In this article you will find 15 supportive behavior strategies for children on the autism spectrum (some strategies can be used with adults as well). Many of the strategies can also be used to help children without autism who have challenging behaviors.
When caring for or working with a child with autism, a parent, teacher, or other adult may become frustrated with the child’s behavior. Behaviors can come on suddenly, last for hours, be hard to control, or make the adult scared or embarrassed.
Side-Note: *Autism is considered to be on a spectrum. It is called a spectrum because some people have only a few or mild symptoms while others have many or severe symptoms.
Here are some common characteristics of children with autism to help you better understand the root of their behavior. Some of the characteristics below can also be common in very young children, or individuals with developmental or emotional disabilities. Keep in mind that all children with autism are different. Some may have only a few of the characteristics below, while others may have many.
Side-Note: *All children have exceptional strengths as well. It is extremely important to focus on these strengths, let the child know how proud you are of his efforts, and incorporate strengths into play and learning.
Characteristics of Autism Can Include:
- trouble using and understanding language or certain aspects of language such as sarcasm, expressions, and body language.
- difficulty taking in sensory input in an ordinary way. For example, a vacuum cleaner may sound overly loud, a smell may be extra strong, or the feel of something may be extra itchy.
- a need for a particular routine so they know what to expect as they can become frustrated when things don’t go the way they had expected.
- trouble recognizing another person’s opinion or understanding another person’s feelings.
- difficulty working on or participating in activities with no clear ending (e.g., an open ended writing activity, a class lecture)
- difficulty switching from one activity to another, especially if they have to switch from something enjoyable to something not enjoyable (I think everyone can relate to that).
- difficulty organizing themselves in productive play when not directed or given specific instructions.
Sometimes these characteristics lead to problem behaviors at home, in the classroom, or in the community which can be frustrating for the child and the adults caring for him.
Here are some strategies which can prevent problematic behaviors or promote positive behavioral changes (since every child is different, you may have to try different strategies to see which ones work best with your child/student):
(Note: the strategies below illustrate ways for the adult to behave in order to promote positive behavior in the child. Adults who work with children with behavior challenges are sometimes surprised to hear that they have to change their own behaviors or change the environment to meet the needs of the child. As a behavior consultant, I have often heard “Why should I have to change? He is the one acting out.”, “It is too much work to make these changes.” “Why should he be rewarded for doing what he is supposed to do?” In actuality, the adult does not have to make any changes in their own behavior or the environment, but then the child’s behavior will not change. As far as rewards go, it is always beneficial to acknowledge and praise children for positive behavior and to let children earn privileges rather than taking privileges away).
Related Article: 25 Privileges You Can Let Your Child Earn for Good Behavior
*Keep in mind that there is no magic answer. All you can do is try your best. If you are putting sincere effort into implementing effective strategies and trying your best to meet the needs of your child/student, you are doing the right thing, even if you are not getting the results you hoped for. Additionally, children who do not appear to understand language may not respond to some of the strategies in this article, but some suggestions for children with severe language difficulties are also included. If you feel like the situation with your child is unmanageable, seek help from a medical, behavioral or mental health professional. If you work in a school, talk to your team members to get as much support as possible.
15 Behavior Strategies For Children on the Autism Spectrum
1 – Let the child know what will happen next. For example, “After you finish the puzzle, it is time to brush your teeth”, or “In five minutes it is time to turn off the computer and start your writing assignment.” For some children it is helpful to set a timer so the child can keep track of how much time is left. So in the example above “In five minutes it is time to turn off the computer and start your writing assignment” you would set the timer for five minutes. Some children need reminders as the time is winding down to 2 minutes, 1 minute, etc.
For children who have trouble understanding the concept of time or numbers, a visual timer can be helpful because the child can see how much time is left.
Visual timers can be purchased on Amazon or other online stores. Here are some examples:
Red Clock Visual Timer
With a red clock visual timer, children can see time running out as the red disappears.
Sand timers let children know that time is up when the sand at the top gets to the bottom.
You can even get a free visual timer app on your IPhone, IPAD, or Android device. Just do a search for visual timer in your app store.
See 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion for more information on how to implement timers for children with and without autism.
