Breaks and Rewards

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Tip of the Month:
May, 2013

Is it a break or a reward? Using breaks and/or rewards can improve an individual’s productivity and motivation if you follow a few simple rules and avoid some common pitfalls.

Let’s start with basic definitions:

a pleasurable or motivating consequence that follows the achievement of a specified goal.

To be effective, rewards should match the size of the achievement (i.e. a small reward for a small achievement; a large reward for a large achievement). They should be provided as soon as possible after the achievement has been accomplished. They need to be meaningful to the individual (desired by the person who is receiving the reward).

Rewards are earned!

a short period of time in which stressful demands are eliminated to allow one to rest, rejuvenate or recuperate in order to get back to the task at hand refreshed.

The number of breaks one might need will depend on how much stress the task creates for the individual as well as how much effort the individual is expending. To be effective, breaks should be time limited and related to the amount of time one has spent working (e.g., a 5 minute break for 20 minutes of work).

One should avoid the use of favorite activities for breaks as it will make it more difficult to return to the stressful or demanding task. Breaks should be taken away from the site of the stressful or demanding task and are often (but not always) comprised of activities that are the opposite of the work task (e.g. walk, stretch, get a drink as a break from desk work; read a book in a comfy chair following strenuous physical activity).

Breaks are not earned, but are necessary for many individuals with ASD.

common pitfalls:
We can illustrate this with an example:

John hates written output and struggles to think of what to write. He has fine motor difficulties and trouble spelling. He is very bright and can explain his ideas verbally quite well. When John is stressed in class he will often groan, break his pencil, slam his books or bang his head on his desk. John’s team understands that written tasks are a lot of work for John and want to motivate him. They set up a reward system in which John earns tokens for completing written assignments. Since he likes to read, they have decided to let him have an hour of reading time every Friday afternoon if he has earned 15 tokens that week. John’s team is also trying to help John learn to self-regulate and manage his stress and anxiety in appropriate ways. When they notice he is stressed they usually offer him a break to read quietly at his desk. The team finds that John is doing less and less written output as the weeks go by. He is behaving as though he is more stressed rather than less stressed when faced with written work.

What has gone wrong? Here are some possibilities:

1. John gets breaks by behaving in challenging behaviour. Scheduled breaks may be more effective (e.g. work for 10 minutes then take a 2 minute break).

2. John’s breaks are too rewarding. Reading is a favorite activity and it is difficult for him to put down the chapter he is reading to return to work in a timely fashion. He would much rather read than do written output! More neutral breaks that are “refreshing” (even an errand) may be more effective.

3. John’s rewards are not particularly meaningful or motivating to him. He gets to read a lot anyway and the extra reading time available to him is scheduled during Friday’s computer time which he also enjoys. A menu of reward choices may be more effective in identifying activities or things John is excited to earn.

4. John may need more immediate rewards. He may be more motivated to complete written tasks in a timely fashion if the reward is available immediately after the written task is completed to a satisfactory level.

5. John may not understand that a break is designed to help him better cope with demands and is not intended to be used as an escape from demands. The team needs to ensure that when the break is finished, John is expected to complete the required task.

6. John’s team may not have investigated accommodations that might make the writing task less stressful or demanding for John. For example, perhaps he would do better working in a quieter, less distracting environment. Or perhaps he would be more productive using a keyboard or a speech to text system to produce his written work. Because written output seems so effortful for him, perhaps he needs to be assigned a reduced amount of written output.

bottom line
don’t dismiss the need for breaks and rewards because they haven’t worked in the past. Instead, look closely on how those tools can be used effectively for the individual you are supporting.

