14 September 2011

Visual Aides

Visuals can be a fantastic concrete way to get a message through to your student with an ASD. Below are some resources I found recently (I will post more as I find them of course).

- Picture Set searchable database

- Free Feelings Flashcards

- Emotion Cards

- Photographic Emotions Cards

- Social Stories & Visual Supports

12 September 2011

What the...?

My son has always struggled with the unpredictable. Unfortunately, relief teachers naturally fall into that basket, so he tends to carry anxiety when he is confronted with a relief teacher. These are days he often struggles to achieve anything, as he spends most of his energy trying to manage his feelings and concerns.

One of the strategies he has come up with is to introduce himself to the new teacher and ask them if they know about Aspergers. If they respond in a warm and open way, and are honest about how much or little they might know, a helpful dialogue ensues and then the day tends to run pretty smoothly. These teachers, who took a moment to have a friendly interaction at the beginning of the day, are the ones who stand a chance of getting some productivity out of him.

On the other hand, sometimes there are the bad eggs. There are the arrogant ones, who seem to need to tell him that they know more than he does about himself, what he is thinking, and what he is able to cope with. There are the teachers who throw out the behaviour management plan left for them and set themselves up to fail. They try to control his every movement and his every thought. They waste their energy on futile disciplinary measures instead of care and patience. At the end of the day my boy is exhausted and teary because he has spent all his energy trying to appease the beast, so to speak. He has learned nothing, except how harsh the world can be at times.

In short, these people fail at teaching.

And there are those who are just plain, no-holds-barred, downright utterly rude and mean-spirited. Recently my son introduced himself to a male relief teacher and asked if he knew about Aspergers. This man, confoundedly, replied with, "Yes I do, and you don't have it."

When I was told this story, I was of course absolutely livid. But the first word that came out of my mouth was, "Why?" And every time I think about his choice of response, the same question comes to mind. It's unfathomable to me. I mean, really, why would a teacher preempt any chance of a positive teaching relationship and set themselves up to have a day full of failure? Why? It seems the very definition of insanity.

One morning about a week later, I witnessed my son attempt to engage with the same teacher, greeting him buoyantly. The reply? A curt and deflating, "Hello, whoever you are." And away this man walked, seemingly oblivious to the effect of his dismissiveness.

On another occasion some years ago, my son (aged 7 at the time), asked a teacher for a moment of her time, as he had a question for her. She paused in front of him. He started with "Uhm," and then a brief pause, as he tried to gather his thoughts into a properly formulated question. She then abruptly cut him off, said, "I don't listen to people who say uhm," and walked away. He of course burst into tears, unsure of what he must have done wrong. He never did get to ask whatever it was he wanted to know.

I don't understand why adults think it's perfectly okay to default to being rude to people under the age of 21. The contempt I so often see directed at children and young people simply astounds me. Adults are supposed to know how to behave. Adults who work with children are supposed to be setting an example for those children. Kids are the ones who are supposed to be allowed to get things wrong. Adults should by default be holding themselves to a higher standard, because they ought to know better.

And to those people who behave in such a way, or who feel the above is at all familiar, I feel the need to request that you think about how you would answer the following:
- Why do you choose to be so hateful towards children and young people?
- If you despise them so much, do you really think you're in the right career?
- What did that young person ever do to you, to deserve such terrible treatment?
- Do you really think you are so superior to children? Why?
- If you were talking to a fellow adult, would you speak to them in the same tone, or use the same words?
- How do you justify to yourself such rudeness to children?
- Why do you hold children to a standard of behaviour that you are clearly unable to achieve for yourself?

And finally...
- Why waste energy on such negative interactions? If you just chose to smile and show an interest in the person before you, (yes, children are people too!), you might even have a better day than you expected.

11 September 2011

What are transitions?

What's a transition? In short, it's the moment when we move from one activity to the next.

Some of us find this process pretty simple, and don't think much of dropping what we're currently doing, in order to take up a different task. But for people with executive functioning deficits, sensory, anxiety, attention and/or autism issues, transitions can be hellish propositions.

