Why does he do that? Dealing with unusual behaviours at school

Printer-friendly version
Why does he do that? Dealing with unusual behaviours at school
Tip of the Month:
March, 2011

One of the common features of ASD is the presence of repetitive or restricted behaviours, sometimes referred to as stereotypies. Behaviours such as hand flapping, twirling, squealing, vocal repetitions, flicking fingers in front of eyes, and spinning, sifting, sniffing or tapping objects are some of the repetitive behaviours that might be seen in a student with ASD. An obsessive interest in unvarying activities such as repetitive water play, a pre-occupation with parts of objects or pacing while singing or talking to oneself are also descriptions of repetitive behaviours and restricted interests. Sensory processing differences, anxiety, executive function deficits and boredom have been some of the explanations presented in the literature to help explain the prevalence of repetitive behaviours in ASD but it is not yet well understood why these behaviours tend to develop and prevail more often in ASD than in other disorders. A common question in schools is how to deal with these behaviours. Should efforts be made to eliminate or replace them or should they be ignored? The following tips may help determine how best to respond:

A plan to modify the behaviour or the environment is indicated if:

  • the behaviour interferes with the student’s ability to participate in learning activities
  • the behaviour draws negative or unwanted attention from peers or others, or adversely affects social relationships
  • the form, frequency or intensity of the behaviour affects the child’s health or safety
  • the behaviour interferes with the learning of others

If a decision is made to address the behaviour, the following questions need to be answered:

  • When does the behaviour occur? Is it during times of excitement or stress? Or does it occur more frequently during “down times” when there is limited structure or expectations? In the first instance, the student may engage in the behaviour to self calm. In the second instance he may do it to fill a void with a pleasurable, predictable sensory experience.
  • Does the behaviour appear to serve a specific function such as avoidance of a task, a protest, or to get attention? In this case, teaching a functionally equivalent replacement behaviour would be recommended.
  • Is the student aware of how others perceive the behaviour? If not, he may need instruction to help him understand the perspective of others prior to attempting to teach him to control or modify the behaviour in specific situations.

Bottom line, attempting to modify repetitive behaviours should be done only when necessary, and then carefully and with compassion. Even if the behaviour is seen as a “habit” that is no longer necessary, attempts to change an entrenched behaviour will be stressful for the individual with an ASD. Any such plan should involve the entire team. Parents, behaviour interventionists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists can provide important information and insights on how best to address a specific individual’s repetitive behaviour.

For more information on repetitive behaviours and potential modification strategies the reader is referred to the following resources:

Repetitive or Unusual Behaviours, The Watson Institute, http://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/resources.jsp?pageId=06902000917810875...

An Inside View of Autism by Temple Grandin, IRCA articles, http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=595

Functional Behaviour Assessment, Centre for Effective Collaboration and Practice, http://cecp.air.org/fba/

Self Management Part 2: Self Awareness, POPARD elearning lesson at http://www.autismoutreach.ca/elearning

Social Behaviour Map: Behaviours for Learning in the Classroom by Michelle Garcia Winner. Available at www.socialthinking.com

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Performance Deficits: He does it at home but he doesn't do it at school

Printer-friendly version
Books you might find useful
Tip of the Month:
February, 2011

He knows the material but doesn’t seem to get anything done without an adult facilitating each step. These types of comments are frequently used to describe students with ASD. Regardless of ability, many students with ASD struggle to develop independence at many school and daily living tasks. The reasons are multi-faceted, some related to the executive functioning deficits that are common in the disorder, but others related to the supports and expectations provided. The lack of ability to utilize intelligence or skills appropriately and independently is often referred to as a performance deficit.

How can we help these students learn to be more independent?