Some children respond better to a visual countdown chart, than a visual timer. An example would be a piece of laminated construction paper with the numbers 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 Velcroed on. When there is 5 minutes left you show the child the countdown (e.g., we have five more minutes of computer time). At four minutes you pull off the number 5. You keep doing this each minute until you pull off the 1 and that is the signal that the activity is over and you will be moving on to the next activity). Here is an example:
You would need to get the paper laminated and purchase Velcro to make this kind of chart (there are instructions at the bottom of this article for how to do this).
Side Note: *Children who have difficulty understanding language may respond better to pictures telling them what is expected, rather than verbal directions. For example, if you want the child to work on math and then have a play activity, you can show them a “first/then” board rather than saying “First we will do math and then play a fun game.” See an example of a “first/then” board below (you can find instructions for how to make this at the bottom of the article).
Just like the timers, you can also find IPAD, IPhone, and Android First/Then Apps. These apps have libraries of real photos to create first /then boards right on the screen. Check out the First Then Visual Schedule HD by Good Karma Applications, for IPAD/IPhone for an example.
2-Set expectations, be consistent, and follow through. For example, if you tell your child that you will play a game with him if he plays quietly while you talk on the phone for five minutes, make sure that you keep your end of the bargain (barring unforeseen circumstances).You may need to give him a choice of what activity to do during that time that you are on the phone. If your child can’t tell time, set a timer that your child can see, get off the phone in exactly 5 minutes (barring unforeseen consequences), and play the game. If you do this consistently, your child will come to know what is expected and will believe in what you say. As he improves, you can increase the time. Once he learns how to play independently while you talk on the phone, you may be able to fade back on such a rigid set-up, but it is a good starting point to teach him how to act while you talk on the phone. This is one example but can be applied to many scenarios.
If you don’t implement expectations with consistency and follow through on your words, your child will not know what to expect. This can lead to anxiety and challenging behavior (e.g., talking to you while you are on the phone, repeatedly asking when you will be off the phone, etc.). Children with autism or other challenging behaviors thrive on predictability, so do your best to make their world predictable. Another example of predictability would be having a set routine each night (e.g. first homework…then TV or first put pajamas on…then read a story). Keep in mind that difficult behaviors are more likely to come out when things aren’t predictable, and we know we can’t make everything predictable all the time. Just know that if you are doing your best, it is not yours or your child’s fault when things don’t go according to plan. Just get back in the swing of a predictable routine as soon as possible.
3 – Acknowledge your child or students for complying with your requests. For instance, if your child is using a loud voice in the movie theater and you say, “whisper in the theater,” praise the child with a comment such as “nice job whispering”, or “thank you for being respectful in the theater.” For children who understand language well, situations like this are a good time to teach about other people’s perspectives (e.g., “Thank you for whispering. This lets other people hear the movie.”).
4 – Tell the child specifically what you expect and allow him to earn privileges for complying with your expectations. For instance, if your child often has a tantrum in a store when he can’t go to the toy aisle, tell him exactly what you expect of him before you go to the store and reward him with a privilege for following that expectation. For instance, you can say something like “We are going to Target. We are going to the school supply aisle to buy paper and pens, and then we will pay and go home.” Once in the store you can give reminders (e.g., now we are going to get the paper and pens, now we will go pay, you’re doing a nice job following the rules, now we are going home, etc.).
Let the child know that he can earn a privilege for following the rules. Privilege ideas include playing a favorite game once at home, watching a favorite show, going on the computer, going for a walk, or going to the park, etc. Try to think of a privilege that your child might like or ask him what he would like to work towards.
When the child earns the privilege, praise him with specific language. In the example above you could say, “You followed the rules at the Target. We got the paper and pens, paid, and came home. Nice work! Now you can enjoy some computer time.” Make sure the privilege is something the child wants. You can let the child choose what he would like to work for ahead of time. Children also benefit from nonverbal praise such as high fives, smiles, thumbs up, etc.
Side Note: *Children with difficulty understanding language often respond better to pictures, visual cues, demonstrations or physical prompting than verbal instructions. For example, many children I have worked with with autism walked nicely in the hall after I demonstrated how, rather than after I said “walk nicely.”
5 – Give Choices. All children, including those with autism, like to feel a sense of control over their world. Many children benefit from having the choices limited to two to four options (depending on the child), as they get overwhelmed with too many choices and cannot decide. Examples of choices are: “Do you want to play a board game or watch TV,” “Do you want butter or jelly on your bagel,” “Do you want to wear the green or red shirt?” Again, children with language difficulties often have more success making choices when you show them the options or pictures of the options (e.g., hold up the red and green shirt and let them point to the one they want). An IPAD App for generating pictures to show kids choices is Choice Boards. See an example below:
6 – For some children with language difficulties, showing the child the activity or toy that he will be utilizing next is helpful to encourage him to move from one activity to another. For example, if the child is on the computer and you want him to come work on a puzzle, show him the puzzle so he knows what it is you want him to come do.
