Susan's Blog

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Autism Mommy Swami Question #1: Teaching New Skills?

Dear Swami,

We are backing away from years of ABA, and now working more on recreation and ADL skills in-home with Jack (who is 10).  We are “staffed” for a significant amount of time — 25 hours a week.

We have him working on things like emptying the dishwasher, carrying laundry baskets, feeding the dog, etc.  Do you have any other ideas?  How about for hygiene or recreation skills (he has none — not even interested in computers)?  Do you have anything you can draw on from your experience setting up Nat in a house, etc.?

— Catherine the Great Mom

Dear Catherine the Great Mom –

If I understand you correctly, you are asking how to come up with more things for Jack to do at home, how to go to the next level (beyond ABA-structured, engineered activities to more real-life, organic activities). Purposeful pursuits like ADL’s and self-care regimens, gainful activities for time at home. I remember when we were always trying to come up with activities for Nat while he was home, some sort of meaningful or useful things for him to do (and learn about) that would also give him the schedules and structure he craves.  It used to drive me crazy that I did not know what he could be doing during supposedly fun times.  What did “fun” mean to someone who could not tell me what he liked because he always answered “yes” by default?

First thing I had to learn was to switch around how I thought of him and his likes. Eliminate “he does not like…” from my vocabulary. Think in terms of what he does with his own time to understand what he does like, and build from that.

The idea was to take his natural activities and stretch them outward to other activities. Watch him and then think what I could add on, rather than think in terms of lists of stuff I want him to do and know.

This meant that I had to ask him what he likes in a different way from my usual front-and-center demands. I had to watch him almost peripherally, to see what it was that he gravitated towards, what he did frequently when demands were not in the picture. This way I could go from something he liked to do naturally and expand it into something that uses that as a base but adds in more. If he walked back-and-forth a lot as his preferred activity, I had to think without judgement, “What else can he do while walking back-and-forth?” Lawn-mowing, vacuuming came to mind. Lawn-mowing with a rotary blade, an old dull push mower (no motor) is a safe way to have him work purposefully outdoors and walk a lot. Pick up one at Home Depot or even at a yard sale. He can mow any which way, and you can just clean it up afterwards. Even if you have a tractor mower, leave a patch uncut for him.  Walk with him at first to make sure he can handle it safely and phase yourself out, of course.  This was what I did.

Or you can build on a current skill. You have him feeding the dog. What naturally comes next? Are there other things he can do with the dog, like put his leash on, and take a small walk around the lawn with him? He will think he is walking the dog and actually, he is. He’s just doing it on your terms.  Does he like lists? You can make lists for him that he can check to be sure he is doing the task and more. What are the steps to walking the dog? Think like him: 1) Go to peg for leash. 2) Click leash onto collar. 3) Take dog to corner of lawn near Mrs. So-and-so’s house. This is so that he’ll feel organized and so that he’ll enjoy it because a list is involved.

You asked about hygiene. What are the struggle points? What are the easy parts? You always have to find the low-hanging fruit, do the easiest stuff first and go from there. That is the stretching point, your point of entry. So if he willingly showers but refuses to wash well, what would make sense to him in terms of getting him washing? A laminated visual reminder stuck on the tiles in the shower? A Disney song about scrubbing? In our case, Nat used way too much shampoo. The way the house stopped that was to pour out a nice amount into a dixie cup. And remind him that it goes on his head, not down the drain. Get him used to the right amounts.

Now, let’s talk about “recreation skills.” Are we talking what’s fun for mainstream people or what’s fun for your son? I’m a believer in starting with the kid and going from there. My two neurotypical boys hate sports, recreation to them is laptop fun. How do I get them outside, then? The same approach goes for your autistic son. My autistic son loves sports. But we had to learn that by taking him to Special Olympics to see what it was he really liked. He likes the back-and-forth of swimming, the defined task of each kind of stroke. In basketball, again, it is the back-and-forth up the court, the way teams take turns (your team shoots, then it is our turn). He also likes the cheering and noise in a gym, it turns out. (Take that, all you stereotyping types who say “Autistic people do not like loud sounds and chaos.”)

See, all the things he already does — and it sounds like he does a lot! — can be stretched further to encompass more and lead to other things. He can pick up twigs from the lawn. He can use the wheelbarrow. But quantify these things if he needs definition. He can learn to dust his room (with gloves on). He can measure the detergent in the machine, and from there learn to measure for baking. Anything can be recreational but it’s a matter of thinking like him, not Everyone Else.


Swami Mommy

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