Back to School: The Unique Challenges Facing the Parents of a Child with Autism

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The transition from summer back to school can be tough for everyone, especially for families with children with autism. However, with proper preparation, you can help make your child’s back-to-school experience a positive one!

Like many other situations facing a child with autism, the best chance of success comes from rehearsal, practice, and exposure. Begin with rehearsal. Start early! Work on waking your child up at the time they will need to be up for school. Depending on the child’s ability level, have them get themselves dressed, washed, and ready for the day including anything that you will expect them to do when school starts. Focus on details: What alarm will wake your child up? What will they have for breakfast that first week? What are they going to wear? Finally, if time permits, take your child to school several times, using the route you will take. If your child takes the bus, drive the route the bus will take.

Practice makes perfect, as the old adage says. Practice ALSO makes for a significantly more comfortable back-to-school experience. Run through the expected morning routine as many times as possible before school starts. It may be helpful to maintain the same schedule on weekends. Don’t forget to provide positive reinforcement when they are doing the right thing!

Work on exposing your child to their new environment as much as possible. Take any opportunity to visit your child’s school or meet the teacher or support staff in advance. If the school is locked, walk around and see what is visible through the fence. Finally, express excitement: “See that playground? Won’t it be fun to play on that?”

Establish expectations early and hold to those routines. Do they wake themselves up? Do they dress or bathe themselves? What responsibilities do they have in regards to breakfast or lunch? How do they get to school or the bus stop? Especially if this is your child’s first year of school, work on creating separate “work” and “play” times. For example, 30 minutes of sitting earns them 10 minutes of play. This will help them adjust when they are asked to do this at school.

Before school starts, or within the first few weeks, work on creating a “Personal Portfolio” for (or with) your child. This is essentially a resume for your child, conveying as much information as possible to any teachers or support staff who will be working with them. Include photos, artwork (depending on your child’s age), likes and dislikes, challenges and strengths, and lists of favorite things as ideal reinforcers.

It is likely that your child will work with many different professionals, including teachers, psychologists, aides, occupational therapists, speech therapists, in-home therapists, and doctors. Convey information about progress, challenges to each of these people as often as possible. If availability allows, have as many members your child’s support team as possible attend IEP meetings. Confidentiality laws prohibit outside professionals from talking to school personnel about your child, so it is important that you be the go-between, and you may need to provide written consent.

Ideally, your child’s teacher will reach out to you on a regular basis with updates, however, this doesn’t always happen. Be proactive -- set up a schedule to touch base with your child’s teacher regarding their progress. Consider developing a communication journal if your child’s teacher does not initiate it. You can put it in your child’s backpack, and ask the teacher or aide to write in it daily. You can also write back to communicate your concerns, questions and appreciation.

With a little advance preparation and practice, you can make your child’s back-to-school experience a positive one for him or her, for yourself, and for your child’s support team!

Cristina Franco, M.A., BCBA
Behavior Supervisor, Bakersfield, CA
August 20, 2019

Behavior Frontiers Case Manager, Deanna Guzman, Selected for SkillCorps Kenya Team

To me, working in the field of behavior therapy is about the life-changing milestones we, as clinicians, are able to create for our kiddos and their families. Do you remember the first time you felt that all-encompassing sense of pride when your kiddo mastered a target they had been working on for weeks, if not months? For me, it was when a four-year-old, non-vocal client spontaneously walked over to his mother and said, “mama”. We had been pairing the word “mama” with his mother for months using behavior analytic strategies and then one day, it just clicked. His mother picked him up, grasped him like she never had before, and her adoration and pride for what her son had just accomplished shined brightly through her tears of joy. This moment will be captured in my heart forever, but more importantly, it is the reason I decided to apply to take part in the volunteer Global Autism Project -- because I truly believe that every child deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential no matter the circumstances.

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In October 2019 I will be traveling to the Kaizora Institute for Neurodevelopmental Therapies in Kenya with five other Global Autism Project SkillCorps team members. SkillCorps teams are made up of skilled professionals autism self-advocates working in the field of autism education. The overseas teams are trained and prepared to support educators, leaders, parents and advocates working in their own communities. The Global Autism Project believes that local people will lead the way to acceptance and opportunity for people with autism in their own communities, and the SkillCorps teams are there to support them every step of the way! 

In many countries around the world, and specifically in Africa, the is no word for “autism” in the local languages. And, because there is no understanding or recognition of autism, children are often ostracized, hidden away, and abused. At times, their families or neighbors try to “cure” them using dangerous, sometimes even fatal, methods.  With my knowledge of behavior-based principles, my two weeks in Kenya will be spent empowering the community to address the needs of individuals affected by autism through education, outreach, training, and the promotion of acceptance and compassion. We know that every child is capable of learning. As educated clinicians we are in the unique and critical position to change the lives of children on the spectrum all over the world.

