Why Swimming and Water Play Benefit Kids with ASD

By Ashley Williams, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA

Many children with autism are drawn to water for its calming, sensory experience. In fact, a 2015 study[1] found that children with ASD enjoy swimming significantly more than children without ASD. And while water can present a safety concern, water play and swimming also offer several benefits for children with ASD.

How can you build on your child’s interest with activities that promote safe and fun water exploration? Here, I offer ideas and share the benefits of swimming and water play for kids with ASD.

1.     Leisure skills

Swimming and water play are great alternatives to many sedentary leisure activities in which children engage, such as playing online games or watching videos on screens. Many families of children with autism report difficulty finding non-electronic leisure activities for their child. And while your child may have other interests, it can be an added challenge to find activities that will sustain their attention for longer periods. Ideal for encouraging more extended periods of independent leisure time in children with autism, water play offers a great solution.

Try, for instance, setting up a water table with different sized cups and tools for pouring, scooping, and squirting water. This activity particularly benefits kids who are learning to explore water safely but don’t yet have interest in or safety skills for independent play in a pool.

2.     Physical health

It probably comes as no surprise that swimming and active water play offer fun ways to integrate movement and physical activity into your child’s day. Swimming represents a low-impact exercise and can boost cardiovascular health, while building strength and endurance.

To promote physical health during swimming, practice “bobbing” in the water. If your child does not like water on their face, practice jumping in shallow water. Encourage vocal verbal skills, such as counting, by modeling counting out loud or having your child count or spell as they bob or jump in the water.

3.     Creativity and imaginary play

Swimming and water play offer endless ways in which children can play, allowing you and your child to create new games and use your imaginations to explore the water.

You can investigate the buoyancy of different objects by seeing which objects sink or float. Ask your child to select some water-safe toys, and watch as the toys sink or float in the pool, water table, or shallow bin of water. Another visual, sensory activity involves dribbling a few drops of food coloring and observing how different colors diffuse in the water. For added fun, provide bubbles, sponges, or a toothbrush—and watch what your child can do or create.

4.     Family time

Some families report difficulty in identifying shared interests with their child with ASD, and many children with autism have narrow or restricted interests[2]. However, thinking creatively about safe water play may help you identify additional interests for your child that are shared with siblings and caregivers alike. Family time in the pool or during water play can create a shared activity and interest for the whole family to take part in and enjoy, while giving you a chance to cool off on a hot day.

Encourage your child’s communication by asking questions about what they see, hear, and touch. Do you notice floating leaves, frogs, or beetles that have made their way into the pool? Use these sensory experiences in the water to ask questions, share interest in the water, and promote communication. Your child can practice pointing, nodding, or responding vocally to your questions about your shared environment.

As you enter the last stretch of summer, use these tips to promote fun and safe water exploration. Then, when your child builds confidence in and around the water, consider swim lessons that teach your child water safety. And while the ultimate goal of swim lessons is to teach your child to swim, safety skills like floating, exiting a pool independently, and holding on to a ledge or wall are often taught first. To learn more, read our blog post “5 Steps to Swim Safety for Your Child with Autism.”

[1] Eversole, Megan, Collins, Diane M, Karmarkar, Amol, Colton, Lisa, Quinn, Jill Phillips, Karsbaek, Rita, . . . Hilton, Claudia L. (2016). Leisure Activity Enjoyment of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(1), 10-20.

[2] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Six Steps to Prepare Your Child with Autism to Interact with Police

Blaring lights, screeching sirens, looming strangers with shiny badges—encounters with police can bring an overload of sensory experiences, making it difficult for kids and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to respond calmly to an approaching officer. As headlines report and data reflects, these encounters can lead officers to assume people with autism are defiant individuals who purposefully evade questions, refuse to make eye contact, and engage in physical behaviors interpreted as unruly or disrespectful.

The list of misguided assumptions is long—and the consequences alarming, ranging from New York police officers throwing a 17-year-old to the ground and punching him in the face to an officer at a North Carolina school restraining a seven-year-old in handcuffs on the floor for 38 minutes. Likewise, in 2017, an Arizona police officer pinned a 14-year-old to the ground, mistaking the young man as a drug user, instead of a teen with autism attempting to calm himself by stimming.

Sadly, incidents like these increase for black and brown kids and adults with ASD, with studies indicating a higher risk of a violent encounter. As Jackie Spinner, an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago and parent, writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: “I worry that as a teenager or young black man, if my son wears a hoodie, someone might call the police because he looks threatening. If police approach him and he doesn’t react in a typical way, would they wrestle him to the ground? … would my son beg for breath?”

