Thursday, July 28, 2011

ACTIVITIES ON THE ANGLE: Structuring Beginning Learning Skills

Children with autism often excel at beginning learning skills like numbers and letters, but they sometimes have a hard time showing us what they know when activities are not structured in a way that makes sense to them. Oftentimes materials are cumbersome to deal with so we strive to make the organizational pieces easier to manipulate to make sure we are teaching the concept.

 The goal of the activity to the left is to sequence making a person and here we simply put the magnetic pieces on a baking sheet and provided a little visual structure to indicate where the pieces go. If the person also needs a sample of how it goes together, this set comes with pictures of the finished product that you can chose to use or to leave out depending on the skills the person has.

These are great sequencing cards that you can find at most educational stores. Sequencing actions can often be challenging for individuals on the spectrum (young ones, for example may have a hard time knowing that we put our underwear on before not after we put our shorts on) so here I just velcroed the cards on the left and the provided spaces for them to go on the right.

I love these puzzle piece activities to teach concepts because there is already structure in place. For individuals on the spectrum, however, it's helpful to use velcro to secure the pieces down and present it in a left to right sequence. In this example it's clear where the pieces go and we've included only the necessary matches so the person doesn't have to hunt through the entire box!

You can use this same box and change out materials to teach all kinds of different concepts. In this example we're teaching identifying opposites.

Again, I found this letter matching activity at a place called The Bargain Box for not even a dollar and it's a favorite of many young ones on the spectrum-- after all, it is Thomas! You can arrange this activities where the goal is to find the letter that corresponds with the picture or you can put out all the pictures and the child finds the letter that goes with it. Using high interests are a great way to teach more academic kinds of tasks in a way that makes it fun and exciting!

- Molly

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Simplify Chores for Success

The word Chore doesn't give any of us the best feeling.  Looking to the definition of Chores, it uses words like unpleasant, hard work, difficult and boring.  This pretty much sums up how a lot of us feel about it.  Try looking at the positive side of it within a family.  It helps to contribute to the household, gives the individual a sense of accomplishment and often can lead to a preferred activity or an allowance. 

"Go clean up!" involves a lot of abstract concepts for individuals on the spectrum.  Clean up what or where? What does clean mean?  How do I know it is 'clean'?  If you think about your idea of clean it can be quite different from someone else's.  It often is a judgement that we each make with this abstract description.  Many individuals with autism feel overwhelmed when they are asked to complete tasks that they don't fully understand.  Trying to just know where to start can be hard to determine.

We are constantly looking for new ways of making the abstract more meaningful and understandable for those on the spectrum.  Here are some things to keep in mind:
  • Use a visual system (objects, pictures, written list) to break down the activity.
  • Simple directions that are to the point.
  • Organize items so that there is a system to follow (ex: Labeled bins for toys so they know where to put things, pictures on clothes drawers for items, etc)
  • Make it obvious when something is clean.  It takes practice to learn how to determine clean so initially we have to make it very clear what isn't.
  • Lots of patience, practice and persistence!

Make a List:  Short directions with exactly what to do and add pictures to help with understanding.
          TO DO:
o  Make bed
o  Books on Shelf
o  Dirty clothes in hamper
o  Legos into box
o  TV time

Organize Toys and Clothes:  Use pictures on bins or drawers so the individual knows what goes where.  Also, taping an 'example' of what is in the box on the outside; for instance, taping a lego on the outside of the lego box. 

Make it Obvious:  Dirty vs. Clean is hard to determine for many individuals on the spectrum.  Trying to make it more clear when something is clean is important.

Using a dry erase marker on mirrors or windows to show where to spray cleaner and wiping until it has disappeared.

You can also use dry erase markers on other surfaces to show that you wipe until it is gone.

Baking soda on carpet helps to also make it clear where to vacuum and when it is done.

Simple Responsibilities:  Even the most basic of chores or responsibilities can teach contribution to the family.  Think about breaking down activities so that the individual can do it on their own and feel that pride in their accomplishment. 

Even something like pouring premeasured pet food into a bowl can be considered a responsibility.  Think about making activities less complicated and therefore less frustrating.