Here are some tips:

  • Ensure that what you are asking the student to do is truly within his skill set.
  • Provide visually clear targets for what a completed task will look like (e.g., a picture of a student fully clothed in the appropriate outerwear to go out for recess; a model paragraph identifying the types and number of sentences required, etc.)
  • Break the task down into smaller chunks. Where possible, teach the student to break tasks down. Create a visual outline of the steps (pictures or words).
  • Provide motivation. Use topics of interest within tasks (e.g. writing a paragraph about a favorite item). Use incentives (e.g. “when you finish this step you can read for 5 minutes.”; “when you get your boots on you can get a crazy carpet for sliding.”).
  • Focus on and reinforce independence once a skill is acquired. Doing a task independently is often more important than doing it perfectly or within a specific time frame!
  • Teach the student to ask for help. Many students with ASD don’t understand that asking for help is okay. Knowing you can ask for help when you need it allows for more confidence in doing a task independently.
  • Provide opportunities for independent work. Avoid the “helicopter” phenomenon i.e., the adult who hovers and jumps in to help at the first sign of difficulty. Make sure the student has several daily opportunities to do something independently.
  • Systematically fade adult prompts as the child is acquiring a skill. Remember that no matter what the child is learning, your job is not done until he can do the task independently.
  • Don’t forget to use visual tools, from pictures to checklists. We all use visual tools like calendars and grocery lists to independently complete our own tasks. Teaching a student to create or at least use these types of visual tools can be critical in developing independence.

For more information and resources on developing independence, check out the following resources:

Complexities of Instructional Support by Kim Davis In IRCA articles at http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=353

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Involving peers for engaging and supporting the student with ASD

Printer-friendly version
tools you can use
Tip of the Month:
January, 2011

Students with ASD may struggle with many aspects of the regular curriculum, or may display superior skills in some subject areas. Common areas of difficulty, regardless of academic strengths or challenges, can include problems with transitions, problems understanding social expectations such as personal space, turn-taking and sharing, and difficulty developing and sustaining positive social relationships. Given the right direction and support, peers can be very helpful in creating an environment that nurtures and respects the student with ASD, improving his or her self esteem, engagement and success. The biggest argument against sharing specific information about a child and his/her disability, specifically with peers, is that of increased stigmatization.
Research suggests that child-specific information presented within a broader curriculum about autism does not lead to stigmatization, and may in fact have the opposite effect of helping children better understand and accept their peers with autism. Here are some tips to consider when involving peers in your classroom:

  • Work with the family of the student with ASD to agree on what will be important for peers to know and understand about their son or daughter.
  • Provide classroom based instruction to all peers regarding acceptance of those with learning strengths and differences. There are excellent books and resources for teaching about neurodiversity that can sensitize the typical student to the effort that is required by someone with a biologically based social learning difficulty such as ASD. Some suggestions are provided below.
  • When assigning a peer to work with the student with ASD consider the strengths, interests and personalities of both children. Pair students who will enjoy each others company to enhance the probability of engagement and relationship development.
  • Model for peers the language and attitudes that will support the student with ASD. Provide non-judgmental feedback to peers regarding how to talk to the student with ASD unambiguously but positively about what they should or shouldn’t do.
  • Give some thought as to how you can showcase the strengths of the student with ASD. Can he or she help another student that is weak in an area in which the student with ASD excels?
  • Be alert to potential problems of bullying or teasing. Some research suggests that as many as 90% of students with Asperger’s syndrome have been negatively affected by bullying, teasing or social ostracization at some point in their school careers. Get to the bottom of any reports or complaints quickly and set up systems to prevent any reoccurrence.


Smith, S.E. A multi-component autism awareness training for typical peers. As presented at the Autism Society 41st National Conference and Exposition, Dallas Texas, July, 2010

Check out the following resources for more information:

The Sixth Sense II by Carol Gray. Classroom based lessons for developing understanding of the challenges of ASD. Most useful for elementary school students.

A Q & A for kindergarten students can be found at http://www.hamiltonhealthsciences.ca/workfiles/ASDP/230%20-%20Peer%20Awa...

A free downloadable Powerpoint presentation and student activities pack created in the U.K. (2008) by T.E.S. Connect is available at http://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resource/Autism-Awareness-Peer-Support-Pac... . Most useful for elementary school students.

A document providing guidelines for peer awareness training developed by a school district in the U.K. is available at http://www.highlandschools-virtualib.org.uk/hasen/peer/PPSHASENArticle%5... (useful for older and higher function students).