As stories like these accumulate, autism advocates, parents, and legislators alike are speaking up about the need to train police to better recognize and understand ASD—and, on the flip side, train individuals with autism to interact effectively with police. How can you, as parents and caregivers, attempt to safeguard your child with ASD from a negative, or, worse yet, tragic, encounter with police? Here’s what we recommend:

1. Find out what training, if any, local police receive on ASD.

With research linking a higher rate of police violence to individuals with autism and other disabilities (see, for instance, a 2017 study from Drexel University, in addition to 2019 research from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), efforts are underway to pass legislation enforcing more and better national mental health and disabilities training for police. Under review now is the Law Enforcement Education and Accountability for People with Disabilities (LEAD) Initiative, which includes the Safe Interactions Act (SIA) and the Emergency Logistics Program (HELP) Act. To learn more about and even encourage your legislators to support these bills, visit the Autism Society’s Action Center.

Meanwhile, ask your local police station if their officers have undergone training on autism, whether at the county, state, or national level. In some states, like Florida, for instance, training is mandatory, but in plenty of states, it’s not. Many autism organizations provide flyers and fact sheets about ASD for law enforcement agencies and first responders. The National Autism Association’s free guide “Meet the Police” includes a great “What Is Autism” handout created especially for families to share with police.

2. Register your child with local law enforcement.

Another safety measure you can take is to register your child with your local police precinct and 911 database dispatch. To register, ask your local autism organization or police station for a form, which typically includes your child’s photo, contact information, medications, diagnoses (including allergies), behaviors, sensory issues, and calming mechanisms. That way, if the police is ever called to your house, your location will be flagged in the system, and the officer can learn about your child’s autism ahead of time. Likewise, if your child wanders or elopes, police and first responders can more quickly determine the best course of action to help your child through the stressful experience.

Keep in mind, too, that you can ask for officers trained in crisis intervention to help if your child or a loved one experiences a psychiatric emergency. Likewise, mental health helplines exist at national, state, and local levels to assist with deescalating (or reducing the intensity of) individuals in crisis. For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers free crisis counseling 24 hours a day. You can text NAMI at 741-741 to access these services.

3. Have your child carry an ID card, wear a medic alert bracelet—or both.

Dozens of identification cards exist on the market—or are available for free—that your child can carry in a wallet or pocket. Cards include basic information like your child’s name, age, diagnosis, and medications, in addition to the same ASD-specific information from the police registration form. See this list of ID card options from Autism Speaks. Keep in mind, too, that kids and teens who carry ID cards need to be trained not to reach in their pocket for the card without first alerting the officer, who could mistake the action as a reach for, say, a gun or knife.

Another option is to wear a medic alert bracelet. Many bracelets on the market now come with technologies like QR codes that allow law enforcement or first respondents to scan the bracelet to access information about your child from a database. These tech-based options require the extra step of uploading and remembering to update information, but when used appropriately, these bracelets can avert crises and save lives. Traditional options with engraved information can also work, and first responders are trained to look for the tell-tale stainless-steel bracelet with the blue or red snake with a stick and Star of Life. Plus, you can engrave essential information, such as “Autism” and “Tree nut allergy” on the back side.

4. Practice and role-play police encounters.

The more kids and teens can practice how to interact with police, the better prepared they’ll be in an encounter. In fact, researchers at the Center for Autism Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are experimenting with virtual reality training simulations for kids and adults on the spectrum, making it convenient to practice endless police encounters. While the simulation isn’t available yet, realize that you can role-play police encounters with your child the old-fashioned way at home. How?

Simply take turns being a police officer and a child with autism, adding whatever props you have on hand. As you play, teach your child to follow these tips from Pathfinders for Autism about interacting with law enforcement:

  • Always show your hands. Never put your hands in pockets or grab for something in a bag.
  • Stay in place—do not run.
  • Never attempt to touch or hug a police officer. The same goes for an officer’s dog.
  • Try not to stand too close to the officer. If you’re not sure about your distance, ask the officer, “Am I standing far enough from you?”
  • Do your best to tell the officer that you have autism.
  • If you don’t understand something, do your best to communicate that to the officer.

For examples of how to interact safely with police, watch Be Safe: The Movie, which features real actors with autism modeling appropriate encounters with real police officers. The film is broken up into seven episodes that, together, covers everything from disclosing a disability to police to expressing the right to remain silent. Created as an interactive tool, the film sets up opportunities for viewers to model and practice various scenarios—making it a perfect tool for role-playing.

5. Don’t forget social stories and picture books.

Of course, one way to prepare kids with autism for new experiences is to use social stories and books. Social stories are visual narratives that illustrate someone’s experience navigating an unfamiliar or potentially stressful situation or problem. In this sense, social stories give kids a chance to “practice,” in an indirect way, various scenarios with police. They can also reinforce key concepts and behaviors. Depending on the age of your child, you can work together to create a social story or create one yourself. You can also check with your autism provider about creating a series related to police encounters.

Picture books, too, can increase your child’s exposure to the role of the police, while helping your autistic child build language and communication skills. Explore this list of police-themed picture books, and another for children’s books about Black Lives Matter.