These are only a few examples of activities individuals can complete on a daily or weekly basis to help feel that sense of responsibility.  Trying to make the chores/tasks less complex is important to meet each individual's level of understanding.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

ACTIVITIES ON THE ANGLE! Communication Exchange Tasks

We did an earlier post on communication tips to help structure reciprocal 
conversation skills in particularly verbal children with ASD (click here
 to go to the link) and there are countless other ways to help 
facilitate communication for our younger or more beginning learners. 
Firstly, think about what's motivating to the person with ASD. Is it a 
favorite toy or a favorite snack? We hear stories from many parents
of two or three year-olds about how independent they are in getting 
what they want, when they want it. Even though in some ways it's good 
for kids to be independent, for children with autism, they are often so 
independent because they are not always recognizing how other people 
can be helpful to them . It is not exactly safe for little ones to climb
on top of the fridge to get the oreos, for example so we need to be 
creative in helping to give them a way to express these needs and 
wants even when the person may not have the words to do so.

One idea illustrated in the above picture is to put snack items in small,
clear containers that are sealed or taped shut so they cannot open them. 
Then the idea is for the child to take the container and hand it to mom 
or dad, or whomever it may be to get the snack for him/her. Do not expect
that by just puttingthe containers on a table and storing the snack items
high on a shelf the child will come over and initiate this exchange; 
it has to be taught. Start by sitting across from the table from each other. 
Then, you may need an additional person to shadow or sit behind the child
to gently move his or her arm to demonstrate how the exchange will go. 
Then, once the child hands the container, he or she will receive the 
chosen  snack. We always advise that while teaching this concept, 
only put out a few goldfish or desired snack option so that the child 
has multiple opportunities to ask. You can also work on generalizing
this skill of asking in an exchange to many other tasks, such as the ones
shown below.

In the above example I simply photocopied the puzzle pieces and then
set them in the inset to make it more visually clear which animal went 
where. Also I used the pictures as a way for the person to ask for the 
puzzle pieces. Notice that because
there are several animals in this puzzle, it provides numerous 
opportunities to ask use this communication system to help teach the 
power of communication. 

If the person with autism simply grabs for the pieces across the table, help 
model for them the purpose of the task by saying "I need________" 
if they understand language or by using a shadow. 
Again, think about what mode of communication you think your child or 
student best understands, such as objects, pictures, or even written words
and use that same method in teaching communication skills. Even very verbal
children often need to learn the POWER of communication in this very specific
exchange. By handing a object, picture card, or written word to someone
else it helps to teach the skill of directing communication, which is a difficult 
for individuals across the autism spectrum, regardless of IQ or verbal ability, etc.

The photo to the right is simply another example of a way to structure materials to make it a communication activity. We made this for a child who loved play-doh and we wanted to use this motivating activity to help increase communication. Here we have a product sample or photograph of the item we'd like for the person to build and again the idea is for him/her to take the photographs and hand them to the person across the table to get the item needed to finish the task. You can always continue to change what type of animal or structure the person builds but this way he/she can practice asking for what is needed.

We'll continue to post ideas of ways to help teach communication and social skills, which are more difficult areas by definition when diagnosing a child with autism. I think that automatically we assume that if an individual has speech, then the communication difficulties will go away, but with autism the problem is more than just language, it's about communicative intent and we need to think about ways to teach the meaning of communication and its purpose in more straight-forward, structured way. With time and practice, kids surprise us all the time on how quickly they pick up these routines!

- Molly

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Two More Awesome Books by Catherine Faherty!

Similar to her book "Asperger's What Does It Mean to Me?" this book by Catherine Faherty is a great resource for individuals with autism and Asperger's and their communication partners. The focus of this book is to help clarify miscommunication that inevitably happens in life, especially between people with two different communication styles. With her work with individuals of all ages, Catherine found that it is just as important that we, "neurotypicals", adjust the way that we communicate and get our point across. She sets up a contract consisting of five agreements-- one set for the person with autism and a set for the neurotypical communication partner. These contracts can be used between parent and child, teacher and student, spouses, colleagues etc. I love how Catherine encourages us to take a look at ourselves and not always assume that the communication breakdown is a result of communication difficulties for the person with autism; we need to remember that it takes two to communicate and we all can learn how to communicate more effectively.