Walking the Autism Mile suggests classroom based activities that can help students of all ages better understand the challenges of ASD. Available at http://speakingofkidsmentalhealth.ca/resource/walking-autism-mile

That’s What’s Different About Me by Heather McCracken. A DVD and program to teach autism awareness to young children.

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Why won't (or can't) he write?

Printer-friendly version
Tip of the Month:
December, 2010

Many students with ASD who have average to better intelligence with adequate verbal skills display significant difficulty with written output. It is often confusing to teachers when the student uses good vocabulary and sentence structure orally and seems to have good ideas, but doesn’t manage to get them down on paper. There can be a tendency to see the avoidance of written output as laziness at best and defiance at worst. This month’s tip will identify some common reasons for written output difficulties in students with ASD and will recommend some helpful strategies to address the issue.

poor fine motor control

Common symptoms include

  • awkward pencil grasp
  • presses too lightly with pencil
  • presses too hard with pencil (pencil goes right through paper)
  • printing or writing is illegible

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • refer to occupational therapy for activities to develop fine motor control
  • refer to occupational therapy for assessment of posture/ seating for writing activities
  • allow use of assistive technologies (e.g. computers, Fusion writer)
  • reduce amount of writing required

poor ability to mentally organize information (executive function)

Common symptoms include

  • can’t get started… doesn’t know what to write first
  • orally, may tell stories in a disjointed fashion
  • can answer “detail” questions but has difficulty with synthesis (main idea)

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • model and teach the use of webs to organize information before starting to write.
  • use computer based tools to help student learn to plan and organize e.g. Kidspiration, Inspiration, Kurzweil
  • provide frames for writing with sample starter sentences, conclusion sentences, etc.
  • use cloze activities (fill in the blank) to help student share knowledge

poor ability to manage time, and/or maintain attention to task. (executive function)

Common symptoms include

  • easily distracted by external or internal stimuli
  • over focuses on one component of task (e.g. perfect formation of letters, spelling, a detail of little importance to the overall meaning)

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • teach student to “chunk” writing task and set “mini” goals
  • set timelines (be generous!) for completion of each chunk. Use a visual timer
  • provide frequent check-ins and support as necessary
  • provide encouragement and incentives as necessary


Common symptoms include

  • student erases frequently
  • student is easily discouraged… may shut down or get angry

Strategies that can help with this difficulty:

  • reinforce the student’s good ideas
  • allow alternate ways to show knowledge that let student use his strength (e.g. drawing a picture, creating a powerpoint on the computer, doing an oral presentation)
  • set small, easily achievable goals
  • provide frequent relaxation or calm down breaks

The list above is not comprehensive but does cover some of the most common reasons students with ASD may struggle with written output.

for more ideas

For more ideas on helping the child with written output difficulties, check out the following:

See Thomas, a student with ASD and a SET BC client using technology to assist written output at http://www.setbc.org/setbc/topics/alphasmart_supported_writing_classroom... .

See Riley, another SET BC student with ASD using technology to assist him in organizing ideas and writing independently at http://www.setbc.org/setbc/topics/journal_writing_for_clicker_4_riley.html

SET BC support is available to students with ASD in BC schools.

An older resource from SET BC provides “blueprints” for different writing activities that step a student through what he needs to write in each section of a journal, a report, a story, etc. Available at http://www.setbc.org/Download/LearningCentre/Topics/blueprint.pdf

You might also be interested in the following books:

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Including students with intellectual disabilities

Printer-friendly version
Tip of the Month:
November, 2010

Including students with intellectual disabilities…

Students with an ASD and an intellectual disability (I.Q. score of less than 70) most often receive their education in regular classrooms in B.C., often with some support from a teaching assistant. More and more teachers are gaining experience in using strategies to successfully include and educate the ASD student with intellectual disabilities. It can be challenging for teachers to determine how best to address the adaptive skills these students need to learn in the context of an integrated environment. Common adaptive skills that need to be addressed in students with intellectual disabilities include:

