster made very little progress along that spectrum of success – screaming and biting for several months – but she finally took that step forward and learned to accept the book closing at the end of a story.
When you feel as if you are swimming upstream against an unstoppable flood, drop us a line to let us know about the challenging issues you face. Your comments are confidential. Just send an e-mail to talk@FAQautism.com.
Note to FAQautism.com listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. www.FAQautism.com