7 – If possible, use a schedule to let the child know how his day will go. For children who have trouble reading or understanding language, a visual schedule would be best. A schedule for after school could include “eating a snack”, “doing homework”, “watching TV”, “playing a game with the family”, “reading a book”, “taking a bath” and “going to bed.” A visual schedule at school could include “math”, “reading”, “gym”, “lunch”, “recess”, “art”, “science”, “packing up”, and “getting on the bus.” Below is an example of a visual schedule:
See How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior for more on getting the materials for and utilizing “first/then boards” and visual schedules.
8 – Allow the child to bring a transitional object from one activity to the next. For instance, if the child has to leave the classroom to go with a new staff member such as a speech therapist, let him bring a favorite object from the classroom such as a stress ball or toy car. This can assist with helping him feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings.
9 – Distract and redirect problematic behavior instead of saying “stop” or “no.” For example, if the child is running in the store, remind him or show him how to walk nicely. If necessary, find something interesting to show him and call his attention to it, rather than focusing on the problematic behavior. If he is running in the hall at school, redirect him back to the line, with a short directive such as, “Come back to your spot in line” or remind him to “walk in the hallway.” For children with trouble understanding language, try demonstrating what is expected or use a gesture, rather than just giving the verbal direction.
10 – If the child seems over stimulated from sensory input, such as in a large crowd, bring him to a quieter place to de-stress. Be mindful of situations where your child might feel overwhelmed before you take him there (e.g., a fireworks show, a crowded festival, etc.).
There are also strategies to create an environment that helps a child with autism feel less overwhelmed by sensory input. See How to Set Up the Classroom for Children with Autism and ADHD which includes strategies that can be used at home as well.
Related Article: How to Protect Children with Autism Who May Wander Away
11 – Make directions clear, short, and concrete. For example, if your child is throwing food at the table say, “eat your food” rather than “Be good at the table,” “Don’t throw your food” or “Would you stop with that! You are always throwing your food.” For children with difficulty understanding language, showing them a picture or a visual demonstration of the behavior you want to see, can be helpful.
12 – Take advantage of teachable moments. For example, If the child snatches a toy from another child, teach him how to use his words to ask for the toy (if he has the language capabilities to do so) rather than reprimanding him for snatching the toy.
13 – When giving tasks, assignments, chores, etc. many children do better if they know when the task will end. Some examples of activities with a clear ending include puzzles, a specific number of math problems, a specific number of pages to read, a timed event (e.g., the lesson will last ten minutes – set a timer), a specified way to complete a chore such as “Put ten toys in the bin.” or “Spray the window three times and use the paper towel to wipe the spots off,” a specific number of lines to write on the page for a writing assignment, etc. (visually defining the task is helpful as well; for example numbering the paper for a math assignment, using a visual timer or graphic organizer for a lecture, numbering the lines for a writing assignment, etc.). See an example of an activity with a clear visual ending below:
Please cut out each word and match it to the correct picture.
Download This Activity
Related Article: Find Out Why I Tried These Hands On/Interactive Tasks with My Students with Autism
Additionally, when the task has a clear visual ending, it eliminates the need for a timer. For instance, if the child is working on a 10 piece puzzle you can let him know what comes next (after you finish the puzzle, it is time for dinner) and no timer would be needed. This concept can be applied to anything with a clear visual ending (e.g., after you finish the ten math problems, you can go on the computer). Whether you are using a timer or giving an activity with a clear visual ending, give a break in between for the child to do something enjoyable if he gets overwhelmed or frustrated with lengthy tasks. For example, if the child is supposed to write 20 sentences for homework, let him write ten, take a 10 minute break to do a preferred activity, and then do the next ten. (set a timer or use another method to clearly indicate when the break is coming to an end, such as a countdown chart or a short task with a clear ending).