  • communicating with others;
  • social skills (manners, knowing the rules of conversation, getting along in a group, playing a game);
  • reading, writing, and basic math;
  • taking care of personal needs (dressing, bathing, going to the bathroom);
  • health and safety;
  • home living (helping to set the table, cleaning the house, or cooking dinner);
  • workplace skills

If you are new to including a student with ASD and intellectual disabilities in your classroom, the following tips may help:

  • Try not to pre-judge in which activities the student can and cannot participate in the classroom based solely on his current academic abilities or level of intellectual disability. Although the student may not be learning at the same level or learning the same material as other students, inclusion in typical classroom activities can create many opportunities to develop the child’s social and communication skills, as well as his understanding of literacy and numeracy.
  • Use competent and supportive peers to help support the student with intellectual disabilities. Students with average to above average intellectual abilities often benefit greatly by being paired with a student with intellectual disabilities. The pairing can help develop empathy and often increases the helping student’s positive self concept. It can serve as a way to consolidate the typical student’s learning as he helps “teach” the student with disabilities what he knows.
  • Work closely with parents and the school based team to determine priorities for the student included in your classroom. The idea of “starting with the end in mind” is important. Ask each member of the team what they most hope the student will gain during this school year and in the future. Use this information to guide your decisions as to how to include the student in classroom activities.
  • When addressing objectives that fall more in the domain of self care or life skills consider how you might celebrate or include the learning of these skills in the classroom context e.g. if the student is engaged in a cooking program with the support worker, perhaps he can share what he has helped cook with class; if he is working on laundry, perhaps he can be “in charge” of collecting and washing team uniforms or classroom paint shirts.
  • Real inclusion means providing roles that are important and appreciated by others. Point out the strengths and interests of the student with intellectual disabilities to his typical peers. Model and encourage them in acknowledging him when he participates in or contributes to the group.

Check out the following resources for a wealth of ideas on successfully including students with ASD and/or intellectual disabilities in your classroom:

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Emotional Regulation

Printer-friendly version
Emotional Regulation
Tip of the Month:
October, 2010

Many children with ASD have difficulty recognizing and understanding their own emotions, let alone those of others. In addition, they may lack the ability to express their emotions at an age appropriate level. This can be particularly disconcerting in the child who seems to have good verbal skills. Teachers, peers and others may interpret the child’s lack of emotional understanding and control as deliberate or willful and, by their reactions, create more stress or distress in the child with emotional regulation difficulties. Interventions specifically targeting the development of emotional regulation skills are not nearly as common as those that target communication or social skills development, yet an inability to regulate one’s emotions has a huge impact on his or her ability to be successful in social, school and work settings.

If your student or child experiences difficulty with emotional regulation or control, here are some tips that may help:

  • When you see early signs of escalating emotional distress in your child, label it for him (e.g. "It looks like you’re getting worried/ mad/ sad… " etc.). Then, model a coping strategy that you think might work for him (e.g. "When I’m worried I sometimes… take a break, read a favorite book, draw a picture," etc.).
  • Teach your child specific relaxation and coping strategies e.g. controlled breathing, muscle relaxation, visualization.
  • Teach and practice with your child healthy eating habits and sleeping patterns as a way of improving resilience.
  • Use games and stories that help your child recognize emotional and social cues such as facial expression. “Guess the feeling” can be a great game for charades at home or in primary classrooms.
  • Provide an environment that is supportive and minimizes negative environmental elements such as sensory overload, social isolation or bullying.

Above: Can be adapted for students of all ages and abilities

Above: Most appropriate for individuals with AS or HFA, middle to high school.

Above: Geared towards pre-school or primary-aged individuals.

Above: A systematic approach to teaching relaxation to adults and children with special needs by J. Cautella and June Groden..

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

I can't or I won't...?

Printer-friendly version
Tip of the Month:
September, 2010

Many students with ASD have behavioural tendencies that are viewed by others as “oppositional”. They refuse to try new things and seem to only want to do something if it is their own idea. There are many reasons this might be occurring, including:

  • Lack of belief in his own abilities or competencies.
  • Fear or anxiety around his ability to do something new “perfectly”.
  • A preference for doing things the same way over and over.
  • A sensory sensitivity involved with the activity you want him to try.