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Social Inclusion for the ASD Student in a primary classroom

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Tip of the Month:
April, 2013

Although it is often easiest to include children with ASD with their typical peers when they are younger (as opposed to in middle school and beyond), there are many children with ASD who struggle to interact in age appropriate ways with their peers at school in the primary grades. Here are some tips you can use to decide if the student with ASD is being included in ways that build his skills and that of his peers, as well as some tips that will be helpful for improving the quantity and quality of interactions in the classroom:

Is the student with ASD:

• a sociable child who often tries to insert himself into the interactions or activities of other children but is often unsuccessful at maintaining play interactions? (He may not always be well accepted if his communication and play skills don’t match what the others are doing. He may upset others or become easily upset himself.)
• a reluctant child who may respond to teachers but seldom initiates interactions with others, especially peers, remaining on the outside of most peer interactions? (He may watch, but seldom approaches.)
• a child who seems uninterested in what others are doing, spending the majority of time playing alone? (He might interact if he wants something but often ignores other students when they try to get his attention or play with him.)
• a child who is very passive and non-responsive, showing little interest in the people or objects around him? (He may have a significant developmental delay.)
Each of these styles of play indicates that the student with ASD may need specific kinds of support in order to develop his social interactions skills. Regardless of his style you can try the following tips:

Tips for All Styles

• Identify what type of play (if any) the student with ASD seems to prefer. Does he or she like to manipulate and explore toys and objects (even if it is in unusual ways)? Does he or she like to use materials to create or build things (e.g. stacking blocks)? Does he or she seem interested in dramatic play (e.g. playing dress up, pretending to cook in the play house)? Does he or she like games with rules (bingo, cards, checkers, etc.)? Create play opportunities that relate to his strengths and interests.
• Make the best use of space in your classroom. Create designated areas that can support different kinds of play/ interactions e.g. a quiet reading corner, an area for construction toys, a science corner to explore, etc.
• Set up opportunities for a variety of groupings from pairs to casual groups to cooperative groups.
• Play with the students initially to prompt, model and coach appropriate interactions. Fade yourself out of the activities as soon as possible but be ready to move back in if you see the student with ASD having difficulty. Be wary of hovering too closely to avoid having the typical students look to you rather than attempt to solve problems on their own.
• When coaching play, encourage the typical students to talk directly to the student with ASD rather than acting as a translator or mediator (e.g. Tell peer: “Hold out your hand to (student with ASD) and say “Glue please.”)
Tips for the Sociable (but socially inept) Student with ASD
• Show and tell the student what to do rather than what not to do in play situations.
• Engineer successful play situations. Assign or invite compatible peers to join the student with ASD in a play activity you know they will both enjoy. Play with the children initially to model and coach the communicative interactions they need to be successful.
Tips for the reluctant student with ASD:
• Notice what activities seem to interest the student. Who does he watch? What types of play does he watch? Let other students know that when the reluctant student watches them he might want to play.
• Encourage typical peers to offer an item from the play situation to the student with ASD (e.g. give him a block if he is watching the other student play with blocks).
• Notice what types of actions or activities seem challenging for the student with ASD. Set up play situations which limit stimuli that are difficult for him to manage. (e.g. If he is sensitive to noise or to being touched, set up quiet play situations with only one other student at a time.)

Tips for the child with ASD who seems uninterested in interactions:

• Make the play situation worthwhile to him. That is, increase his motivation to want to play by having highly desirable play items available only as a shared activity with one other student.
• Choose peers who are confident, patient and accepting as play partners for this child.
• Teach the play partner how to encourage the uninterested student.
Tips for the passive, less responsive student with ASD:
• Identify what motivates this student. He may need one to one adult instruction in order to acquire basic play skills such as activating a musical toy. Reinforce attempts to interact with the materials using tangible rewards.
• Encourage the other students to include him. Assign peer buddies to “help him” find his spot on the carpet for calendar, line up for gym, turn off the lights when leaving the classroom, etc.
Play develops very naturally in typical children but is a common area of weakness for those with ASD. A large percentage of students with ASD do want to socialize but lack the tools necessary to do so effectively. Don’t assume that just because a child doesn’t pursue play opportunities, that he doesn’t have the desire (and need!) to play with his peers. Play is a powerful tool for building social and communication skills.


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Self –Regulation and Emotional Regulation for the Whole Class

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Tip of the Month:
March, 2013

Classrooms today are often populated by students with diverse needs. In order to have a productive learning environment for all the children in the class, educators often talk about the need to have good “control” in the classroom and frequently struggle with the child in the class who seems to have no “self-control”. Although sometimes these students are those with ASD, many are not.