6. Use arts, crafts, and games to talk about racism, ableism, and the police.

Racism and ableism are sensitive topics that can feel difficult to broach, especially with young kids. You can make it easier by using art, crafts, and games. The Anti-Defamation League offers several ideas that use both crafts and games to initiate conversations about respect, diversity, inclusion, bias, and social justice. In one, kids create an outdoor obstacle course that everyone can access, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. In another, they design their own emojis that reflect aspects of their identity and culture.

As your family becomes more comfortable talking about things like racism and ableism, and as your child grows older, you can go deeper by exploring topics together like the history of the police force in the United States or the effect of George Floyd’s death on our communities. Two helpful places to find information on social justice issues presented in kid-friendly ways are the Southern Poverty Law Center’s initiative Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) and the New York Times’ Learning Network. Both offer ideas for educators and caregivers—and even publish young voices speaking out, writing about, and creating art reflective of efforts to create a more inclusive and equitable world.

As you take these steps to prepare your child or teen for a police encounter, remember that you can talk to your autism provider—and ask for help. At LEARN Behavioral’s national team of providers, we partner with parents to tailor treatment to the needs of your child and family. We also value social justice issues like the one presented here and believe in celebrating what makes each of us unique. Watch our video, “LEARN Continues to Push Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative Forward,” to find out more.

Spotlight on Diversity in ABA: An Interview with Giovanna “G” Bosco

Giovanna “G” Bosco (she/they), a training tech at LEARN Behavioral and AST’s Mandeville, Louisiana, location, spends the bulk of their days preparing and onboarding staff to join the LEARN and AST team. When a friend from another AST region mentioned the open position, G’s love of being around children prompted her to apply. Then, after the job offer arrived, they jumped at the chance to work with kids regularly—and spend her days making a difference in the lives of others.

G took time recently to talk about their work with LEARN’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Plan, along with her experience working in ABA at AST. Here, we share the conversation.

Q: What does Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) mean to you:

A: To me, diversity is an adjective I use to describe the environment in which I like to place myself. When I think about those individuals I call my friends, co-workers, and fellow community members, I think about how no single person is like another. We each look different, have different social histories, and may even differ on how we function neurologically. Although we may be different from one another, I can learn from each of them things that I would never know if I only surrounded myself with people who look and act like me.

Equity is about establishing a level playing field. I am aware of the privilege I have, and it isn’t enough to ask that those who were not born into same privilege be treated equal. I want everyone to have access to the resources that will ensure everyone has the same fighting chance to be successful in life. Inclusion, or to include others, is an action I decide to do each day. It involves creating an environment that welcomes others and makes them feel safe and secure.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of working in a diverse environment?

A: Where I live, in Louisiana, the population isn’t all that diverse. So, the most challenging aspect I could identify is in communication, and how I work and relate with new hires who come through training. But recognizing the role communication plays in any interaction with another person is probably a challenge we could all benefit from realizing and thinking more about. As I mentioned, we all have our own differences (internal and external), and recognizing and appreciating that can go a long way. But it’s not always the most intuitive thing to do.

Q: What is your approach to understanding the perspectives of colleagues or clients from different backgrounds?

A: I think the most important thing to do is to create a safe space where people can come forward and explain their perspective on the situation. We might all have different ideas on how to complete tasks or how to address certain situations, but if those involved and I are respectful and open of other ideas, a solution can almost always be found.

Q: Why is DEI important in ABA?

A: In our line of work, it is never just about the diagnosis. Our clients are diverse racially, religiously, and in so many other ways. These social identities will always intersect with their diagnosis, and you cannot serve a client without addressing all of the factors that make them them. So, I think DEI in ABA is important for many reasons. Having a diverse staff can help improve the services we give to our clients and their families … and having staff who are self-aware and willing to learn about each client’s culture will only help us provide quality services. DEI can make us all better colleagues, friends, and neighbors, too.

Q: Tell me about a time when you advocated for diversity and inclusion in the workplace or in your personal life.

A: This one is difficult for me because I don’t truly feel like I’ve advocated for this in the workplace or in my personal life. It’s something that’s just felt inherent—this is coming from someone who always received the citizenship award growing up because I was friendly to everyone. So, I may not be so intentional on acting on it. It started with something my mom always told me: “If you see someone sitting alone, sit with them, even if they don’t want to talk.” I think, overall, that’s a pretty great starting point.

Q: What’s something most colleagues don’t know about you?

A: Most of my wonderful co-workers know that I have a beautiful wife and am part of the LGBTQIA+ community. However, something most of my colleagues don’t know about me is that I identify as non-binary.

To find out how and why we tailor ABA treatment to the unique needs and values of every client and family, read “Perspectives: Embracing Individuality in Behavior Analysis.”

8 Tips for Planning for a Successful Holiday for Your Autistic Child

The holidays are an exciting time as we share traditions, spend time with family, and navigate the different gatherings and celebrations. Holiday spirit can also bring holiday stress. We want to help you and your family have the most successful (and least stressful) season by offering our best practices and tips.