These behaviours can be challenging for parents of typical children but can be much more difficult to manage if your child has an ASD.

Try these tips when introducing a new activity:

  • Talk about the new activity prior to creating an expectation that your son or daughter try it.
  • With your child, watch others do the activity several times and draw your child’s attention to the parts of the activity you know he can do.
  • If your child has a special interest or a favorite character, write a story about the new activity incorporating the character or the interest. Read the story to him.
  • Allow him to explore materials related to the activity prior to suggesting he try the activity (e.g. soccer ball, soccer shoes for soccer, skipping rope for skipping).
  • Be realistic in your expectations. Many students with ASD experience difficulty learning complex motor routines such as tying shoes or engaging in sports. Don’t allow others to pressure you into pushing your child to try a task for which he’s not ready.
  • Avoid getting into an argument of the “yes you can” / “no I can’t” variety. Verbal children with ASD may engage in the argument as a way of putting off trying something. They may also become more entrenched in their belief as they stack up arguments against doing what you propose.
  • Provide choice when you introduce a new activity e.g. what to wear, what to do first, which role to take, when to do the activity, etc.
  • Don’t give up. Patience and persistence have paid off for many families who have a child with ASD who is reluctant to join in.
  • If your child’s oppositional behaviours persist or escalate, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Specialists in behavioural analysis or a counselor with experience in ASD may help you develop a plan that will work for you. In BC, Autism Community Training can provide a list of approved service providers for your area.

The following resources may be helpful in getting your child to try new things:

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Back to School

Printer-friendly version
Tip of the Month:
August, 2010

Most parents are quite delighted when its time for their child to go back to school in the fall. The routines and predictability can actually relieve stress for many of us. And isn’t it great that you don’t have to hear “But there’s nothing to do!” every hour of the day? Children with ASD often also enjoy returning to more predictable routines, but the transition from more “free” or unstructured time to one in which timelines become critical is not always easy. Here are some tips to help facilitate a smooth transition into the new school year.

  • About two weeks before school will start, try to re-establish bed times and morning routines that you will need to have in place when school starts. Sometimes it helps to do this gradually… e.g. start by making bedtimes 15 minutes earlier, then ½ hour earlier, etc.
  • Find out as much information as you can about what the “first day” back will look like for your son or daughter. Teachers are often in their classrooms during the week before school and this would be a great time to go in and take pictures of your child’s classroom or even take him in for a visit. Be sure to call first… the principal is often the person who can make these arrangements.
  • For older or more able students, help them prepare a questionnaire for their teacher to ask questions that are important to them. If you are unable to arrange to have your child meet with the teacher to ask the questions in person, ask the principal if you can drop the questionnaire off to be picked up later. Including a “thank-you” note for the teacher can be a nice touch and helps build those all important relationships! We’ve included a sample questionnaire below that you can adapt for your use.
  • If your child struggles with verbal communication, help him build a portfolio or “all about me” book that includes pictures of himself, your family and pets, special events or collections. Highlight his strengths and interests. He can use this book to help others get to know him at school.
  • Use a calendar to mark off the days until school starts so your child gets used to the idea and gets prepared.
  • Arrange for your child to “buddy” up with another child who will be in his class if at all possible.
  • If your child will have an educational assistant, phone the school and ask to arrange a meeting with your child and the assistant on the first day of school.
  • Deal with any reluctance or anxiety your child may have about returning to school. It is often best not to dwell too much on school anxiety, thus giving the anxiety more “weight” in the mind of the child. However, you can’t ignore it either. Be calm and matter of fact. Find out the answers to your child’s questions and put them in writing or pictures that he can refer to.
  • Arrange for special activities or rewards for the first couple of weeks back. This can be especially helpful for the child who tends to worry about everything. Special activities or rewards can help take his mind off what he may perceive as “negative”.

Click here for another great website which provides a list of other sites that provide suggestions and resources you may find helpful in supporting a smooth transition back to school.

Questions About Your Class20.5 KB

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Summer Time = Screen Time?

Printer-friendly version
Tools you can use
Tip of the Month:
July, 2010

All he wants to do is watch TV or play on the computer!

