At the Georgia Autism Conference this year, I had the privilege of attending a seminar led by field expert Barbara Doyle. Doyle takes a distinctive lifetime approach to educating individuals with disabilities, always bearing in mind the adulthood goals we must consider at even a very early age. She shared with us the skills most essential to an independent life, based on her observations of real adults with disabilities and what kept them from succeeding. That last bit stuck with me. Even in elementary school, we can work to prepare our students for the realities of adulthood, so that they may live the most safe and independent lives possible. Doyle recounted stories of those she’s worked with over the years and the shortcomings we can learn from them to prevent recurrence. These are #1-5 of her “Teaching Essentials for a Safe and Independent Life.” Stay tuned next week for the second half!
#1 Skill: Use ONLY SAFE behavior.
Safety is #1 on the list for very good reason! We cannot emphasize the significance of safety enough. Your child’s safety is first and foremost above all other social skills; it is, as they say, a life or death matter. Doyle went as far as to pinpoint safety as the difference between independence and institutionalization. Unsafe behaviors can lead to misunderstandings, injury, incarceration, or victimization. These behaviors must be eliminated and replaced with safe alternatives.
At home, you can:
- Practice crossing the street together. Not just when you have to, but sometimes just because. “Look left; look right; are we safe? Now we can cross.” Repeat it over and over, gradually decreasing supports if possible, until your child can do it independently.
- Practice the “hands up” response to the “don’t touch” command. This response must become instantaneous so it will be effective if your child tries to handle sharp, hot, or otherwise dangerous objects.
- Enroll your child in swimming and/or water safety lessons.
- Visit a friend’s home to model and rehearse how/when to enter appropriately. (Knock; wait; only enter if prompted by person inside. Never enter some else’s home without permission.)
- Think about your child, and make a list of behaviors that could be potentially dangerous. Next, make a list of safe alternatives to teach.
#2 Skill: Take complete care of own body.
Self-care is a close second to personal safety, with particular attention to toileting independently. People with disabilities are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse, so it is critical to increase your child’s ability to take care of their private business in private, to the greatest extent possible. Hygiene also increases your child’s social potential as well as his or her employment prospects in the future.
At home, you can:
- Post picture cues at the point of performance for each hygiene task (i.e., toileting step-by-step picture cues near the toilet, teeth-brushing step-by-step picture cues near the toothbrush, bathing picture cues in shower, dressing picture cues near closet).
- Support your child’s independence by observing as they complete the correct hygiene steps, intervening only if a step is missed, and only with NONVERBAL help. Remember, you won’t always be there, and an occasional physical or hand-over-hand reminder gives the child greater independence eventually than constant verbal prompts.
- Do a vocabulary check. Is your child familiar with the words “private” and “privacy?” Helping your child identify what is or is not private is a basic first step to teaching him or her to self-advocate.
- Similar to skill #1, make a list of target behaviors for your child. What behaviors or habits are currently risky with regard to privacy? Work together with your child’s teacher to develop a consistent and manageable home-to-school plan to improve independent self care.
#3 Skill: Differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touch, and know how to handle each.
Without direct instruction, it can be hard for students like ours to know when or how it is ok to touch others or to be touched. Sensory-sensitive kids can be physically sensory-seeking or sensory-avoidant, either of which can prove problematic in common life situations we all encounter. Touch can be a BIG and tricky topic– along with knowing when or how to touch and be touched, students must also learn WHO is ok to touch or be touched by.
At home you can:
- Teach the WHO piece of the Touch puzzle. Barbara Doyle suggested the “Circle of Friends” model, which I loosely adapted into an image:
This image should be customized to your child’s needs and personal interactions. Make it visual– include photos! It is important to note that HOW or WHEN to touch is not taught with this visual, and must be addressed separately.
- Be sure your child knows what his or her “private parts” are, and what that means with regard to touch. Have a discussion. Show a diagram. Share a Social Story. Whatever it takes for your child to know where on the body he or she may be safely touched, and where he or she may NOT.