In British Columbia, the Performance Standards for Social Responsibility have targets for all children that include: managing anger in conflicts, expressing feelings appropriately, respecting others and displaying welcoming and friendly attitudes. Teaching children to “self- regulate” is currently a hot topic in the field of education, and many of the strategies that proponents advocate are also considered best practices for students with ASD. In reviewing some of the literature on self-regulation, we found the following information helpful:
Self Regulation Domains (from Self Regulation: Calm Alert and Learning, Canadian Educators Association article at Source: R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs, Handbook of Self-regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications (New York: Guilford Press, 2004).

1. “The ability to attain, maintain and change one’s level of arousal appropriately for a task or situation”
• How well the student is able to regulate his or her arousal state can be impacted by how biologically sensitive the individual is to sensory input (auditory, visual, tactile, etc.). We know this can be a particular problem for students with ASD who can be either over or under sensitive to many stimuli.

2. “The ability to control one’s emotions”
• How well the child monitors and modifies his or her emotional responses is linked to how well he or she regulates arousal. One only has to look at the myriad of resources developed to help children with ASD learn to understand and regulate their emotions to know that this is a common problem in this population
3. “The ability to formulate a goal, monitor goal-progress, adjust one’s behaviors”
• The ability to sustain and switch attention, inhibit impulses, and deal with distractions or frustration is a cognitive self-regulatory skill that develops with age and practice. Deficits in these executive functioning skills are common in individuals with ASD.

4. “The ability to manage social interactions, to co-regulate”
• Social self- regulatory skills are those which involve the child’s ability to master the rules of appropriate behaviour and co-regulate with others. Although there are other reasons for students with ASD to have difficulty with social interactions, poor self-regulation is definitely a component for some.

5. “To be aware of one’s academic strengths and weaknesses, and have a repertoire of strategies to tackle day-to-day challenges of academic tasks”

• Many adults with ASD (e.g. Stephen Shore) advise school teams to specifically teach these self-awareness skills to students with ASD to improve their ability to cope and to advocate for themselves.
Although self-regulation skills encompass different domains (e.g. emotional, behavioural, social and cognitive) it is clear that they are inextricably linked and that strengths in one area can support development in another just as weaknesses in one domain can negatively impact the development of another. We only need to look at the child with poor emotional regulation skills to recognize that this difficulty makes it very hard for him to co-regulate with others and develop appropriate pro-social behaviours.
So what does all this mean for our students with ASD in the classroom? The good news is that many of the strategies recommended for developing self-regulation skills in typical students are also considered best practices for students with ASD. These include:
1. Use differentiated instruction in the classroom and provide students with choices of activities. With this approach students learn to identify what activities best fit their learning style and they can begin to identify their learning strengths and weaknesses.

2. Be aware of the individual’s biological sensitivities and accommodate for differences. For example, if the student is overwhelmed by noisy environments, provide quieter activities as breaks from noisy environments or use the student’s preferences of topics or materials to help him learn to tolerate noisier environments. Provide self-regulation supports for those with sensory sensitivities e.g. fidget tools, headphones.

3. Differentiate between “control” (which often means compliance) and self-regulation. In classrooms where all students are expected to do the same thing at the same time, most of the time we often see students who disengage, demonstrating a level of arousal that is too low to sustain attention. This is just as big a problem as the student who acts out when he is disengaged. Although an observer might determine that the quiet class is under better “control” that may not translate into appropriate alertness to support learning for many students. That is, “quiet and in your seat” does not necessarily mean better self-regulation.

4. Encourage self-reflection. When a student is having difficulty performing a task, provide choices (e.g. would you rather do it this way or this way?; can you show me another way to do it?; where would you like to do this work?; what would you like to do instead?). In language that the child can understand point out what you notice about his strengths as well as what you notice about what makes it difficult for him to learn. Lead him through a problem solving process.

5. Use visual tools that can help students more concretely understand concepts such as emotional regulation. We’ve seen a number of talented teachers adapt 5 point scales for use with all students in their class, helping them to identify what they are feeling and to help them plan what they can do to manage their feelings.