Almost daily parents are bombarded with information and warnings about the negative impact of too much television, computer and video game use in typical children. The message is that our children are spending “excessive” amounts of time in these activities contributing to everything from increased rates of obesity to anti-social behaviours.

On the other hand, autism websites often tell parents about the benefits of activities such as computer based learning and video modeling. A parent we know recently attributed a set of social skills videos she had purchased as having the single greatest impact on her ASD son’s ability to be successful in high school! Recent research on the use of electronic screen media (ESM) (Shane and Albert, 2008) also suggests that children with ASD show a strong preference for these activities compared to other activities such as reading, toy play or interactive play.

So, what’s a parent to do? The following tips may help::

  • Don’t feel guilty that your son or daughter prefers to spend more time watching television or movies or playing on the computer than engaging in other activities. This is very common in ASD and seems to reflect a tendency for strong visual learning and a need for sameness and predictability.
  • Do be aware of what your son or daughter is doing or watching on the computer or television. Research suggests that they are learning and may imitate what they see or hear. Make sure it is something you want them to learn!
  • Don’t worry if they prefer to watch the same segment of a movie or activity over and over. Again this is typical in ASD and is often very soothing to many students.
  • Do try to broaden their horizons by gently introducing other titles that you think will have appeal. Many children with ASD seem to prefer animation as opposed to real life
  • Don’t let them spend all their leisure time on the use of ESM. You can use highly preferred ESM activities as rewards or incentives for engaging in less preferred activities (e.g. chores) or for engaging in an interactive play activity with you, with a sibling, or with a playmate.
  • Do try to spend time with them when they are playing or watching ESM. Join in if they attempt to imitate a segment. Appreciate their pleasure. Watching ESM together may be your foundation for teaching reciprocal interaction, literacy, or recognition of states of mind.
  • Don’t let your child have free access to everything on TV or the internet. Use parental controls to limit access to objectionable content (e.g. violence).
  • Lastly,do set limits and rules. Put them in writing. Use a timer. Be consistent. Your child will benefit from the structure you provide and you will be happier knowing that you are doing what is right for your child.

Click here for a list of weblinks for free games and other activities.

Here's a DVD you might find useful:

links to games and other activities31 KB

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.

Summertime, and the living is easy... or not?

Printer-friendly version
Summertime, and the living is easy... or not?
Tip of the Month:
June, 2010

Although students with ASD often have challenges at school, they are also often quite supported by the structure and routine that school provides. For many, summer is a time of unpredictability and uncertainty. This can create anxiety and contribute to a number of challenging behaviours.

Here are some tips that may help your family and your ASD child cope with the summertime blues:

  • Get a calendar that can be used with your child. Large wipe off calendars are fun to use and available at most stationary stores. Use different colored markers to write down special events, vacations or trips. Use other colors to alert the child that nothing is planned yet for particular days. Mark off days when the child may be in daycare or participating in lessons or other activities. Post the calendar where your child can see it and talk about it often with him.
  • Create an “oops” or “oh oh” icon or symbol that you can use to let your son or daughter know that a change in plans must be made. Put the symbol on the calendar and show him as soon as possible that you must make a different plan.
  • Create a list of “rainy day” or “change of plans” activities. Make them special, that is, things you wouldn’t play with, use or do everyday. Some parents we know create a “rainy day box” which contains items from the dollar store that will amuse their son or daughter when there is a day when plans have to change.
  • Create a sample schedule for what an “unstructured” or “unplanned” day might look like. Include options and choices so your child is not left with the total uncertainty of a “blank slate”.
  • If you travel, take the calendar with you. Engage your son or daughter in a daily ritual of looking at the calendar and counting days as they go by. Don’t forget to have a few favorite items or sensory supports with you on your trip to ease the stress of travel.
  • Don’t forget to make time for yourself. If you are working and taking care of your family and your child with ASD, it’s important for you to find time to relax and enjoy the summer yourself. A “mini vacation” of an hour or two a week away from typical demands can help rejuvenate you and improve your resiliency.

Clipart and a Calendar you can use77 KB

Click here to view our archived tips of the month.