14 – Some children thrive when given structured hands-on or visual activities. Many children I have worked with or have observed, did very well (sat nicely, worked diligently, etc.) when given a hands-on/visual activity. Examples include playing a computer game, sorting objects by color or object type (for example, putting the silverware away from the dishwasher, sorting laundry by light and dark, putting materials away in the correct boxes, etc.) completing a puzzle, constructing a model car, tracing or coloring in a picture, etc. As another example, some teachers of children with autism teach academic skills through sorting tasks. For instance, an activity about learning colors would require the child to put all the yellow chips in a yellow cup, all the blue chips in a blue cup, etc. Keeping a child focused with an activity they do well at is a great way to encourage calm behavior. However, if the child is feeling overwhelmed or frustrated from the activity, allow a break or a change in the task.
Related Article: A Highly Effective Strategy to Teach Academic Concepts to Students with Autism
15 – Stay calm when interacting with the child (I know it can be hard at times but make every effort to be as calm as possible). If you are regularly having trouble staying calm, you may benefit from talking to a friend, family member, or therapist for support. Do not take it out on your child. Yelling and threatening will not make behavior better. It may stop the behavior in the short-term, but the behaviors will occur again. You may actually make the behaviors worse because the child may start to feel anxious, scared, angry, embarrassed, or sad. Children with autism are not choosing to act in a way that is frustrating to you or anyone else. They legitimately need positive support from you to help them meet their emotional/behavioral needs.
Finally, it is important to recognize that some children on the autism spectrum have trouble generalizing expectations across situations, so the same strategies may need to be used in situations that are similar to one another.
Keep in Mind: If you are using these strategies for the first time, you may not see change as quickly as you ‘d like. Your child/student will not be used to your new techniques and may even push harder due to the sudden change in your behavior. I know it is hard but be patient and keep implementing these strategies with consistency.
Here are some options for how you can create pictures to use with children with language difficulties:
Option 1: Create pictures and schedules on an IPAD App such as Choiceworks and either use them right on the tablet, or print them out and laminate them. You can get laminating done at Staples or purchase your own laminator and laminating patches, such as the Scotch Thermal Laminator Combo Pack shown below.
If you work in a school, they may already have a laminator for you to use. If you are a parent, you can also try asking your child’s school if they can help you laminate some pictures for an at home schedule.
Option 2: Search Google Images for the pictures you want to use, print them out, and laminate them.
Option 3: Purchase ready made laminated pictures such as the Home and School Responsibility Checklist Set.
Option 4: Use online software to create and print out pictures such as Boardmaker Online. Boardmaker Online has a variety of pictures and templates for creating pictures and schedules.
Option 5: Take pictures of your own child involved in the activity that you want a picture for. Develop or print out the pictures and laminate them.
What did I miss? Please add your own effective strategies below.
Related Article: 12 Ways Schools Can Support Your Child on the Autism Spectrum
Video Presentation/Slide Show: Great for Staff Development Day or Parent Training Classes
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Written by Rachel Wise
Rachel Wise is the founder and CEO of educationandbehavior.com. She is also a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a master’s degree in education. Rachel has 20 years of experience working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs.
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Autism, homework & beyond
Michelle Garcia Winner
Our daily lives are made up of an endless stream of thoughts, decisions, actions and reactions to the people and environment in which we live. The internal and external actions fit together, sometimes seamlessly sometimes not, largely dependent upon a set of invisible yet highly important skills we call Executive Functioning (EF). These skills, which involve planning, organizing, sequencing, prioritizing, shifting attention, and time management can be well-developed in some people (think traffic controllers, wedding planners, business CEOs, etc.) and less developed in others. They are vital in all parts of life, from making coffee to running a profitable business. The skills develop naturally, without specific, formal training, and we all have them to some degree - or at least, we all assume we all have them.
Things are never quite as simple as they seem, and these EF skills are no exception. They require a multi-tiered hierarchy of decisions and actions, all coming together within the framework of time, knowledge and resources.
Imagine trying to navigate life when EF skills are impaired or nonexistent, as they are with individuals on the autism spectrum. For most of us, our imagination won't stretch that far. Therefore, we assume all these kids - especially those who are "bright" - have EF skills and we act and react to our spectrum children or students as if they did.
Nowhere does this EF skill deficit cause more turmoil than in the area of homework, producing monstrous levels of anxiety and dread in students, parents and teachers alike. The myriad of details that need to be accomplished in a student's class, school day or week can overwhelm even the healthiest student; it can shut down our ASD kids.