Start with Expectations

Having a positive and realistic mindset about what you want to create can make a big difference. What could go right this season? Keep an optimistic view of the possibilities for special moments you want to share. A winning holiday doesn’t have to mean extravagant plans. Consider what would be ideal, be prepared to accept when flexibility is needed, and look for the wins along the way.

Consider Comfort and Safety Needs

When visiting events or other homes, bring items you know will bring comfort for your child—things like earplugs (or headphones), fidgets, and soft clothes. When traveling, ask for needed accommodations from your airline and hotel. Make sure you are aware of possible water nearby and review crisis plans with loved ones.

Practice Before Events

Now is a great time to discuss upcoming changes to schedules and routines. Involve your child in the process whenever possible. Playing memory games with photos of those you will see this holiday season allows your child to identify matching names and faces. Establish a phrase or code word with your child to practice using when they need to take a break from events to calm down and relax.


Maintain Routines

During the holidays, change is inevitable but find ways to create or maintain routines for your child. What are things you can build into every day? Perhaps it’s something you do together each morning, afternoon, and evening (regardless of location). Utilizing visual supports like calendars and independent activity schedules can be helpful too.

Build in Fun!

Whether days are filled with errands or time at home, consider letting your child choose a couple of activities each morning for the day ahead. Here are some suggestions that might work for your family:

  • Bake something together
  • Do holiday arts and crafts
  • Take a drive to see holiday lights in your neighborhood, zoo, or garden
  • Help with decorations or gift wrapping
  • Sing along with holiday music

Consider Sensory Needs

Holiday meals can be tricky for some. Plan ahead for alternative foods that you know your child will eat. As we mentioned earlier, being mindful of dressing in (or packing extra) comfortable clothing can be helpful. Preferred items, such as toys or other objects that help promote calm for your child, are a good idea too. Consider making a sensory box that includes things to stimulate your child’s touch/sight/sound/taste/smell. Finally, establish a quiet “break space” that your child can utilize when needed.


Plan for Rest and Recovery

After each scheduled big event or outing, try to allow time for a quiet evening that follows. Start a list or document on your computer of things that went well that you want to repeat and ideas about what would make it easier next time.

Transition Back to School

Packing holiday decorations and unpacking clothes can be helpful signals to your child that things are moving back to the normal routine. Other visual cues like a countdown calendar for back to school can help prepare them. Show them when school starts and have them mark off the days. Leave extra time the first morning back to school so you can have a nice breakfast and move with ease into the day. If possible, organize a nice, calm activity after school and focus on what went well at the end of the day.

LEARN’s Kerry Hoops Uses Assent-Based Practice to Make COVID-19 Vaccination Comfortable for Kids with Autism

By: Katherine Johnson, M.S., BCBA

Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Vaccination visits can be terrifying for an autistic child – a new environment, unfamiliar sounds and smells, being touched by a stranger, and all of this culminating in a painful poke. Anxiety and unwillingness to sit for a vaccine shot can lead to parents and medical professionals winding up with a difficult decision: hold the child down against their will or forego the vaccine. At LEARN, we care about our clients’ health and the experience they have when receiving healthcare.

Recently, the Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP, a LEARN organization) partnered with the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin in a series of vaccine clinics. These events were carefully designed to provide families with autistic children a positive experience while receiving their COVID-19 vaccines.    

The clinics were held in a local children’s museum, and a pair of seasoned clinicians teamed up with each child, who had reviewed a vaccination social story before coming. Parents answered a questionnaire about their child’s experience with shots and specific interests in advance; clinicians used this information to build rapport with the child, make them comfortable, and provide distraction. Choice was built into the entire experience: children got to select toys, the type of bandage they received, and the body part where they would receive the shot. Clinicians also provided non-invasive devices to mitigate injection pain, like the Buzzy pain blocker, and shot blockers. The most intriguing part? Clinicians waited until the child indicated they were ready before giving them the vaccination.

The result was phenomenal: dozens of autistic children receiving their COVID-19 vaccine without a tear. Kerry Hoops, our Clinical Director at WEAP, said that one experience in particular stood out to her: a boy who was terrified that the shot would hurt, asking about it repeatedly. After assuring him they would not let the shot be a surprise, they spent some time doing one of his favorite activities: having races around the museum. They gave him the opportunity to watch his mother get the vaccine, and then took him to a sensory room in the facility where they watched wrestling (WWE) together. Getting him comfortable was a process that took nearly an hour, but the end result was a child who received his vaccine willingly, and left having had a positive experience.  “The coolest thing is seeing the parents’ responses,” said Hoops. “They were so happy because they were not expecting the vaccination experience to go as well as it did.”