Remember that just because a resource has been identified for use with children with ASD, doesn’t mean you can’t use if for your whole class! And, whole class approaches are often more powerful and easier to implement.

For more information on teaching emotional regulation and self-regulation in your classroom, check out the following resources:

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Building a Program

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Tip of the Month:
February, 2013

It can sometimes be challenging to program for students with ASD who have significant cognitive and language deficits. It is important to create an environment that allows the student to be as active a participant as possible in the classroom and school community, but in addition there is also a need to build a program that addresses the student’s functional skill development. School based teams and parents use a variety of tools to help determine the educational needs of the significantly challenged student, but often regular education teachers have had little exposure to functional skill assessments or curriculum and can be at a loss as to how to incorporate functional skills instruction into the educational program for their student when his/her needs are so different than those of the typical student. We’ve gleaned a number of useful tips from talented teachers and authors:
1. Talk with parents to ascertain the student’s level of independence in skills such as eating, dressing, toileting and domestic skills (e.g. putting away toys). These skills will be important to address in the school setting in a manner that is consistent with parent practices, and focuses on developing independence. Ask questions that are specific regarding the student’s ability to function at school (e.g. can he open containers in his lunch kit on his own; find his desk on his own, etc.)

2. Obtain information on the student’s ability to transition. How independent is he at opening doors, coming in to the class on his own, hanging up his coat/backpack, waiting in line with peers, walking in the hallway with peers, etc. Building the student’s ability to transition as independently as possible allows him to be seen by peers as a member of the class and helps develop his sense of autonomy.

3. What are his strengths and interests? Finding out what motivates and engages the student can be key to developing a program that meets his needs. If he is “into” trains for instance, use the topic to teach basic concepts (big train, little train; red train, blue train, etc.).

4. Use visual supports that allow the student to more easily understand the routines and expected behaviours for the classroom. Labels and schedules (using pictures and text) can be great supports for building independence.

5. Create tasks that he can do independently to avoid the need to have one to one adult instruction for every moment of the day. If the student can sort, create an independent sorting activity (again use his interests!). Teach him to show the teacher when the activity is done by putting an icon representing the teacher on his visual schedule.

6. Create opportunities for peers to work with the student during the school day. If the student with ASD participates in a recycling program, have a student who needs a break or can afford to miss a particular lesson accompany him. We know that teaching something is often a way to consolidate learning, so have one of the typical students get extra practice by teaching the student with ASD a functional academic skill such as number or word identification.

7. Adapt or modify group activities to allow the student with ASD to participate. In a calendar routine the student could press a switch to play a recorded message that states the weather. In a Social Studies lesson the student could touch the correct icon on a Smart Board to play a video on the topic being studied.

For more great ideas on including and teaching the challenged student with ASD, check out the following great resources:

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Cyber Safety: Extra risk for those with ASD

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Tip of the Month:
November, 2012

Individuals with ASD often experience difficulties which make them more at risk to be deceived, bullied or even stalked via the internet than their same-aged peers.

They may have:

  • A social - emotional maturity level that lags far behind their intellectual capability. Sophisticated use of language may make them appear older than they are.
  • A tendency to think in “black and white” terms which often leads them to believe what they see (read) with no appreciation of the subtleties of “truth” telling that can be found on the internet.
  • A tendency to become over focussed on one aspect of a website (for example in an online, interactive game) which can result in over- looking social cues that would make others suspicious (e.g. too many personal questions from another player).
  • A paucity of real life friendships which may make them more eager to willingly engage with an stranger posing as an internet “friend”.
    In addition to the standard “cyber safety” protocols for children and teenagers found on public library sites, pediatric websites and school district websites, you may need to spend extra time teaching the student with ASD concrete and explicit rules for staying safe on the internet. The website, Common Sense, has great, easy to understand information on internet safety that you may be able to adapt for your child or student with ASD.