I am regularly asked: if tasks are so overwhelming to their EF systems, should we just avoid having students deal with them? The answer is an unequivocal emphatic "NO!" Organizational skills are life skills, not just school skills, and even though they are "mandatory prerequisites" for succeeding at school, like social skills they are rarely directly taught. Few states include explicit teaching of EF skills in their "standards of education."
So where do we start? First, by understanding how complex organizational systems become by the time students reach middle school. We can only be good teachers if we appreciate the demands the skills we teach place on our students.
Second, by understanding organization as a skill set, which involves static and dynamic systems.
Static organizational systems and skills are structured: same thing, same time, same place, same way. Static organizational tasks are introduced in kindergarten, first and second grade. We break down tasks and ask students to explicitly complete very defined units of information, at a certain time and place. Write your name at the top of the page, read the instructions, complete the work, when done turn the paper over and sit quietly until time is up.
Dynamic organizational systems and skills involve constant adjustments to priorities, workloads, timeframes, tasks and places. They are less teacher-directed and more student-directed. By 4th grade, teachers are introducing dynamic assignments to students with moderate levels of support. Soon after that we expect students to be able to manage increasingly dynamic workloads with little extra support or direct teaching. By high school, almost all school and homework has dynamic components requiring students to use EF skills to allocate time, resources, places to work, etc.
Here's the good news: most of us understand that to tackle a dynamic task we have to break it down into its static elements. The dynamic part of the task requires thinking; the static part of the task requires doing. A dynamic assignment such as writing an essay requires a significant portion of the task be spent thinking about the topic before the static tasks of actually writing the paper at a table, at a specified hour, etc. One of the great challenges for our spectrum students is learning to break down dynamic tasks into more concrete, static chunks of work.
Fostering organizational skills in students with ASD requires an evolutionary approach towards teaching students, one that is ideally started at an early age. Students hone organizational skills starting in preschool, when we first ask them to clean up their toys. Teachers can accurately identify organized versus disorganized students as early as kindergarten. By 4th grade teachers expect students to be proficient with EF skills.
However, the reality is that the majority of our ASD students of all ages desperately need help with homework, specifically, and EF skills in general. Help is available. The following 10 steps illuminate specific aspects of EF skills that increase students' static and dynamic organizational coping mechanisms. While these steps are interrelated and synergistic, avoid trying to teach them all at the same time. Each may be difficult to grasp and master for the student with ASD; allow learning to take its own pace. Keep expectations realistic, talk things through regularly, and probe for misunderstandings or miscommunication. Learning EF skills is a dynamic system of its own, with its static components. Make sure your child or student experiences success and feels competent at each stage of the process.
10 Steps to Foster Organization Skills
1. Clearly define what needs to be done.
Too often, parents and schools view organization goals too simply: "the student must write the assignment in his planner." Clearly this is not nearly enough detail for most tasks and may not even be the best starting goal for a particular student. Adults must be organized in their own thinking if they are to effectively teach students with EF deficits this skill. Go beyond giving out assignments; help the student understand how to also approach the task from an organizational standpoint.
2. Move it with motivation.
Almost all students with weak organizational skills also struggle with motivation to accomplish homework tasks. Parents and teachers often don't realize this lack of motivation can stem from feeling overwhelmed by the task demands. Students with the greatest motivational challenges are often our most intelligent students (e.g. those with high IQ scores). We often assume "smart" means "organized" and say things like "come on, I know you can do this, I know you are smart." Yet, they may have the hardest time motivating themselves when overwhelmed because they have never had to work at learning. Learning just happened if they stayed attentive.
By adolescence, students need to appreciate that completing work - even work that seems somewhat ridiculous to them - has its rewards. It establishes them as hard working in the eyes of others, improves their grades and increases feelings of self-worth through meeting their grade level academic expectations. However, as obvious as this sounds, this level of cause-effect can still be too overwhelming to some spectrum students because it requires delayed gratification. Many students need to start at a much more concrete level of motivation, with very small work steps combined with reward early in the task completion process. For example, if a student cannot easily work for an hour, have him work successfully on a single part of the task for just 10 minutes before he gets to pause and congratulate himself. Self-motivation increases when students feel confident in understanding and accomplishing the task before them. If a student is not motivated, it doesn't matter how well you help to teach the student how to approach the assignment, they will not implement the ideas. Work directly on helping students tackle their issues related to motivation.
3. Prepare the environment.
Most adults familiar with helping students "get organized" understand this point. Establish a dedicated workspace for homework that includes the essential tools: pen, pencil, paper, etc. Color coding tasks, making sure the student has an organized binder, possibly access to a time-timer (www.timetimer.com) create structures that promote success during homework time.