The procedures Hoops and our other clinicians at LEARN used are all evidence-based practices commonly used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) called “antecedent interventions.” Frequently, interfering behaviors (like screaming or bolting from a doctor) occur because the child is trying to escape from something uncomfortable or scary. Antecedent interventions are meant to create an environment that the child doesn’t want to escape from. “We’re trying to create a positive experience so when they go in for their next vaccine, they’re not going to be afraid,” says Hoops.  

The most groundbreaking component of these vaccine clinics was it was not the medical professional who decided when it was time for the shot, nor was it the parent. It was the child. In addition to using antecedent interventions, our WEAP clinicians also had the medical professionals hold off on the procedure itself until the child had indicated they were willing to receive the vaccine – something known as “gaining assent.”  

Assent, having a pediatric patient agree to treatment, is a practice that has been required for medical research since 1977, citing the need to respect children as individuals. Since then, some practitioners have extended assent procedures to their regular pediatric practice, asking for the child’s permission before they listen to their heart, for instance. The new BACB ethics code includes a provision for “gaining assent when applicable,” and proponents argue that Assent-Based ABA prevents difficult behavior and teaches children critical self-advocacy skills. The ability to determine what is and is not comfortable and acceptable for oneself is particularly important for children who struggle to use language, or who are at higher risk of being misunderstood because they are autistic. At LEARN, Assent-Based Programming is one part of our overall Person-Centered ABA Initiative. 

Although Assent-Based practice doesn’t guarantee that every child will eventually agree to the procedure (2 children of the 73 children in the clinic did not assent to the vaccine), it was overwhelmingly successful. The impact was evident in the enthusiastic responses from parents afterward. One parent wrote, “Thank you for the BEST vaccination experience ever! Our family was overjoyed to have been part of this clinic.” 

LEARN is proud to announce that WEAP and ASGW are planning on expanding their vaccine clinics to regular children’s vaccines in the coming year. For more information, check out the ASGW’s website.

Kerry Hoops, MA, BCBA, is the clinical director for Wisconsin Early Autism Project’s Green Bay region. Kerry began her career helping children with autism over 20 years ago when she was attending UWGB for her bachelor’s in psychology and human development. She fell in love with the job and chose to work in the field of autism as her career. Kerry furthered her education at the Florida Institute of Technology and Ball State University with a master’s in applied behavior analysis and became a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). She loves helping children and families in Wisconsin and internationally in Malaysia. Kerry also works at the Greater Green Bay YMCA for the DREAM program, focusing on events for socialization for adults with special needs. She has been on the board of directors for the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin since 2014 and is the acting president.

LEARN more about LEARN’s Person-Centered ABA Initiative. And, to stay connected, join our newsletter.

Five Tips for Selecting the Best Holiday Gifts for Kids with Autism

Buying the perfect gift for kids and other loved ones can be challenging, and this can also be true when buying gifts for kids with autism. To help make your gift-giving easier, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when purchasing gifts for autistic children.

Focus on what brings the person joy.

Research shows that incorporating interests and preferences into the learning and play environment of kids with autism can increase positive behaviors and aid in skill acquisition (1). With that said, we can capitalize on what someone already likes. For example, if a child likes dogs, shop for games, activities, or toys that are dog-related. If a child enjoys swimming, activities that involve water play may be a hit (e.g., water tables, sprinkler toys, water beads, grow capsules). Alternatively, if a child is sensitive to loud noises, a toy fire truck with a siren may not be appropriate. Ask friends and family of the person for whom you are buying the gift what that person generally likes and/or dislikes.

Focus on the person’s strengths and abilities.

Many toys come with age recommendations, and while these recommendations are helpful, they might not always lead you to the perfect gift. A good rule of thumb when purchasing a gift is to consider the age and the development of the person for whom you are buying a gift. For example, the game “Apples to Apples” would not be developmentally appropriate for a non-verbal teen, even if it is an age-appropriate game. When looking for the right gift, focus on the person’s strengths. For instance, if the non-verbal teen mentioned above is great at drawing, then a sketch pad or an adult coloring book could be a more appropriate gift. If you are unsure about the child or teen’s strengths, ask a friend or family member of the person for whom you are buying the gift about their specialty areas and abilities.

Note: Be sensitive to how family and friends of a child and teen with autism may feel when being asked questions about the skills of their loved one. When asking questions, always frame them from the perspective of accomplishment (e.g., what skills have they mastered) and not deficit (e.g., in what areas are they delayed) to be supportive and respectful of their growth and development.

Be mindful of behavior triggers and safety risks.

Some children with autism engage in behaviors that put them or their loved ones at risk of harm. For example, if a child engages in pica (e.g., eating nonfood items), gifts containing small objects may pose as a choking hazard. Another example is if a child engages in aggression towards others, gifts with violent content may not be appropriate, as additional exposure to violence may interfere with their goals. Alternatively, a sensory-seeking child may benefit from gifts that allow them to stim. For example, if a child rocks back and forth, a swing may be a great way to meet their sensory needs. Additionally, certain objects can elicit sensory sensitivities which can trigger behaviors in some children and teens with autism (e.g., loud noises, highly preferred items, phobias, etc.). Ask friends and family of the person you are buying the gift for if there are any behaviors that possess a safety risk that need to be considered before purchasing a gift.

