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Autism and Functional Communication. And my Observations of Kid-Energy

*Disclaimer:  This article is my musings while attending Autism workshops for educators. When possible, I will refer to copyrighted sources.  The writing here is drawn from my own experience and shared information.  Enjoy. For students on the Autism Spectrum, communication does not develop in a typical way.  If these kiddos could have learned in a natural context, they would have.

In higher functioning kids, their vocabulary and articulation can make them sound like they understand situations.  We may assume that they understand far more nuance than is actually understood.  Our big mistake is in assuming that they see the world through the same perspective.  We must listen apart from our traditional ideas about communication and thinking they should just “get it.”

We need to concentrate on both sides of the conversation.  How to listen.  And how to speak.  Following directions.  Asking for help.  They can become very dependent on prompts.

A curious question for me.  I work with young kids.  Four, five, six year olds.  Seven.  For years I noticed trends in social behavior.  Kids were popular.  Other kids struggled even with assigned partners.  Some kids were invited to everything.  Others caused disagreements over who had to sit next to them.  As an adult, I would assume the reasons were clear.  Better clothes or better toys or better social skills.

After twelve years, I’m not so sure.  What if there is an underlying energy, a communicative wavelength that we cannot see, hear, taste, smell?  A frequency or aura or resonance in the world?

Curious.  I have had ghost students.  I mark them absent, only to look up and see them sitting right where they should ten minutes later.  We check after recess to see if they are still on the playground while they’re standing right in line with the kids.  Sometimes, they are out of sync with the world.  Fall off of chairs.  Bump into corners.  Not always, but sometimes.

Other students are little disasters.  Not on purpose.  And not even directly.  They get the one dried up pen for art. Their pencil lead breaks over and over.  Their food spills in their lunchbox.  They sit on the one squeaky chair.  On a given day, I can expect to fix, find, or solve some challenge for them.

Other students are royalty.  They can say anything.  They can sit anywhere they like.  They get the best resources.  They are invited to all of the parties.  And they may do little or nothing to earn their royalty.  Most are kind and generous.  Calm.  But some are downright careless.  They hurt feelings and damage friendships.  And yet the kids still hunger to be a favorite in their eyes.  They can do no wrong.

Other students are empaths.  They are my barometer for the class.  When they melt down, I know to switch activities because one, two, five other will melt down soon.  When they are frustrated, guaranteed the entire class is frustrated.  When they are happy and calm, everyone is happy and calm.

Other students have their own gravitational pull.  They walk in a room and everyone locks into their mood.  Days when they are absent, the whole class feels different.  They influence people to be happy or irritable or hyper just because they are happy or irritable or hyper.

Others find things.  Others lose things.

What if, what if you could sense all of this unconscious energy?  How overwhelming.  How distracting would that be?  No wonder words would feel cumbersome.  There is so much going on beyond words.

Perhaps kiddos on the autism spectrum are sensing it all.  Or sensing none of it.  I don’t have an answer for that.

These observations have little to nothing to do with the autism spectrum.  Just me thinking :)

Back to communication on the autism spectrum.  So many of these skills apply to all children.  I know many kids (and some adults, too :)) that can use building of communication skills.

Once again, we cannot change the behavior.  Only the antecedent and the consequence.  A big skill is requesting help.  Especially without prompting.  Oh, you look sad, what do you want? Instead, teaching them to be assertive.

One way is to capture opportunity.  Be sure to pay attention during the day and anticipate requests- like a drink after recess.  Be sure to have the item requested so it can be a quick, positive reinforcer.

Then you can contrive an opportunity.  A little bit of sabotage :).  Keep high interest toys and games just out of reach.  “Forget” needed things.  Give small portions.  Start an activity, then pause.  Offer a different item then they asked for so they must clarify the request.

And we tend to unconsciously reward, in all children, a passive compliance.  Seen, not heard.  And then we wonder why we feel that asking for help as adults is seen as an admission of weakness.  We could all learn help-asking.

A big mistake for people working with kiddos is waiting too long in the effort of triggering a help-request.  Kiddos get frustrated to the place of tantrums.  So the teaching opportunity is lost.  Once again, it helps to set up lower-frustration situations so that students can practice early help-requesting communication without the emotional charge.

I see this for all children.  It’s part of the attachment parenting philosophy.  Responding to early cues means that children do not feel the need to escalate behavior.

These strategies work for all learners.  It’s the classic, mom, mom, MOM!! Where the kiddo soon skips straight to MOM!!  Or screaming, or throwing tantrums, or whining.  Whatever gets the attention.

So when teaching strategies for asking-for-help, set up opportunities where success is quick.  Then gradually build up the challenges.

If behaviors do not change, check with the antecedents, and the consequences.  If a kiddo freezes when needing help or clarification, perhaps they have learned that help comes when they don’t work.  Perhaps, to them, it’s a very effective way to get the attention that they want and need.

This works for all kiddos.  The kid who sulks under a table may have found that an effective strategy for getting sympathy from peers and adults.

We must be careful what we’re reinforcing.  Even by accident.

Expectations and Rules: Do not assume.  Verbal can be background noise.  So the more that visual cues can be implemented, the better.  Writing playground rules.  Icons for appropriate behaviors.  Any visual support for instructions will support student understanding.

Perspective is our work here.  To see the world through another's eyes.  These children challenge assumptions in great ways.  If we pay attention.


Living with CMT Day 21