The five agreements she details for the neurotypical communicator are:

#1 "Wait. Don't expect (or insist on) immediate verbal responses from your communication partner with ASD

#2 "Speak literally and concretely. Avoid hinting and indirectness. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Less "chat" is better."

#3 "Provide information. Do not assume that the person "knows" what you think "everyone knows."

#4 "Help your communication partner's self-expression. Provide tools: paper, pen, computer keyboard, and/or Communication Forms to facilitate authentic communication."

#5 "Realize that the autistic style of communicating is different from-- not inferior nor superior to-- the widespread, familiar communication style that you and most neurotypical communicators expect."

The five agreements she sets up for the person with ASD are:

#1 " I will try to express myself to my communication partner."

#2 " I will try to ask for help when I need it. Another term for asking for help is self-advocacy. Sometimes I will try to offer help to my communication partner, too."

#3 " I will try to say "thank you" or write "thank you notes" when someone has helped me, or given me something."

#4 "My communication partner may have different thoughts, ideas, and opinions from mine. This is natural. A first step in understanding him or her better, is to ask about his or her thoughts, ideas, and opinions."

#5 "I realize that my natural communication style is in some ways different from- not inferior not superior to-- the more widespread and neurotypical style of communicating."

Catherine then goes on to explain each agreement thoroughly as well as to provide activities and communication forms to assist in the process (for example, ideas for people with ASD of how to ask for help). Also included in the book is a CD so you can print out the worksheets yourself! This book is relatively new to me, but it's one that I've used with some with my older, more self- aware clients and it has been a great tool in starting a conversation and using concrete strategies to help each of us understand the other's perspective. I would absolutely encourage parents, teachers, employers etc to try it out! I will say that in order for these strategies to work, you have to stick with them, be patient, and remember that it may take a while to go through the entire workbook and to understand all of its components. If you take the time, however, it'll be well worth it in the end!

 Death and illness are extremely sensitive and difficult topics to broach with any child, and due to the abstract nature of the subject, it can be especially hard for individuals with ASD to wrap their heads around. In this book Catherine Faherty clearly explains terms associated with death and illness, feelings that may be associated with them, as well as different associated beliefs and practices. Again, she provides checklists to help individuals decide for themselves what is true or false for them in regards to their thoughts and beliefs as well as an opportunity to write and ask any questions they may have.

The book is broken up into the following chapters:

  • Illness and Injury
  • Recuperating and Healing
  • Death and Dying: Who, What, When, Where, and How..
  • When Someone is Dying
  • Communication
  • What Happens to the Person Who Dies
  • Putting Pets To Sleep
  • Rituals and Traditions
  • Taking Care of the Physical Body
  • What People Say and Do
  • Taking Care of the Soul: More Rituals and Traditions
  • Continuing a Relationship
  • People's Reactions after Someone Dies
  • More Names for Emotions
  • What Does it Mean If Someone Says....
  • What People May Learn About Life When Facing Death
  • Being Inspired: Role Models and Mentors

This is a great resource for parents and therapists. It is important to assess where the person is in regards to his/her understanding and the questions he/she may have and then you can take different sections of the book and go through a little bit at a time. I think it's a fabulous resource, not only for individuals with autism, but anyone who is struggling to understand what all of it means. The last chapter of her book is also dedicated to additional resources that families may be interested in contacting to help during these difficult times.

- Molly

Saturday, July 2, 2011

ACTIVITIES ON THE ANGLE: Melissa and Doug, Let's Play!

'Melissa and Doug' is a company with great ideas, quality products and good customer service.  I have always been very happy with their learning toys and constantly wanting to see what they will come up with next.  Being that they are so durable, they really stand the test of time.  When I have purchased these items, new or used, I have been amazed at how engaging they are for children. 

Being that I have been very happy with many of their items, I thought I would share some of my favorites.  Also, there are several of the items that are quick and easy to adapt for those with autism to suit the needs of the individual.

One of my favorite puzzles for beginners!  I love the large handle for hands of all sizes and the pictures underneath are perfect for those not yet visually differentiating between shapes.  Very sturdy puzzle that will last many more years to come!

This shape puzzle is great to help with those starting to differentiate shapes.  The colors are an extra visual cue to help complete correctly.  Stabilizing puzzles on cardboard (such as this copier paper box lid) is a good way to have everything contained.  Also, standing the pieces up with Sticky/Ticky-Tack (used for hanging posters) is a good way to help the individual grab one puzzle piece at a time.