Focus on toys that encourage interaction with others.

Social deficits are a defining characteristic of autism. When gift-giving, try to purchase gifts that encourage social interaction. While almost any toy or game can be turned into a group play, certain activities may be more conducive to social interactions than others. For example, instead of buying a computer game, consider purchasing “Bop It,” which is an electronic interactive game that can be played among a group of friends or family.

Focus on finding new things they will love.

Children and teens with autism sometimes have restricted or limited interests (e.g., only talking about trucks or only playing with dinosaurs). To help build upon their current interests to introduce them to a wider range of activities, try finding new activities similar to their current interests. For example, if a child’s favorite activity is playing with “Play-Doh,” kinetic sand or slime may be an appropriate gift to help expand their interest due to its similarity in form of play. Ultimately, gifts that will provide new experiences may act as potential new reinforcers (e.g., stimuli that increase behaviors) and could significantly enrich the child or teen’s learning environment.


Increasing Task Engagement Using Preference or Choice-Making
Some Behavioral and Methodological Factors Affecting Their Efficacy as Classroom Interventions

For more holiday tips, check out Reducing Holiday Stress for Families of Children with Autism and Preparing for Holiday Meals.

Design Element Shape

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Help Your Child Build Friendships With Kids With Autism

The following is an interview published by Chicago Parent with LEARN Behavioral Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Hanna Rue, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

By: Claire Charlton

Your child likely has the opportunity to build friendships with kids on the autism spectrum. How can you help cultivate these unique relationships?

This back-to-school season, your child is settling into a new routine alongside children of many abilities, and as they are making new friends, now is a great time to encourage them to reach out and build a friendship with a child with autism. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, your child’s classroom, cafeteria, chess club, or ballet class will likely include a child with autism, says Hanna Rue, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Chief Clinical Officer with LEARN Behavioral.

Current statistics show that 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — for boys, the prevalence is four times higher and numbers vary from state to state, according to data from the CDC. “I’m never surprised when a parent comes to me and says their child has met a peer with typical autism characteristics in the classroom,” says Dr. Rue.

Kids with autism have strengths and challenges just like their neurotypical peers and can bring a lot of value to a friendship. “What I have found is that neurotypical kids are amazed that some kids with autism have the same special interests as they do,” Dr. Rue says. “Maybe they are passionate about zoo animals and can provide all sorts of information that neurotypical kids are impressed by.”

Each child is different and not every child mixes well with groups of peers. A child with autism is often able to look past differences or idiosyncrasies that can put off neurotypical peers, which makes them a good source of friendship for kids who struggle to fit in, Dr. Rue says.

While it may appear that kids with autism prefer to play alone, they really do enjoy companionship and sharing their interests with others. Here, Dr. Rue shares some wisdom about how to help your child build friendships with kids with autism.

How to make it happen

A child with autism may experience sensory sensitivities that neurotypical peers can empathize with. Loud noises, loud music, bright lights, even transitioning between activities can present challenges for some children.

“Sometimes a child with autism has challenges with communication and that can cause distress on either side,” Dr. Rue says. “I always tell folks if they are working with kids to develop friendships to allow for plenty of warm-up time.”

When planning a playdate, take it slow. Show your child’s new friend a quiet room in your home where they can take a break if needed, and recognize that if they take this break, it likely signals that they are overwhelmed, not disinterested. Communicate to your own child that everyone is frightened or overstimulated by something at some point and help them recognize their own fears or needs.

“I have seen some amazing pure human kindness across developmental stages,” says Dr. Rue. “When a child with autism has a meltdown, their friend can just sit and be in close proximity. They recognize independently that their friend is having a hard time. Or they assist with transitions through prompts like ‘follow me, sit at my table for lunch, hold my hand so you don’t get lost.’ Kids are pretty intuitive and can recognize that just being there and showing the way is a huge help.”

Parent encouragement can help blossoming friendships grow. Here’s what parents can do to support their children as they make and sustain friendships with kids with autism.

Talk about diversity early and often

When a parent is aware of their own child’s developmental level, they are better prepared to help them make friendships with anyone — and be inclusive on the playground and in the classroom, Dr. Rue says. This is best achieved by talking about differences on a regular basis.

“It’s important to introduce your child to diversity, especially if you live in an area where there isn’t a lot of diversity,” she says. “Read books, watch videos, and have open conversations about differences. In addition to talking about skin color, you can talk about different ways that kids communicate with each other, including the idiosyncrasies of flapping, body rocking, and squealing because this is a way of expressing joy or frustration.”

