In case you missed last week’s edition of Tuesday Tips to Take Home, we’ve been relaying Barbara Doyle’s “Teaching Tips for a Safe and Independent Life.” 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 even at 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, with an eye toward helping other avoid the pitfalls others have encountered.
To recap # 1-5 covered last week:
- Use ONLY SAFE behaviors
- Take complete care of own body
- Differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touch, and know how to handle each
- Ask before touching others’ property
- Know at least 2 different responses when told YES or NO
This week, we continue with the second half of Doyle’s list, detailing skills 6-10.
Skill #6: Know how, when, and from whom to seek help.
A significant piece of becoming a self-advocate is determining when to use available resources. We must help our kids help themselves. They will be faced with many different situations as they grow up in which they must ask for assistance. They need to know what “unsure” feels like, and who to go to when they experience that feeling. There are also tools that can prepare your child to accept help when others offer.
At home, you can:
- Be on the lookout for a time your child seems to be in need of assistance in some way (Can’t reach something? Lost something? Struggling with stuffing the backpack?). Try to make yourself visibly available without directly offering to help, thus putting your child in a position where he or she must ask for help.
- Think about places your child may go in the future that could require him to ask for help: stores, bus stations, airports, around town, post offices, restaurants, etc. Visit each, identifying whom to ask for help and how to approach them. Make a visual at home of the people, places, and approaches you practice together.
- Create a list of your child’s medications. He or she should have this list on hand at all times.
- Know that under stress, we all have trouble thinking clearly of the right solutions or the right wording. Along with the medication list, have an “emergency note” that your child can carry and reach for in distress to communicate.
Skill #7: Identify internal states, and express them.
When it comes to our internal states–from emotions to health, to comfort–communication is the key to meeting our own needs. Even before communicating our needs, however, it is necessary to recognize our own internal states and the subtle nuances that separate one from the next. Knowing what “sick” or “hurt” or “cold” feels like is the first step toward remedying the problem. Thus we need to equip our students with both self-awareness and the language needed to have their message heard.
- Have a “hurt” tag hanging in an accessible location. With your child, act out being in pain, and placing the Hurt Tag on the affected body part. (i.e.– Bump elbow on table. “OUCH! That hurt!” Place hurt tag on elbow and show your child. “Look!”) Having a tangible communication tool handy takes the guesswork out of “what hurts?”
- Practice moving away from unwanted stimuli in a variety of settings: loud noises, harsh lighting, jostling crowds, intense heat or cold, even rain. The more practice, the better for eventual self-advocacy.
- Identify tools that help your child regulate and have them handy: headphones, sunglasses, a comfort object, a “fidget” for their hands, or chewing gum could all be possible self-soothing tools to try out with your child.
- Get the book How Does Your Engine Run by Williams and Shellenberger. It’s an excellent resource for teaching self-regulation!
Skill #8: Learn to show empathy, sympathy, and caring.
One of the best ways to relate to others is through offering a listening ear and a healthy dose of understanding. These are social skills that often do not come naturally to children with special needs, and can create challenges for their social lives both immediately and further down the road. To have the most intimate and fulfilling social interactions possible, we must teach children to reach outside themselves.
At home, you can:
- Practice making faces together in the mirror. This can be a fun bonding experience. Be sure to give a label to each expression to help your child identify the signs of others’ emotions. It is particularly important for your child to identify anger and know when to move away from someone who could become emotionally explosive.
- Help your child keep a journal of his or her feelings. Record specific situational examples your child experiences, and the emotions tied to these times. This can be a resource to look back on to help relate to others. (i.e. “Look at this page. You felt scared last week at the circus when the elephants were near you. That is how Johnny is feeling now about the dark puppet show.”)
- Praise, praise, PRAISE when your child comforts someone appropriately. Offering a tissue to someone sneezing, or a glass of water to someone coughing, or sharing a toy when someone is sad are all signs that deserve special recognition.
- Play a game of Draw The Line, where each of you stands 0n either side of a line made with duct tape or chalk. Sharing the right amount of information earns you points, but sharing TOO much information “crosses the line” (which is physically demonstrated, in this game) and loses you points. While empathizing is important, so is discretion.
Skill #9: Give negative feedback: protest, disagree, or refuse when necessary.
You may have noticed with your child that expressing likes is often far easier than expressing dislikes. Many children readily share their affirmation, but may tend to ignore or freeze at the first sign of negative feelings. Conversely, negative feelings can trigger a tantrum-like response if a child feels overwhelmed and unable to communicate effectively. It’s important to help kids recognize what dislike feels like and what to do when they experience it.
At home, you can:
- Work on building their appropriate refusal vocabulary. Help them adopt phrases like, “No thanks; I don’t like ______; I don’t want ______; I disagree.” Practice, act out, and create visual reminders. Be sure to differentiate between disliking a person’s actions and disliking the person.
- Identify early signs of “negativity.” What does it feel like to dislike or disagree? Note both emotional signs (unhappiness) and physiological signs (sweaty palms, churning stomach, etc.)
- Focus on making choices that are safe for all parties involved, and that clearly communicate the intended message.
Skill #10: Go with the flow: make a “Plan B” and cope with the unexpected.
I don’t know about you, but I have found this one to be one of the most difficult skills to teach. Rigidity is a trait we encounter with a variety of disabilities, and regardless of disability, it’s pretty safe to generalize that most people prefer a comfortable level of predictability in their day-to-day lives. That’s not to say we all like things boring, but there is something to be said for the value of a healthy routine. However comfortable we may be, no plan or routine is resistant to the curveballs life tends to throw. These are the twists and turns we have to work toward embracing.
At home, you can:
- Discuss before leaving home at least 2 possibilities you may encounter. Just about any situation can be phrased as an either-or option. There could almost always be an alternative.
- Ask, don’t tell. When your child comes to you with their next huge plan and you spot a loophole, ask guiding questions to lead them to their own conclusion. “Could anything go wrong with that idea? What would you do if_________?” Often times, asking the right questions far outweighs telling the right answers.
- Help your child identify “the unexpected.” Next time your plans go awry, be sure to state overtly, “this is unexpected. I need to figure out a new plan.” Model choosing an alternative.
- Choose a “go with the flow” symbol or code word. Water tends to be a good visual for changeability. When you see the signs of resisting change, recall the symbol, whether visually or audibly.