As students across the country continue to “attend school” from home, it is important to remember that children with autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities are also affected. Whereas this is a stressful situation for all families, parents of children with autism face additional challenges when it comes to maintaining an effective learning environment in the home. Although there are no quick fixes, the following ideas may be helpful for parents of children with autism to use during these difficult and unique times. And now, more than a month into the Time of Covid, is a good time to take a moment and reflect, review and maybe institute a few of these practices in your “school.”
Structure the day with a visual or written schedule
Children with autism are often more at ease when their routines are structured and predictable. It is important to keep in mind that the pandemic has completely disrupted all structure. Children are waking up and going to sleep at different times, meal times are changed, parents are working from home, they are no longer seeing their teachers or classmates, they no longer go to familiar stores, see their babysitters or grandparents, and might not have access to familiar foods or activities. This sudden change in structure leads to an increase in anxiety and stress in children with autism. In order to re-establish predictability and structure, parents should create a regular routine for each day. Keep the weekday routines as similar as possible and make the weekend schedule different. Make sure you stick to the schedule. In order to make the child aware of the daily schedules, display the order of activities through pictures or a written list and clearly post the schedule in a place where the child can see.
Scatter school assignments throughout the day
For many children, schoolwork is less preferred than free time. Although the school assignments for the day may total three to four hours’ worth of work, parents will likely see an increase in problem behavior and a decrease in focusing over time if they try to push through all three hours in one sitting. It will also lead to an increase in frustration for both the child and the parents. Instead of doing the work in one sitting, try breaking up the work sessions into shorter blocks of time. How long each work session should be depends on how much the child enjoys the activity, the difficulty level of the assignments, and the child’s tolerance level. Parents may need to speak with their child’s teacher about doing work on a modified schedule from the rest of the class.
Use a timer/break system
Let’s say a parent has decided to do schoolwork in one-hour blocks of time. Sixty minutes is still a long period of time for a child with autism to maintain their motivation and focus on an activity that is not preferred. The parent will likely get more work completed and of a higher quality if they give the child frequent but short breaks from instruction throughout the hour. Although parents may see this as just wasting more time, the key is to set a standard of quality that must be met before a break is earned. For example, set a timer for 7 minutes. The child must focus 100% on his or her schoolwork for the full 7 minutes. If he or she produces quality work for the full 7 minutes, a break will be earned for 3 minutes. The child can leave the table during the break, however, I wouldn’t have them go too far. They return after 3 minutes and continue this way until the end of the one-hour work period. If, however, the child begins to engage in problem behavior during the 7 minutes, the parent stops and resets the timer back to the start. The timer will start again once the child begins their schoolwork. In the long run you get more work completed with short bursts of full attention than a long drawn out period filled with problem behavior.
Use privileges as rewards
The foundational principle of behavior analysis is that behavior that is rewarded will increase. Behavior that is not rewarded will decrease. So, if a parent wants his or her child to increase appropriate schoolwork at home, that is the behavior that should be rewarded. Keep in mind that buying children toys, giving them money, and taking them to fun places outside of the home are not the only rewards available to parents. Having children earn free privileges in the home, when they complete their schoolwork for the day, is often more rewarding than buying them things. Some examples include earning later bedtimes, more time on electronics, choice of food for dinner, having a pajama day, picking a movie for movie night, facetiming a favorite relative, or having a dance party with the family. Juts make sure that you don’t give out the privileges for free. They need to be earned for good working and good behavior.
Stay calm, stay neutral, and maintain control
Let’s face it, most children are not used to their parents being their teacher. It is only natural for teachers to have established more control over children’s academic behavior than their parents. Children with autism are no different. Although when told to do work they might listen to their teachers in the classroom, that does not mean they will suddenly listen to their parents in the home. This is expected and parents should not be upset or embarrassed. When children are giving parents a hard time, parents should remain calm and emotionally neutral. Refrain from any yelling, threatening, or punishing. These behaviors are indications that the parent is losing, not gaining control. Do not, however, allow the child’s behavior to get him or her out of the task at hand. Prompt them to remain at the table and with the required task in front of them. Parents should use the strategies above to guide them in remaining in control and providing rewards only when appropriate behavior occurs.
Partner with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®)
Parents should not feel hesitant to seek out assistance when needed. At this point, the future is very unclear and the timeline for when children might go back to school is uncertain. Although most services have moved into a remote format, behavior analysts are still working. Parents should partner with a board certified behavior analyst to assist their children in continuing to grow and learn despite the current situation. Parents who do not already have a relationship with a BCBA, may be able to find one through the Autism Speaks® provider directory
Dr. Frank Cicero
Dr. Frank Cicero, Ph.D., BCBA, LBA, is a New York State Licensed Psychologist and Behavior Analyst, Board Certified, and is the former Board President of the New York State Association for Behavior Analysis. He is an assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s College of Education and Human Services and director of the college’s graduate programs in Applied Behavior Analysis. Dr. Cicero’s private practice focuses on child and adolescent psychology. He is known nationally and locally for his work on treatment of severe problem behavior, empirically supported treatment for autism spectrum disorder, sexuality education for individuals with development disabilities and teacher parent training in ABA, among other areas. Read more at https://www.shu.edu/profiles/cicerofr.cfm