Model inclusive friendships

“We always have lots of opportunities to interact with other humans in our communities, from the playgrounds to the grocery stores,” Dr. Rue says. “This is the time to model appropriate interactions and show empathy, and then discuss it with your child.”

For younger kids, Dr. Rue is a big fan of Sesame Street’s inclusion of a character named Julia. “Julia has autism and I love for parents of neurotypical kids to watch Sesame Street with younger children and talk about Julia and how she is different. It’s a great opportunity for a shared moment of watching and talking about differences and acceptance.”

Offer a sympathetic ear to the child’s parents

Parenting a child with autism is stressful. “Research suggests that they experience more stress on a daily basis than parents of a child with a terminal illness. That’s a lot. Any small gesture, like saying hi or offering coffee or even just sitting and listening. Being an ear is very helpful,” Dr. Rue says.

Finally, have patience. Playdates can be easy but allow time for your child and their new friend to experience similar interests over a few visits. Help the other parent know that you understand and won’t give up after one meltdown or challenge.

“It’s so important to recognize that individuals with autism are all around us, doing great things,” says Dr. Rue. “We need to embrace that and learn about how to be supportive.”

For more school-related content, check out our blogs, “Five Steps to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends” and “Back to School: Homework Tips.”

Back to School: Homework Tips

Heading back to school can bring a number of challenges for our kids, especially those with autism. Navigating new environments, teachers, therapists, and peers can each be a bit scary but full of opportunity.

One very common request we get is about supporting autistic kids with their homework. How do you get your child to do his or her homework? There are many strategies to help keep your child on task; all of them tried and true. Here are some to consider:

Make It Easier by Sticking to a Schedule

Set a schedule and stick to it. Like any other priority, if homework always occurs at the same time, and the routine becomes ingrained, your child will eventually accept the routine. This is true for teeth brushing, baths, and all of the chores children prefer to avoid. Initially, it is hard to hold the line on the schedule, but it sure pays off later.

Reinforce the Message That Homework Is Important

Set the stage and set the tone. Show your child that homework time is important and respected. Give them a special place to sit. Ask siblings to be quiet or leave the area during homework time. Check in frequently to see how they are doing and intersperse praise throughout homework tasks. Show them that you care and are invested in their homework efforts, and help them feel successful and competent.

Motivate with Kindness

Be firm but encouraging. Everyone tends to push back when they are nagged. Try to avoid nagging when you are frustrated by your child’s efforts. By observing your own behavior, you can better support theirs. You can set expectations for what the homework routine looks like, but make sure to be encouraging and motivating, too. Remind your child what you believe their strengths are and why you are proud of what they are learning.

Positive Reinforcement is Powerful

Use rewards. It is OK to reward your child for completing their homework. They are doing something difficult every day. Consider giving a reward for being successful at participating in homework time (not getting everything correct). Eventually, as homework time becomes easier, you can shift rewards to more academic goals. It does not have to be an ice cream sundae. Find out what they might like to do with you after they are done. This can be an opportunity to consider setting aside quality time that you will enjoy.

Every Opportunity for Choice Increases Compliance

Giving choices has been proven to increase motivation. What choices can they have during homework time? It is important for you to keep the time and the expectations the same. But, can they choose where to sit? Can they choose what materials to write with or write on? Can they choose what task to begin with? Also, consider letting them choose their reward as well. Give them at least three options. Empowering them in this way can be very powerful. The more control they have over the task the more motivated they will be.

Interested in more back-to-school tips? Check out our blogs, “Five Steps to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends,” “This School Year, Build a Trusting Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher,” and “Tips for Reducing Back to School Anxiety.”


Tips for Reducing Back to School Anxiety

Getting ready for the new school year can be a hectic and exciting time. Transitioning from the extra playtime and novelty of summer back to the routine of the school year can be challenging. For children with autism (and their parents), all this change can feel overwhelming.

Here are some suggestions for how to help ease your child’s back-to-school anxieties:

Get a Sneak Peak
Scope out the school and classroom in advance. If your child is going into a new classroom, ask to visit it at least once before the first day of school. If transition has been a struggle in the past, consider taking as much time as your child needs to explore the classroom. Make it as much fun as possible, playing in each of the new areas.

Check Out Seat Assignments
For older children, ask the teacher if a seat assignment has been made. Do some enjoyable activities in that seat. If familiar classmates will be in the room, show where they will be sitting, too.

Rehearse New Activities
Find out from the teacher what new activities are planned. Then, prepare your child by performing, practicing, and talking about them. This rehearsal will reduce anxiety when the new activities come up in the first week of school.

Anticipate Sensory Overload
The noise and chaos of a typical classroom can sometimes be a bit much to handle. Establish a plan for what to do in this situation – perhaps there is a quiet room where your child can “take a break” for a short time.

Volunteer in the Classroom
Many teachers welcome assistance from parents. If your child’s teacher welcomes volunteers (and your schedule permits), your presence may be a source of comfort to your child during those challenging first weeks.