Consider the following tips:

teach and practice safe-surfing

Spend time with the individual when he is online. Point out “red flags” that indicate sites may not be the best source of information or that may be trying to get personal information or money (e.g., pop up ads that offer free prizes). Have browser settings that screen out potentially unsavoury sites. Ensure you use a reliable anti-virus, anti-spyware system. For young children you may want to install Zac Browser. The browser is free and is available for the PC, MacIntosh and iPad.

See the review in PC World Magazine.

personalize and supervise

The rules you set up need to be at the student’s level. Negotiate clear rules that are simple to understand and easy to remember. If the student is using e-mail, Google, social networking sites (e.g., Facebook) or is playing online interactive games, it will be critical for him to understand the most basic privacy rule: never give out personal information (phone numbers, addresses, birthdates, social insurance numbers, banking information to those who request in online. If in doubt, check with a trusted adult. Teach the individual how to use privacy settings or set them yourself.

teach the student to stay with friends

Entering chat rooms or having online interactions with strangers in a multi-player game are risky behaviours for many folks, but particularly so for those with ASD who may tend to believe what the stranger writes and may answer his new “friend’s” questions truthfully. Rule of thumb… a friend is someone you have met personally and see regularly.

for more information

For more information on personalizing an internet safety plan for the individual with an ASD, we found a great article by John Thomas on the Autism Society of North Carolina’s website.

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School is IN!

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Tip of the Month:
October, 2012

You’ve had a month to settle in to the demands and expectations of a new school year... new students, new teachers, new peers. And things are either going really well and you’ve dealt successfully with any minor glitches or you have a sinking feeling that those minor glitches will increase or grow to become major issues. Although one has to pick one’s battles, it is often more effective to address concerns early rather than later. Over the years we’ve encountered the following issues and share tips that teachers and parents have provided to help address common areas of concern:


Student doesn't want to come to school. As a result, is frequently late. (He may seem to enjoy school once he is there.)

teacher tip

Greet the student warmly each day (whenever he arrives!)
Start his day with an activity he prefers, with low demands (warm up time).
End each day with praise. Draw his attention to a preferred activity that will occur the following day.

parent tip

Try to ascertain why the issue is occurring (especially if it is new). What might be making him anxious? Or does he just prefer the routine at home?
Set up a visual schedule for the morning routine.
Consider the use of incentives (e.g,. follow the schedule + get to school on time = visit to the comic book store at the end of the school day).


Student appears fine at school, but has regular meltdowns at the end of the day at home.

teacher tip

Recognize that when a parent shares this information, they are not trying to “blame”, rather they are trying to figure out what might be making their child stressed or anxious.
Understand that some students with ASD are working really hard to hold it together at school and this internal effort may take it’s toll, leading to meltdowns at home, regardless of parenting styles.

parent tip

Build in a low stress, calming activity at the end of the school day. If the student goes to after school care, ask them to do the same.
Ensure the teacher has information regarding common stressors for your child (e.g., sensory sensitivities, written output demands, social anxieties, etc.)


Student is disruptive in the classroom: interrupting, calling out, refusing to comply or transition, etc.

teacher tip

Take time to try to figure out why the student is engaging in the behaviour of concern. When we understand the reason for a behaviour, we can often teach an alternative behaviour.
Respond calmly to challenging behaviours and refrain from immediately applying a negative consequence as this can raise anxiety, hinder the relationship and make problems worse.
Make sure your directions and expectations are explicit. Students with ASD may not “read between the lines” and can get anxious (or angry) when they don’t understand. Use visual supports!

parent tip

Don’t assume the teacher is doing something “wrong”: avoid the blame game. Most teachers genuinely want to help all their pupils succeed.
Offer support, e.g., writing a social narrative to help your child understand the expectations, providing ideas about what has worked in the past, etc.

Set up a visual schedule for the morning routine.
Consider the use of incentives (e.g,. follow the schedule + get to school on time = visit to the comic book store at the end of the school day).