The SkillCorps selection process was rigorous and included an extensive application, initial interview, reference checks and two selection rounds. Finally, out of hundreds of applicants from across the U.S., six of us were chosen to be the Kenya SkillCorp team. The moment I received my acceptance letter I knew my life was about to change. Not only do I get to travel the world, but I get to make a real difference for the population of children that I hold so dear to my heart.

I am so grateful for the support and mentorship I have received from my Behavior Frontiers family without whom this opportunity would not be possible. My liaison BCBA Supervisor, Samantha Gonzales’ professionalism and devotion to her clients, their families and to her work are everything I aspire to be. Her dedicated mentorship has helped mold me into the passionate clinician I am today. Associate Clinical Director, Tara Haggerty and Clinical Director Sara Yanez have had a deep and lasting impact. Their knowledge of applied behavior analysis is astounding, but even more importantly, their natural ability to teach has allowed me to thrive as a behavior therapist and become a case manager. And, I’d like to express my deepest appreciation to Helen Mader, Executive Director, and Bryan Mader, Chief Financial Officer, who have generously contributed to this meaningful endeavor. It is because of their generosity and direct support that I was able to reach my fundraising goal for my upcoming trip with the Global Autism Project!

My time in Kenya will challenge me and teach me in ways that I can’t even imagine. I anxiously embrace the challenge that awaits because my experience at Behavior Frontiers has taught me that it is when we are pushed and challenged that we grow the most.


Deanna Guzman, M.S.
Case Manager
August 13, 2019


Deanna Guzman joined Behavior Frontiers in 2017. She works with clients, families and staff as a Case Manager in our Orange County-West region.

 

Understanding Obsessive and Ritualistic Behaviors

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Many of our clients suffer from the need to engage in ritualistic behaviors as well as may perseverate on one topic or object. In the world of ABA, this is usually referred to as Ritualistic Behavior or Obsessive Behaviors. No matter its name, it causes a huge interruption in the life of the client and their entire family. Some examples of these include physical routines (needing to turn off the lights 10 times when leaving a room), needing to fix something that is not their version of correct (broccoli belongs on the right side of the plate and never on the left), staying on a strict schedule (showers only take place from 7-7:30pm), perseverating on a specific topic (talking only about dinosaurs), and needing specific questions answered by others (asking someone how old they are when you meet them). These types of behaviors can lead to crippling the client from engaging in everyday activities. They can also be detrimental to the family as a whole. It’s important to look into these behaviors as flexibility is a big part of everyday life.

First we should ask ourselves: Is this ritual or obsession really something we need to intervene on? Is the behavior affecting the client and the family in a way that cripples the individual from leading a functional life? If we sit back and really think about it, we all engage in rituals. I like to have coasters under my drinks; I like to have my coffee a specific way; I want my bed made the way I like it, etc. The first step is to determine whether intervention is needed and if the behavior is socially significant.

Once we are able to determine it needs to be treated, we need to define it. A loose definition would be engaging in or not engaging in a particular behavior persistently or repetitively in the same way each time. It may be helpful to create a list of the different examples the client engages in as the different behaviors may not be similar. This is where teamwork comes into play. It is important for BTs to be very involved in this. After all, BTs are seeing the clients the most amount of hours and probably see the most rituals during sessions. Communication with the manager or BCBA regarding examples will help the manager or BCBA create an all inclusive definition that everyone, including parents, can create. BTs, parents, teachers, siblings, managers, and BCBAs can all work together to come up with a definition everyone can follow. Evaluating this can be difficult but the best way to determine if a behavior is a ritual or obsession is to look at what happens if the behavior is blocked. If a client engages in tantrums or has difficulty getting away from a topic, it is best to mark this as an instance. Marking it and letting the manager or BCBA know about it can help create a more comprehensive definition so that we can ultimately dive into treatment.

Treatment is the next step but will be saved for a future article. All in all, rituals and obsessive behaviors in the clients we work with can be detrimental to both the client’s life and the life and well-being of their families. It’s important to determine if rituals or obsessive behaviors may be occurring and report to the manager or BCBA on the case. The manager or BCBA will then determine its significance and if it needs to be intervened on. The next step would include teamwork. Building a definition everyone can follow is imperative to creating an effective treatment plan that will ultimately help build a better life for our clients and their families.

 

Allyson Kroneberger, M.S., BCBA, LBA
Associate Clinical Director, Boston, MA

August 6, 2019

FREE Sensory Friendly 15-year Anniversary Events Coming to a Location Near YOU!