- Rehearse what to do if touched inappropriately. Decide on safe people to tell and safe places to go to get away from inappropriate touch.
- Practice what to do when told “no,” or how to identify “go away” cues from others. Accept when others do not want to be touched, and move away.
- Have a plan in place for the times your child may not know if someone should touch them or whether they should or should not touch others.
Skill #4: ASK before touching others’ property.
To introduce this skill, Doyle shared with us a heartwrenching but poignant story. (Forgive my memory as I attempt to recount details second-hand, but the gist should be close.) A teen boy with autism had an uncanny gift with computers. His gift was so astounding, in fact, that he contacted Microsoft to alert them of a glich in the software they released that year. He was correct! The next thing he knew, Microsoft representatives (unaware he was only a high school Senior) arrived at his school to meet with him. Surprised to find that he was a student, rather than the professor they had expected, they congratulated him on his discovery and put him in contact with a University reputed for leading the field in software innovations. He went for a visit and interview at the college, where he met with the president, dean, and other officials about a potential scholarship. Mid-interview, he spotted the president’s laptop bag. As he always habitually had with any computer he came across, he promptly opened up the bag and began to de-bug, de-frag, fix, and streamline. The president, unfamiliar with the boy’s habit, became alarmed and demanded he put the computer down. The boy ignored the president, engrossed in his mission to fix the computer, which only fueled more protests from the president. The boy was asked to leave. His family explained the situation, and the college agreed to give him another chance at his scholarship if he undertook an intensive social skills training course for a year to learn how to handle others’ property, among other skills. They couldn’t take him on until then, as his behavior could be dangerous for him, causing the school a liability. What if he took someone’s computer from the dorms to fix, and they thought he was stealing it? Fortunately, a year later, he successfully completed his social skills training and came back for his scholarship. He established a great relationship with the University’s disability services department, who helped him navigate the challenges of college life and emerge successful.
Luckily, the above story had a happy ending, thanks to proper social skills intervention. It just goes to show exactly how important it is to ASK before handling others’ property!
At home you can:
- Walk through your home with your child and 3 colors of sticky-notes. Label items, “mine (as in, your child’s),” “others’- ask first,” or “others’- off limits.” The labels are only for illustrative purposes and can be removed after practicing. (This activity courtesy of our Ms. Emily!)
- Make a “right way, wrong way” chart on how to handle others’ property. Take photos of your child handling something the right way and the wrong way, then display them with captions so he or she can differentiate. Include how to ask, how to treat it with respect, how to put it away when all done, and how to apologize and replace if it accidentally breaks. Kids get a kick out of the wrong way photo and it sticks in their memory.
- Asking can be nonverbal if necessary. Find a communication style that works for your child.
Skill #5: Know at least 2 different responses when people tell you YES or NO.
No one likes to be told “no” when they really, really want something. Some people just have better coping skills than others. These skills can be taught, and they will greatly benefit your child. Alternatively, a YES should prompt a response of gratitude. Conversations are 2-way interactions, with acknowledgement at each turn.
At home, you can:
- Model emotional disappointment. Exaggerate your body language when you do not get what you want, and express how you are feeling: “Oh, man! [deep frown.] The bank is closed already! [cross arms.] I feel so disappointed! I will have to try again tomorrow instead.” It is important to close with an action statement to show that you are choosing a safe alternative.
- Play copycat. Express an emotion, show it with your body language, then have your child mimic you. Try both positive and negative emotions.
- Make a visual display of YES responses (“thanks; OK; great; awesome; can’t wait!”) and NO responses (“I feel mad/sad/disappointed; Oh, man; Darn!”)
- Work on calming strategies– deep breaths, chewing gum, shredding paper, playing legos, swinging, etc.– and create a visual for kids to choose from as needed.
Which of these will you challenge yourself to work on at home this week? Remember, every little bit helps, and even minimal effort can bring about great improvement in your child’s social abilities. Again, don’t forget to check back next week for the second half of Barbara Doyle’s Top Ten Tips!