Spring has sprung! It’s always nice when April rolls around, and you start to feel an extra pep in your step, a warmth to the air, and the anticipation of bonfires and time at the lake. Along with the spring opener of baseball, April also brings Autism Awareness Month!
At Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, we understand that working with kids who are on the autism spectrum is not a one-size-fits-all approach. While many kids have things in common, it doesn’t make sense to assume the same approach will work with all children. It is called autism “spectrum” disorder because the symptoms vary from mild to severe, indicating the level of impairment and need for intervention.
The awesome thing about this? Even though autism can make it difficult for children to navigate their social environment, it also brings strengths these kids can identify and build on—strengths you or I could only dream of having.
Treatment starts with assessment. The Ranch’s extremely skilled providers look at the whole child to identify where the child already excels, and areas we can build on. Taking a holistic look at the child, and not just their diagnosis, helps us form a full picture of who they are as a person. Having experts in the areas of psychiatry, psychology, therapy, education, occupational therapy, spirituality, wellness, and daily milieu interventions, gives us the unique capability to assess the whole child. We think outside of the box to find ways to help them maximize their full potential.
Many interventions can help children learn how to make sense of their feelings and emotions, how to interact with others, and how to successfully get through the day. I firmly believe that all kids would do well if they could. If they can’t, it is because they don’t have the skills to do it.
When your child is having trouble managing a situation, remind yourself they don’t want to be having a meltdown. They simply can’t manage the stressors currently being placed on them.
Here are some simple tips for working with kids on the autism spectrum:
1. Take on problem area one at a time. It is easy to get wrapped up in listing the child’s many behaviors that aren’t up to expectations. But once you start bunching these things together, your child will get overwhelmed and not be able to hear the message you’re trying to send. Prioritize the behavior you want to work on, and work from there.
2. Consider occupational therapy for your child—to help them learn how to manage their environment.
Kids with autism often have trouble filtering out background noises that you and I don’t even notice. The hum of fluorescent lighting, a bird chirping outside of a window, an itchy tag in their shirt, or the whirring sounds of a ceiling fan can all be very distracting to a child on the autism spectrum. These seemingly simple background noises are so amplified for them that it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to focus.
Occupational therapy services are very helpful to kids who experience sensory issues, and can help them be successful in environments that present unique challenges. You can also help your child prevent outbursts by making sure they have a comfortable place to take a break—a place where they can filter out some of the stimulating things in their environment. You’ll also want to take sensory issues into consideration when planning activities and outings. If this will be a stimulating environment, is there a place you can go if you see them becoming agitated? Do you need to limit the amount of time you spend there?
3. Routine, routine, routine! Kids who are on the autism spectrum thrive on routine and have a difficult time managing when things don’t go according to plan. Anything you can do to prevent surprises will help them be successful. Visual schedules, reminders, and calendars can be an excellent tool. Pre-teaching is also a vital tool so the child knows what to expect for the day, event, class, or outing. The more you prepare them for the upcoming situation, the more apt they are to be successful.
4. Repetition, repetition, repetition! Teaching and repeating a skill, a schedule, a routine, or a social script will help form neural pathways for children so they are eventually more likely to be successful in challenging situations, without prompting. Role model these behaviors and scripts for your child—it is a great learning tool for them to see other people successfully using the skills they are trying so hard to learn.
5. Prepare for transition times.
Many kids on the autism spectrum have a very difficult time transitioning from one activity to another, from one class to another, from one season to another, or from one time of day to another. Promote success by creating and practicing routines around these transition times. Remind the child a transition time is coming, so it isn’t sprung on them. For example, saying, “You have thirty minutes until bedtime,” and then following up at 15, 10, and 5 minutes will help the child understand the transition is coming and cue them to do their bedtime routine.
6. Be aware of your own body language, voice tone, and expectations. Yelling or raising your voice will not de-escalate the situation and will likely have the reverse effect. Shaking a finger, pointing, or standing over them are also messages the child will have a difficult time interpreting. Maintain a calm voice tone, get down to their level, and meet them where they’re to increase the likelihood they will hear the message you are trying to send. Keep the message simple and familiar so they can understand the expectation.
Every child is different and will require different tools and techniques to be successful, but the tips above will give you a place to start. Getting to know your child and understanding the things that may help them specifically will be imperative to their well-being and success. It is also important that you advocate for your child, and educate the people around them, so they better understand what your child needs. Getting everyone on the same page will help ensure consistency across all environments, and increase your child’s chances of success.
Most importantly, remember that your child is a unique and amazing human being. Appreciating your child’s special gifts and traits will send them a strong message that they are worthy of love, attention, and a good life. Knowing that will take them a long way.
About the author
Christy Wilkie, LICSW, is the Clinical Director at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch in Fargo and Bismarck.