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In celebration of our 15 years of providing unrivaled ABA therapy, we are hosting a series of free sensory-friendly events around the country.  The events are a chance for us to say a big THANK YOU to the people who have helped us reach this milestone, as well as an opportunity to introduce ourselves to members of the autism community who may not be familiar with us.

The first of many events to come throughout our anniversary year are scheduled, planned and awaiting your participation: 

Our clients and their families, along with our employees and the local autism community are all invited to take part in the celebratory sensory-friendly events planned at kid-friendly locations across the country.

All of the events are FREE to attend, but an RSVP is required. So, if you’d like to participate, head over to our Events Page, click on the Behavior Frontiers 15 Year Anniversary Event of your choice, and send an RSVP email (Please note: each event has a unique email address for RSVPs).

Don’t see an event near you? There are lots more events in the works, so check in on our Events Page (you can also subscribe to the calendar to get updates) for details about an anniversary event coming to your neck of the woods…We look forward to seeing you there!

July 30, 2019

 

Coping with Summer Vacation Changes in Routine

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Many children look forward to the school year ending and summer break beginning. But for some children and their families, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the impending change in routine can give rise to feelings of fear, anxiety, and/or frustration. The restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities common among children with ASD, coupled with an insistence on sameness and an inflexible adherence to routines, can give rise to challenges for them and their families. A change in routine, or any deviation away from the ordinary -- such as from a structured school schedule to an unstructured summer schedule -- can result in an increase of maladaptive behaviors and regression in mastered skills for a child with autism. This may occur because the routine for a child with autism can be a way for them to comfort themselves and bring self regulation in situations that bring upon anxiety/fear. And, as a result, the change in routine can result in an increase in undesirable behaviors which can impact the entire family.

The following strategies may help your family transition into the summer months while maintaining some much-needed consistency for your child:

1.    Plan: Begin planning for the transition and upcoming changes in routine at least a month in advance. You can do this by discussing your family’s plans for the summer break, creating personal goals, signing up for summer activities for your child to participate in, etc.
Depending on your child’s functioning level, preparation techniques may include: 

a.    Priming: a method of previewing information or activities that an individual is likely to have difficulty with before they are engaged in the challenging situation. You would do this by previewing the future event --the transition from the school year to summer break -- so that it becomes more predictable.
Two priming strategies for changes in routine include:

                                              i.     Video Priming: Videotaped instruction to help prepare children for upcoming events/changes. This could include videotaping your own child or another individual going through the process of the upcoming change with the necessary steps to be successful. 

                                            ii.     Modified Social Stories: Social concepts and situations that are explained in a visual format to increase understanding and awareness to the change in routine. This is a great way to explain the transition from school to the home setting (or wherever summer break may take place) while explaining what is expected across different environmental settings.
Modified Social Stories can be written in the first person using your child as the main character coping with change and transition. Once the social story is complete, reading it repeatedly with your child and involving them in the reading will help them internalize the changes to come and how to handle them.

2.    Utilize Community Resources: In addition to planning ahead, get involved in your community. Many states have community resources specifically designed and staffed for children with autism. For instance, you may find some leisure activities such as horseback riding, camp, and art classes that are designed specifically for children with special needs with staff on site that have experience working with a variety of ages and skill sets.

3.    Coordinate with your child’s treatment team: Develop a plan with your child’s behavior team, IEP team, SLP, OT, and other providers outlining what you should continue to work on during the summer months. This is especially important for your child to generalize and to maintain the skills they have mastered during the school year. Your child’s professional team can give you valuable guidance about what to focus on during the summer.
Additionally, maintaining your regular schedule of professional services over the summer months – to the extent possible – allows for some of the consistency your child may crave. Keeping up with your OT, SLP, and ABA services may provide you with an added bonus of addressing additional or different goals since there may be more time during the day to work on them or because new skill deficits arise (e.g. daily living skills).
If your child is currently receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s Behavior Analyst to develop a plan for the summer. ABA has been proven an effective treatment to work on resistance to change and to build routines that reinforce positive behaviors, and it has remained one of the most popular therapies for helping children with ASD deal with change in routine.

4.    Create structure for the home setting: Set time limits on electronics and other activities. Depending on your child’s age and ability, create tasks such as household chores, play dates, academic book work, special parent and child time, community outings, etc. throughout the day. You can alternate between low-preferred and high-preferred activities. Remember that children are used to the structured activity and classroom schedule in the school setting, so aiming to continue or mimic this in the home may help with the change in routine.

Annie Prchal, M.S. BCBA
Associate Clinical Director
Minneapolis, MN
July 23, 2019