Going to school can pose many challenges for children with autism, as well as offer countless opportunities for building crucial social, language, and academic skills. Be positive and encouraging, and your child will be off to a great year!

Looking for more school-related tips for your child with autism? Check out our blogs, “Five Steps to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends” and “This School Year, Build a Trusting Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher.”

Neurodiversity – Origins and Impact

By Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Judy Singer is an autistic Australian social scientist. In the 1990’s, seeing echoes of her mother’s struggles in herself and her own daughter, it occurred to Singer that this common thread pointed to the possibility that their differences were actually neurological traits. They were having a first-hand experience of that part of biodiversity that is the natural range of variations in brain functioning: she coined it neurodiversity

The neurodiversity paradigm considers all brains to be normal; brain differences are simply the neurological counterpart to genetic variations in height, eye color, or hair color. Scientists consider such variation in biological traits to be essential to the health of individual populations and entire ecosystems.  When viewing autism through the lens of neurodiversity, it comes to light that some of the individual differences that have been assumed to need remediation in the past, may actually be important in helping society as a whole make progress through new and different ways of thinking. 

The concept of neurodiversity has been enthusiastically embraced by that portion of the autistic community who are able to speak, as it promises to alleviate some of the bias and discrimination they have experienced. Their common message? Specific words and types of support can have unintended negative effects, causing them to feel inferior, powerless, misunderstood.  

Arising from these negative experiences is a more widespread understanding of how words and actions affect the private events (thoughts and feelings) of people on the spectrum. ABA practitioners are charged by the BACB Ethical Code to “treat others with compassion, dignity, and respect,” and the voices of the neurodivergent convey essential information about ways to do this. 

LEARN’s Response

LEARN’s neurodiversity initiative is a direct result of listening to the insights of autistic folks who are able to express their experiences of living in a society that was built for neurotypical people. 

  • Development of a Person-Centered ABA workgroup – Learn Leadership charged a workgroup of clinical leaders with the task of supporting clinicians in reaching our vision for a neurodiversity-informed, Person-Centered ABA approach. The workgroup includes clinicians, supervisors, and clinical development individuals. 

  • Forming of a Neurodivergent Advisory Committee – The first action of the Person-Centered ABA workgroup was to formalize a process for getting input from the neurodivergent community.  The committee is made up of neurodivergent clinicians and non-clinicians who work at LEARN; they meet regularly to review and give feedback on articles, trainings, and other materials, and are compensated for their role on the committee.      

  • Co-creation of the Values Statement – The Person-Centered Workgroup and the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee co-created a values statement, entitled “LEARN Values Neurodiversity.” The statement was written in order to express our position to our clinicians and also guide subsequent actions by the Person-Centered ABA Workgroup. It was presented at an internal training and is available on our website. 
  • Communication – Shifting the mindset of a large organization doesn’t happen overnight. In order to connect regularly with our clinicians on person-centered topics, a portion of our monthly video message to clinicians includes information about subjects related to neurodiversity, such as ableism, assent, and including client input in treatment planning. It’s important that staff are not only hearing this information but also discussing it, so each month, clinical teams engage in discussions with their colleagues on these topics. 

  • Assent Leadership Workgroup – With the addition of “assent” to the BACB ethical code and the subject’s importance to treating our clients with compassion, dignity, and respect, LEARN is offering “guided exploration” groups in assent that meet regularly for four months. The intention is to create local leaders in Assent-Based Programming throughout our network.   

  • Treatment Plan Evaluations – Our Treatment Plan Evaluation team works hard to review clinicians’ clinical work through the permanent product of their treatment plans. These reviewers have been given resources to help them identify Person-Centered practices to promote in their feedback.

  • New Hire Training – In the 2022 revision of our New Hire Training for behavior technicians, we are explicitly teaching them about neurodiversity and assent, as well as ensuring that language throughout is respectful, and that programming examples fit Learn’s conception of Person-Centered ABA.
  • Autistic Voices – Throughout this process, we are having an increasing number of autistic guests on our podcast and making it a regular practice to interview autistic folks for guest blog posts.  These are ways that we can listen to autistic voices ourselves and also use our resources to center those voices in the ongoing cultural conversation.

As ABA practitioners, we have always cared about our clients – helping and supporting others is our entire reason for being. In the initial years of our still-young field, that care was expressed by taking a singular approach: teaching skills to help them function in our society. As autistic self-advocates find more channels by which to make their voices heard, the themes that are emerging tell us that there is more to supporting this community than just teaching skills. For instance, using words that validate our clients’ identities and sense of self is important. We can create a positive emotional experience for the people we support during the learning process – by listening to them and giving them agency. And most importantly: where success measures are concerned, our clients’ quality of life should be central.

LEARN is listening. 

To learn more about neurodiversity, check out our other blogs “Voices for All: Ash Franks” and “Neurodiversity: What It Means, Why It Matters.”