4. Chunk and Time it.
Assignments that sound coherent and structured to teachers can still overwhelm a student with EF challenges. For example: "write a report focusing on the economy, culture, weather and climate of a specific country." Clear enough, you think? Maybe to us, but not to them. Make sure the student understands how to "chunk" an assignment (break it down into smaller pieces) and how the individual parts create the larger whole. For example, not all students will know their report needs four sections, producing essentially a "mini-essays" worked on separately and then joined together.
Furthermore, once they "chunk" the project students also need to predict how long each chunk will take to complete. The majority of our students with poor organizational skill have a resounding inability to predict how long projects will take across time. In fact, they tend to be weak in all aspects of interpreting and predicting time. This is an essential life skill! Consider this: Is there anything you do without first predicting how long it will take? We "time map" everything, gauging how the task will or will not fit into what we're doing now, an hour from now, later in the day or later in the week.
Homework functions in much the same way. Students are more willing to tackle homework when they can reliably predict how long they will have to work on the task. For example, a student will usually calmly do math if it should only take 5-10 minutes. However, for those spectrum students who can't predict time, the nebulous nature of the activity incites anxiety such that they may cry 45 minutes over doing a 10-minute math assignment. When the student does not - or cannot - consider time prediction as part of his organizational skill set, he is likely to waste a lot of time rather than use time to his advantage.
5. Use visual structures.
As the school years progress, homework shifts from mostly static tasks doled out by one teacher to mostly dynamic tasks assigned by many different individuals. We expect students to self-organize and know how to juggle the many pieces of learning that make up each class, grade and level of education. Yet, this valuable skill is never directly taught!
Visual long-term mapping charts, such as a Gantt Chart, (www.ganttchart.com) can help students plan and monitor multiple activities. These bar type graphs allow a student to visually track multiple projects across time, determine when they are due and how much time is available to work on each. For example, a history paper may be assigned in February and due in late March; a line would run from early February to late March to indicate the time allocated to the project. A math project assigned in early March is also due in late March; another line would represent this project. Visually the student can see that two big projects are due at about the same time, and both are worth significant grade points. This then helps the student understand why he should not wait until the last minute to start one or both assignments. Gantt charts are frequently used in business, but have yet to make it into student software for school/homework planning. However, they are easy to create and use at home or in the classroom. For students with ASD, they are invaluable tools for organization.
Visual structures can represent entire projects and then also be used for individual chunks, creating the visual organizational framework students with EF deficits need. Once assignments are understood as needing to be worked on across time, we can encourage students to chunks tasks to be worked on during specific weeks, then make related lists of things to do on specific days.
6. Prioritize and plan daily.
Learning to prioritize is a valuable skill and helps the student get things done. Keep in mind that many of us make daily lists but don't always complete all tasks on our list, and that priority is largely based on the value we place on the assignment. Within the school setting, "value" is often dictated by the teacher. Priority is a factor of the task's value overall, its deadline and the time to complete it. However, Just because a task is due does not mean a student needs to make a decision to complete it, especially if it is a low priority or low value task to the student or the teacher. For example, during her sophomore year in high school my daughter was looking at her math grades online. I looked over her shoulder and saw she had mostly A's and B's but noticed she had two F's. I exclaimed, "Robyn, you have two F's", to which she replied, "Mom, they were each worth one point. They were hardly worth doing." Robyn realized that in light of the many assignments she had to juggle for all her classes, projects with the least point value were not worth doing; she'd rather save her time and effort for the larger, more important projects.
With a prioritized plan in hand, many students will still struggle with actually working on the tasks. Even students with high intelligence may have difficulty getting themselves to work on projects not of their liking. Their baseline attention span may be no more than 7-10 minutes. (Test one of your student's baseline attention span by observing how long he can attend to mundane projects without self-distracting. You may be surprised by how short it is!)
Help students succeed with their daily schedule by teaching them to take frequent small breaks at the end of their baseline attention span. For example, a graduate student in theology found he could only push himself through 10-minute work cycles before feeling overwhelmed or internally distracted. He used a visual time-timer and gave himself a short stretch break every 10 minutes. Once he completed a number of these short work cycles he gave himself a larger reward. The key to using self-reward is to make sure the small reward isn't likely to be distracting or absorbing (computer games, TV, reading a book). Instead make these small breaks quick and refreshing, just to refocus attention: sensory based activities (stretching or movement), a small snack, a quick trip to the bathroom or pencil sharpener.