The student reports being bullied or isolated by his peers.

teacher tip

Take the concern seriously, even if you believe the student may be perceiving the situation incorrectly. His feelings are real and should be acknowledged.
Debrief the situation with the student individually. Drawing out the players as stick figures in a comic strip fashion can help you get a clearer idea about who said and did what. Help the student understand the possible intentions of the other students in the situation.
Talk to the other students in the situation to help them understand the impact of their actions on the student with ASD.
Create and model a classroom that is understanding and accepting of diversity. Consider implementing an ASD awareness curriculum in consultation with parents and other professionals

parent tip

Take the concern seriously but try not to overreact. When our children are in pain it is challenging to control our own emotional response. Share the concern with the teacher and develop a plan for teaching your child how to respond in similar situations.
Consider collaborating with the teacher in bringing in some ASD sensitivity training to the class.
Be pro-active in helping your child make connections with peers in his class e.g., facilitating play dates, finding out what groups or activities other students are engaged in that might also work for your child, etc


Resources abound for both teachers and parents and it can be hard to zero in on what would be most helpful for any specific situation or team. Many of the eLearning lessons on our website address the positive behaviour supports and emotional regulation strategies that may improve the coping skills of individuals with ASD. Parents may also find support at such websites as , which invites parents to blog about concerns and get advice from other parents. Parentbooks ( ) has great lists of books and resources available for sale on their website that address a variety of helpful topics related to ASD. In British Columbia, peer awareness and sensitivity training resources are available through the Friend 2 Friend Society ( or the Canucks Autism Network (
In addition, POPARD consultants are available throughout the province to help school teams address these and other issues of concern.

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Getting and Staying Organized

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Tip of the Month:
September, 2012

it's back to school
Back to school means another year of challenges for the student with ASD who struggles with planning, organizing and prioritizing. Many students with ASD, even those with average to better intellectual ability, experience executive function deficits that negatively impact their ability to plan and organize. Difficulties can include poor time management and lost or misplaced materials.

how can we help?

Rather than address the problem after the student has experienced failure or alternatively assigning all problematic organizational tasks to an educational assistant, consider the benefits of teaching the student to utilize an organizational system that he participates in developing.

Consider the following tips to help set up a system for your child or student:

  1. Set up a meeting that includes the teacher(s), student, parent and educational assistant (if one is involved). Compile information about the structure of the classroom (i.e.. daily schedule, expectations, rules) or, in the case of older students, the timetable and subject-specific assignment and evaluation procedures. This information will be critical to identify what type of organizational supports the student will need, for example, multiple notebooks versus a single binder with loose leaf paper; homework support at school; a specific type of planner (consider some of the apps on newer smart phones), etc.
  2. Set up a daily/weekly schedule with your student that specifies when and where homework time will occur each day. Discuss with the student the importance of choosing a time that will work best for him. Remember to schedule in preferred activities as well, to avoid having the student see t he schedule as a adult imposed “to do” list. Schedule homework time when someone is available to help. Ask the teacher for a list of things that student can do during scheduled homework times when there isn’t any assigned homework (e.g. reading ahead in a text book). Many families identify a homework time for 5 days a week... typically Sunday through Thursday.
  3. For younger children, it is often the loose pieces of paper that are problematic. Notices and worksheets are less likely to be lost if the student has a standard place in which to put them. Consider a transparent pencil case that has a ring to clip into a binder. Label it NOTICES. The teacher or educational assistant can initially remind the student where to put notices until the habit is ingrained. The underlying rule is to teach the student that there is a specific place for everything. Use labels to help make the expectations transparent, so that the student and those who support them all use the same system.
  4. Schedule in a time each week to do desk, locker or back pack cleanup. Although ideally the student should be encouraged to throw out what is unnecessary or garbage (e.g. food wrappers) immediately, it can help things from getting out of control if a weekly purge is scheduled.
  5. Be patient. Organizational difficulties are common in those with ASD and are not necessarily a sign of apathy or laziness. Calendars, planners and visual time lines can help the student continue to develop an understanding of the importance of organization and can develop familiarity with the tools they will need for a lifetime.

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a new teacher?

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Tip of the Month:
August, 2012

Will your child have a new teacher in September?