These blocks make the sound of the corresponding animal when the two halves are matched correctly.  Being that there are different animals on every side of the cubes, it could be overwhelming initially to some.  Covering up several of the animals with paper at first can help the child gain the concept before moving on to all the animals.

These are fun puzzles that take a little more attention to detail.  Each piece can fit in the cars or animals it is not intended for.  Therefore, it is important to look at the colors and patterns.  To adapt this, you can color copy the pieces and tape them underneath to give more visual information.  Also, stabilizing the puzzle to a box lid is a good way to keep everything organized and easier to complete.

This puzzle, and many similar ones through 'Melissa and Doug', makes the animal sound when matched correctly.  The pictures are underneath on this item so it helps with matching.  If you are unfamiliar with sound puzzles, be forewarned that they can drive you bonkers!  Many times the puzzle will make noises even when just sitting on a shelf.  Luckily many more recent puzzles have on/off switches to avoid this annoyance :) 

Another favorite!  These individual inset puzzles help with spelling some of the first words.  It can be adjusted easily to suit each child's needs.  Limiting the number of letters for only a few word puzzles at a time can help initially.

Adorable boat with animals, two by two

Each animal fits into a space on the boat on either side, top or bottom.  For readers, the animal name can be placed above the hole where that animal fits.  The same can be done with a picture of that animal for non-readers. The wooden animals can be used for matching to one another, counting or other activities.

Great set of sturdy blocks for endless uses.  Color matching, counting or building come easy with this set!

These blocks are a hit!  They are fun for stacking but also can build on skills as the child grows and develops more mathematical abilities.  Each block features quantities of each number (Such as four dolphins for the number four block).  Additionally, the number is on one side and the number word is on another. 

A few ways to adapt: 
  • Direct match of the numbers; 1 to number 1 with Velcro
  • Number word matching
  • Addition and subtraction; having the objects on each block helps when finding the answer
  • Putting into the correct sequence within the included wooden box; each number can be printed on the box under each block to start out

Whack a ball
Fun activity and it excites kids to see where the will pop out at the bottom.  You can work on receptive language by asking the individual to "Hit the red ball", "Hit the yellow ball", etc.  Also, color coding at the top of the ball toy for color matching is easy with construction paper.

Stacking Rings
To help build the tower in the specific sequence, a picture of the completed toy can be used to refer to.  Also, coloring the wooden stick for where each color will go can make it a color matching activity.

Farm Maze
This farm maze has animals that can be moved around the board but not removed.  Each animal, and farmer, has to be taken to their corresponding 'home'.  It can be kind of confusing for some kids on what to do so I have had to structure it a few different ways.

I printed out pictures of the animals on the board, glued them to index cards and put them on a metal ring.  Flipping through the cards, the child can take each animal to it's home one at a time.  I used clip art images of each animal but you can also copy or scan the pieces to be more of an exact match.  Also, the pictures can be taped on each item's home on the board to help initially understand the concept.

Trash into task!  Using an unwanted piece of cardboard, the pictures can be used in an interactive 'Old MacDonald' song.  Not the prettiest activity but functional.  Working with a parent or teacher, the child sings the song and the adult moves each animal to the right.  Then, the cow or other animal can be moved on the maze to their home.  When each animal is done, it is put into the envelope and the next one is moved over.
Using paper clips on a sturdy surface, such as cardboard, is an easy way to organize materials.  Taping the paper clips on the back of the board helps them from moving around.  A simple envelope with the flap folded in can be taped onto the board.  To open the 'pocket', use an Exacto knife after it's been taped.

Food Groups
'Melissa and Doug' have lots of wooden food sets and this is one of them.  The four wooden baskets are included.

Teaching food groups can be a fun sorting activity.  Taping images found online on each basket shows where each food can go.

For this child, it was not an independent activity and teaching about the different food groups will take some practice.  Also, other play foods can be added in to give more examples of each food group.

Hopefully you can gain a few ideas for structuring activities at home.  You may have some of these items or feel free to adapt another toy in a similar way!  We have several companies that are great for task materials and this is definitely one of them.  We would love to hear what has worked for your child as well so feel free to comment or email us!