Every year I have a set of mostly new students in their life skills /self-contained classrooms, and some added throughout the year. Many of these are middle school students. Most were diagnosed and started getting treatment in preschool or even infancy. They have gotten a LOT of therapy from a lot of specialists.
They’re extremely wary of new clinicians the beginning of the school year. I don’t blame them. They have lots of questions, some of which I’m guessing at, as most of my students have limited ability to express them.
- Why am I in a new place?
- Where is my old teacher?
- Who is this new lady?
- Why won’t she leave me alone?
- Why can’t I stay home like I did last month?
- What happened to my regular schedule?
- WHY IS SHE TRYING TO MAKE ME DO THIS THING I AM BAD AT?!?!! (especially common in older artic students)
Looking past “This will just be difficult at first because autism.”
So my students have a lot of reasons to have reservations. Students on the spectrum like their routines, sure. But it can be more than that. They have trouble reading social cues, it can be harder for them to understand who to trust. They’re not great at predicting what other humans will do next, which can cause a lot of anxiety. A lot of students I have worked with are very anxious. (A 2009 review paper said that it’s more common in teens on the spectrum, but was unclear how much more; the authors conceded that in some cases anxiety may be a component of ASD rather than a separate thing https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2692135/)
An observation based on my experiences: kids in mod-severe will do things for you because they like you and they’re feeling calm and regulated, so it’s easy. They will not do things for you because you’re the adult. Appeals to authority almost never work. They flatly don’t care.
(And I kind of love this about them. Why should they? As a neurotypical kid I understood the rules and generally followed them, but the whole “sure, I’ll do whatever this new adult says” thing can be problematic for a number of reasons.)
So, how do I deal?
- I come in calm and gentle. (This is no time to be showing anyone who’s boss. They’ll figure that out once they know you’re not interested in hurting them or making them do things they hate.)
- I make sure my toys and games aren’t just fun, they’re irresistible. Some of my favorites are magnet blocks, turn-based games that snap or jump (crocodile dentist, pop up pirate), and good old Cariboo.
- Session one may include no “work” tasks at all as I do an informal play-based assessment of skills. How’s joint attention? How many turns can they take? What do they do when someone else wants a turn? Do they build with the blocks, or just stack with them? How do they request? What puts them at ease and what makes them more tense? Are they commenting, requesting, refusing, directing attention or actions of others? How close are they to doing their IEP goal as written spontaneously?
- For really challenging kids with a lot of behaviors, I may increase the workload as little as 3-5 minutes a session. Session 1 is working 3/30 minutes, session two is 6/30, etc. The trick is to keep coming to speech voluntary while increasing demands in a way that’s largely invisible to the student.
- Functional life skills teachers (especially the ones I work with) are amazing. They’re eager to facilitate carryover once they have the information they need. (How do we get them the information they need? This is probably another post for another day.)
Overall, I think the above approach (building relationships, safety and ease rather than barging in, guns a-blazing, with work tasks) characterizes my approach. Do I get quite as much goal data in the first month or so? Possibly not. Do my life skills students make terrific gains over time because they feel safe and at ease? Absolutely.