With so many students with diverse needs in classrooms today, it can be challenging for the teacher to quickly become familiar with the challenges, needs and personalities of each of his or her students. Diagnostic reports, report cards, and school-based team meeting notes are often reviewed by the teacher prior to the beginning of a new school year, but it is understandable that factors critical for understanding what motivates and supports learning or that may trigger challenging behaviours can be missed in this process.

Several teams we have worked with in the province have created “one pagers” to summarize key variables that can be critical to understanding and effectively supporting the student with ASD. These can be particularly useful in settings such as high school, where a student may have several different teachers for a variety of subjects.

Parents, case managers or even the student himself can ensure that the one page summary of student needs and challenges can be personally delivered to each teacher. We have attached an example and a template that you can use to create your own one pager. Talk to your child about what he or she would like to see included.

Ideas we suggest include:

  • A list of the student’s strengths and interests.
  • A brief biography that lists friends, siblings, parents, pets, etc.
  • A list of stressors and a description of behaviours that can indicate stress or anxiety.
  • A list of adaptations or accommodations that support learning, social success and reduce anxiety.
  • A photograph of the student.

Consider this tip to help support the development of a positive relationship with your child’s teacher this year and prevent potential problems!

sample_one_pager.pdf54.18 KB
one_pager-template.pdf26.33 KB
one pager template.pptx92.77 KB

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Analogies to Manage Stress

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Tip of the Month:
July, 2012

Using Analogies to teach Students with ASD to Manage Stress/Anxiety
Educators often use analogies to help students gain an understanding of difficult concepts. An effective analogy is one which takes information from something the student knows (understands) and draws attention to the similarity between that information and the new concept. The more the student connects with and understands the “known”, the more likely it is to be helpful when used as an analogy.

Students with ASD frequently have significant difficulty understanding and labelling emotions, and often experience difficulty managing their emotions in an appropriate way. Understanding and managing stress or anxiety may be particularly challenging, leading to the dreaded “melt down” or tantrum. Clearly, emotions can be one of those “difficult concepts” for students with ASD.

Many programs that have been developed to teach emotional regulation use concrete visual representations of emotional states (e.g., The Incredible 5 Point Scale by Kari Dunn Buron; The Stress Thermometer in Jeanette McAfee’s Navigating the Social World) as well as analogies. Michelle Garcia Winner and Stephanie Madrigal created the Superflex Program using a super hero / evil villain analogy that would appeal to students aged 7—10. In their stories, the evil villains are “Unthinkables” that prevent students from thinking of others, while Superflex is the superhero who teaches strategies to think flexibly. Elise Gagnon’s book, Power Cards, describes how to use a child’s special interests to motivate behaviour change, drawing analogies between the behaviour of a favorite character and the behaviour of the child. A Volcano in my Tummy by E. Whitehead uses a volcano analogy to help children learn to deal with anger. And Tony Attwood’s book, Exploring Feelings: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to Manage Anxiety, uses the analogy of adding “tools” to one’s “toolbox” to cope with feelings.

Over the years, we have seen many talented teachers and parents help the child with ASD to understand and manage emotions using creative analogies. If you are trying to help your son, daughter or student to understand emotions, you might consider using or adapting one of the following analogies:

Glass of water – How hard is it to hold a glass of water for a minute? How hard is it to hold it for an hour? What if you had to hold it for the whole day? We need to put the glass of water (our stress or anxiety) down periodically in order to pick up again and carry on. The longer you hold on to the glass of water (stress) the heavier the glass becomes, until you can no longer go on. This analogy can be helpful in teaching individuals the importance of the restorative “break”.
Wild animal – Stress can be like a tiger. It is sneaky and can creep up on you. Tigers can be tamed using the right techniques such as providing food and rest.
Camp fire – You can make your campfire bigger and bigger by adding small pieces of wood (small stressors). If you keep adding more wood, before the fire has dealt with the wood you have already added, pretty soon the fire will get too big and could get out of control. The analogy is helpful for getting kids to understand the cumulative nature of stress and the need to “deal” with little stressors before they add up to an out of control reaction.