Imagine you're reading your favourite book, or watching your favourite TV show, writing an essay, drawing a picture - any task requiring your concentration. You're deeply engrossed in what you're doing, and you might even be having fun. Then someone pops up in front of you seemingly out of nowhere, demanding your attention, requiring you to focus on what they want. This can be rather startling, and is usually at least mildly irritating. That person then demands that you instantly drop what you're doing and take up something different, something they have determined to be more important. They won't allow you to finish the paragraph you're reading/writing. If you were baking a cake, they won't let you take it out of the oven. You must stop what you're doing right now, and move on, regardless of your internal dialogue. It happens to all of us at some point in our day.

Doesn't the very thought of that scenario irritate you? Do you feel a little bit of anxiety? Maybe you're imagining how you'd like to tell that person to take their instructions and shove them... well, you know where! ;) So now, take that discomfort and multiply it by a very large number, and you might be coming close to describing the difficulty faced by the student with an ASD. I'll try to explain further.

So, imagine it took you quite a while to settle down to the task you were doing, significantly longer than the average person. You had to fight off distractions, sensory sensitivities/overload, and various anxieties related to moving on from the previous task. Structuring and organising your thoughts, and building up the focus you've been applying to the task took immense effort. And now, when you finally are settled into the task, it feels like you've hardly had any time to get anything done.

Imagine it's your favourite thing to do in all the world, and you are now expected to drop it to take up something much less favoured, or at least less important to you. Then consider that it's very important to you to finish what you started, otherwise everything feels out of control, but you still have a little more to do and the person asking you to drop everything has not considered this fact. Letting go of that thought requires an incredible effort, and the anxiety is consequently building in your stomach. How are you supposed to be able to stop when you're not finished?! Why can't they consider your feelings?! Why should they get to determine what the priorities are?!

Add to that the distracting buzz of people around you as they begin to pack up, thus making it more difficult to organise your panicky thoughts and manage your intense feelings. Next, take into account the enormous effort it will take to get organised for and then settle into the next task, the difficulty of which is only exacerbated by all these feelings! Your mind is racing, your heart is fluttering, your stomach is churning, your work isn't finished yet, you want to please the person who is making demands of you but you are simultaneously furious at them for their lack of caring and overwhelmingly anxious about how you are going to get through this moment.

Now imagine you have no names for those feelings, no way to express your fears, frustrations and fury. It's so overwhelming that words simply escape you; your mind is screaming; your voice box seems to be frozen solid; your muscles are rigid. All you have left in your armory is to cry, or throw something, or sit there frozen, shaking your head, trying to block out all the expectations and demands of people around you, or maybe even attempt to plough on and try to finish the task despite the fact that you are likely to be disciplined for not following instruction.

Once you've moved on though, that initial task is still not complete, so you're utterly stuck on that thought, like gum boots in concrete, unable to budge. Even when you can manage all the anxiety and move onto the next task, you might take quite a long time to let go of that thought, and relax enough to settle into the next activity and get some work done.

And so the cycle repeats, in the end, with very little work commenced, and hardly anything actually completed.

So the recommendations for teachers to assist with transitions are:

1. Patience, Patience, Patience. And take the recommended daily dose of compassion. If you put your cranky pants on this morning, go home and get changed. They are the wrong pants for teaching anyway.

2. Give this student smaller chunks of work to do at a time, taking into account that they might not be able to complete what you have planned for the whole class, and they will have added distress if they have work incomplete. So you might hand out a worksheet with ten questions and tell this student to complete questions one through three. Then if there is time remaining, you can suggest that they might like to do more, but beware of added stress this might cause. Sometimes it's better to simply rejoice that the smaller task is completed.

3. Give advance warning to this child that a transition time is getting closer. This will give them the opportunity to mentally prepare and manage anxiety. You might need to give them a five minute warning, then three minute and again at one minute.

4. Upon giving them the transition warning, take note of how much work they have left to do. Reduce/modify if it doesn't look like it will be achieved. If adapting expectations on the fly helps your student to complete their work, then you should do so. You are naturally better at adapting than they are, so the onus is on you to make that effort.

The key point here is: make it predictable, achievable and adaptive and the stress levels will fall. 

5. Once the current task is set aside, provide visual aides and/or verbal prompts to assist the student to prepare for the next task.