7. Hunt and Gather.
Simply put: students need to plan time into their schedule to locate different resources to complete a task. For example, research at the library might be a "chunk" they plan for on their homework list (don't forget travel time!).
8. Consider Perspective.
Homework is more effectively completed when students start by considering the teacher's perspective before diving into the assignment. An assignment done well is one that meets the teacher's expectations and follows the teacher's instructions. A high school student went to great lengths to develop a computer program for his computer programming class. His teacher came to me exasperated, explaining that while well done, the project was totally unrelated to the class assignment.
Parent perspectives enter into the homework plan also. Many parents expect children to finish homework before watching TV. Even though the child may have accomplished a great deal of homework (in their mind "enough"), trouble can still erupt because it wasn't "finished" in the parents' minds.
Perspective taking can be quite overwhelming to many students with social learning and organizational problems. A strategy called "social behavior mapping" (Winner, 2007) can help students understand how expectations, actions and reactions affect not only how we are viewed by others, but how their responses ultimately impact the way we view ourselves.
9. Communicate and then communicate some more.
Homework assignments often result in students needing help from others. Knowing when and how to ask for help can be challenging for students with social learning and organizational weaknesses. Avoid assuming students - especially "bright" students - should intuitively know how to ask for help, clarification or even how to collaborate with others on assignments. These skills are not nearly as simple as they seem and may need to be explicitly taught by the special education teacher or speech language pathologist at your school. Tip: as students age into middle school and beyond, most students are turning to their peer group rather than their teacher for help. This helps to establish peer support networks desperately needed for success in college.
10. Completion and reward.
Having a clearly defined "end" to a task is important for the concrete thinking minds of students with ASD. Be sure the child knows what "finished" means, both at school and at home. For instance, a homework assignment is not truly "done" until it is turned in to the teacher at school. While homework turn-in boxes (static) are commonly found in elementary school, they all but vanish during middle and high school years when even the act of turning in homework becomes dynamic. Make sure your students know where to turn in homework. Also, parents should save big celebrations for completed projects until the assignments are actually turned in. Some students may need reminder systems set up to make sure work is turned in on time. Visual notes, PDA messages or watch timers can be used to help.
At home, "finished" homework yields its own rewards when students can engage in more personally pleasing activities, such as a computer game, watching TV, reading for pleasure, etc. Even our favorite activities have a finite time frame attached to them before it is time to go to bed. Many of these organizational strategies can be used to help a student learn to shut down a favorite activity and get his brain ready for bed.
"Planning takes time!" This is a message we need to constantly reinforce with our spectrum students. Whether students are using organizational skills for homework, doing chores, preparing for a weekend activity or something as simple as getting a snack, as children grow and develop, tasks become increasing complex and dynamic with each passing year. Teachers and parents need to work together in identifying and teaching any or all of the 10 steps mentioned in this article that are problematic for the spectrum child. In doing so, we give children the tools not just to handle homework, but to be successful in all areas of life. To work on aspects of all 10 steps, however, we need to begin work on these skills while students are still in elementary school. Teaching organizational skills takes time across a long period of time!
Michelle Garcia Winner is internationally recognized as an innovative clinician, enthusiastic workshop presenter and prolific author in the field of social thinking and social cognitive functioning. Visit www.socialthinking.com for additional information.
Allen, D. (2001). Getting Things Done. The art of stress free productivity. Penguin Books: New York. (recommended by an adult with AS)
Dawson, P. and Guare. R. (2004). Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention. The Guilford Press: New York.
Giles-Brown, C. (1993). Practical Time, Language and Living Series. Imaginart. www.proedinc.com
Hyerle, D. (1996). Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Virginia.
Myles, B. & Adreon, D. (2001). Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Practical Solutions for School Success. AAPC: Kansas. www.asperger.net
Soper, M. (1993). Crash Course for Study Skills. Linguisystems: Illinois. www.linguisystems.com (highly recommended for building a curriculum!)
Winner, M. (2005). "Strategies for Organization: Preparing for Homework and the Real World." The Gray Center: Grand Rapids, Michigan. (www.socialthinking.com)
Winner, M (2007) Social Behavior Mapping. Think Social Publishing, Inc.: San Jose, California.
Courtesy of SocialThinking.com