Bomb – Some days your bomb might have a short fuse and it takes only a few matches (stressors) before the bomb goes off. Other days your bomb might have a long fuse and it can take a lot of time or matches before it explodes. The analogy is good for helping students identify setting events that make it more likely that their bomb will have a short fuse (i.e. they might lose control). It can also be used to help kids identify what they can do to make a longer fuse.

Volcano – Feelings, like the magma inside the volcano, don’t always show on the surface. As the magma rises (due to the addition of stressors) it becomes more likely that the volcano will explode. If the magma cools, it goes back down. This student can be helped to discover what might “cool” his magma and can also help him learn to indicate how close to the surface the magma is, to avoid adding more stress.

Jug or bucket of water – If we keep adding water (stressors) to our jug or bucket, the water will eventually overflow. We need to pour off the extra water or create a leaky bucket if we are to continue to move forward in a stressful world.
Popsicle stick bridge – When well constructed, a popsicle stick bridge can hold a fair bit of weight, but eventually if we keep adding weight, the last stick we add will break the bridge. You can build an actual bridge with popsicle sticks labelled with things like friends, food, rest, breaks, etc. to represent things that help the student stay strong and resilient. Label popsicle sticks that represent the “load” (stressors) and demonstrate how the last stressor added can break the bridge. A house of cards could be used similarly. How many popsicle stick stressors can you put on your house of cards before it falls down?

The Army – Your body is constantly working to deal with stress… good and bad. When your body is dealing with a lot of stress your army gets depleted. You need to build your army back up again before you can handle more stress.

There is evidence that the most effective analogies are those that are created with input from the student, so talk about a variety of analogies and let the student choose the one that makes the most sense to him . Let him add details to elaborate on the concepts as needed.

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Promoting Independence and Self Advocacy

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Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum
Promoting  Independence and Self Advocacy
Task Analysis
Work Systems
Tip of the Month:
June, 2012

Important factors for developing independence include understanding one’s own strengths and challenges and being able to tell or show others what you can do, what you need or what you want. For students with ASD this can be difficult because of social or communication challenges.

The following tips can help ensure that the student you support will become as independent as possible:

knowing his/her strengths

Find ways to help the student understand what he does well. Many students with ASD have special interests and the knowledge they have on selected topics can be quite amazing. Other students with ASD may have an ear for music, an exceptional memory, artistic abilities, or athletic skills. Let the student display his strengths and praise him in front of others. For students who are more challenged, consider creating a photo album with pictures of them engaged in favorite activities. One non-verbal 10 year old we know loved showing others pictures of himself roller blading, and his peers were suitably impressed.

being independent

Use supports that allow the student to accomplish tasks independently. Activity schedules or detailed task lists can break down the steps of a job and allow the student to complete tasks without needing to depend on constant adult supervision or support. A handout on work systems from POPARD is available or you can watch our e-learning video on Work Basket Systems to learn more about this approach.

asking for help

Teach the student to ask for help. Initiating communication can be difficult for many of our students and asking for help can be particularly challenging. When they need help they may feel significant stress and be unable to remember how, when and who to ask for help. They may have difficulty explaining what they don’t understand. As one student we know described it: “Everytime I hear the word “explain” I die a little inside.” Use visuals such as problem solving cards to cue the student to ask for help. Create a social narrative he can read on his own that lets him know that everyone needs help sometimes and that it’s okay to ask for help. Ask the student to show you where he’s having trouble rather than requiring him to explain. Reinforce the individual for asking for help.

being part of the solution

Include the student in his I.E.P. meeting. In the book Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum by Stephen Shore one author suggests that being included in one’s I.E.P. can build knowledge, skills and confidence. Our students do well when they understand that their ASD creates challenges that can be overcome with accommodations, adaptations and support.

We found great information on strategies for including students as young as 9 or 10 in their I.E.P. meeting at the IMDetermined website produced by the Virginia Department of Education’s Self Determination Project ( The site contains useful templates that can be used to help students set goals and identify the steps needed to attain their goal (free downloads).

We want all our students, including those with ASD, to meet their potential and to become as functionally independent as possible. By having high expectations and treating them as partners in the educational process, we can support them in achieving their goals.

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.