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.

Resources

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.

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.”

Building Social Skills During Summer

School is out! Let summer break be a great opportunity to continue your child’s learning and growth.

While summer can bring parents a welcome relief from making lunches and school drop-off and pick-up, it also offers time for kids to build valuable skills. Social skills programs are offered in several cities by different service providers and can offer a structured, play-based environment for children to build essential social, communication, cognitive, and sensory skills. Kids have fun and make friends as they learn while maintaining a helpful routine for themselves and their parents.

Many skill-boosting summer programs take place in group settings that are similar to the school environment, while still providing one-to-one support. These specialized programs promote collaboration and inclusion of peers and some welcome siblings, too.

Make Friends

Social skills programs provide activities that encourage and reward the building of social relationships rather than individual play. Children are grouped with other kids of the same age group and skill level, enabling them to share in age-appropriate games, activities, and communication. Groups are led by highly-trained staff, known as behavior technicians (BTs), who are overseen by behavior analysts. BTs encourage kids to get out of their comfort zone and try new things.

Stay Mentally and Physically Active

School breaks can impact children academically. The “summer slide” as it is called, refers to a loss of learning that students experience during the summer months. Social skills programs can help children stay mentally and physically active. While promoting positive behaviors and peer interaction, physical activity is suggested to improve self-esteem and general levels of happiness.

Improve Motor Skills

Engaging in physical play and teamwork exercises can also support overall motor skills, which support many everyday activities. This can help children feel more confident and capable.

Behavior Management

By consistently promoting positive behaviors and language, a child can learn what they can do rather than what they cannot do. Social skills programs offer valuable learning opportunities for kids to communicate their needs and engage in behaviors that help them in daily activities and in different environments.

Click here for other summer-themed blogs to support your family this season.


An Honest Look at the Full Experience of Autism with Russell Lehmann

Motivational Speaker and Poet Russell Lehmann joins us to share his perspectives on autism and the human condition. Having spent most of his life in isolation, Russell has found his voice and independence in recent years. His passion for erasing stigma and stereotypes about autism is shared through his moving, spoken-word poetry. As Russell shares, “I like to say you hold up a mirror to anybody, and that’s what autism looks like. I don’t expect anyone to be able to tell that I have autism just by looking at me. But hopefully, someday they won’t be as shocked to find out.”

All Autism Talk (https://www.allautismtalk.com/) is sponsored by LEARN Behavioral (https://learnbehavioral.com).

Voices for All: Ash Franks Talks about Supporting Autistic People While Being Autistic and Her Role on LEARN’s New Neurodiversity Advisory Committee

In September 2020, LEARN convened a group of neurodivergent staff to form our Neurodivergent Advisory Committee. The committee reviews and gives feedback on matters relating to neurodiversity and other person-centered ABA topics and was instrumental in the content, messaging, and visual design of LEARN’s Neurodiversity Values Statement. We asked Ash Franks, a member of the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee, to share her thoughts with us.   

 

HI, ASH! FIRST, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TO BE AN AUTISTIC PERSON SUPPORTING OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE? 

Supporting other autistic people while being autistic means listening to what they have to say, however they communicate it, whether it be through an AAC device, sign language, PECS, or verbal language. It also means giving them breaks if they need it, and allowing them to use tools to cope (e.g. stuffed animals, headphones, weighted blankets, etc.). Looking back on my experiences as an autistic child has been very helpful in trying to help children who are at AST.

HOW DOES BEING AUTISTIC INSPIRE YOUR WORK IN ABA? 

Being autistic allows me to see different perspectives and ideas compared to neurotypical people, as they tend to think differently than I do.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE AND HOW IT WORKS. 

Basically, we are trying to re-vamp ABA materials through a more neurodivergent-friendly lens, so we can make our treatment as effective as possible. Having autistic people and other neurodivergent people look at ABA therapy through their eyes allows them to explain what works and what doesn’t work. This way, we can work to have treatment be as effective, safe, and as fun as possible for everyone involved. Having BCBAs see the autistic perspective is important because we have direct experience with what worked for us growing up versus what didn’t and might be able to help streamline the treatment to be as effective as possible.

CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF SOME FEEDBACK YOU HAVE GIVEN IN YOUR ROLE ON THE COMMITTEE? 

I tend to give feedback on the more artistic and creative side of things, as I am very geared towards having an eye for creative things in the world.

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVES IN OUR FIELD? 

Including autistic people in ABA is super important because we need to account for neurodivergent perspectives to make treatment as effective as possible. Since I am autistic, I can give a firsthand account of what has personally worked for me throughout my life, and what hasn’t. I myself was never in ABA therapy growing up, but I did other types of therapies that I also have found helpful from time to time.

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER PLACES IN OUR SOCIETY THAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE HELPFUL TO LISTEN TO THE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVE?

I think listening to autistic perspectives in the workplace would be very helpful. I think having a quiet room for staff that has sensory toys specific for staff would be very helpful, also maybe including a comfy place to sit with a weighted blanket would be good too. Another place it would be helpful to listen to autistic people is when it comes to shopping at malls, since malls can be overwhelming for most autistic people. I know some stores have “quiet” shopping hours where they reduce the lighting and turn off the music, and I really wish more places would do this.

ASH, THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTS AND FOR THE EXCELLENT WORK YOU’RE DOING ON THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE!

Ash Franks is a Behavior Technician for Learn Behavioral. Ash works in AST’s Hillsboro, Oregon location. Outside of work, she enjoys photography, cooking, video games, and spending time with family and friends. 

Voices for All: Ash Franks Talks about Supporting Autistic People While Being Autistic and Her Role on LEARN’s New Neurodiversity Advisory Committee

In September 2020, LEARN convened a group of neurodivergent staff to form our Neurodivergent Advisory Committee. The committee reviews and gives feedback on matters relating to neurodiversity and other person-centered ABA topics and was instrumental in the content, messaging, and visual design of LEARN’s Neurodiversity Values Statement. We asked Ash Franks, a member of the Neurodivergent Advisory Committee, to share her thoughts with us.   

 

HI, ASH! FIRST, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU TO BE AN AUTISTIC PERSON SUPPORTING OTHER AUTISTIC PEOPLE? 

Supporting other autistic people while being autistic means listening to what they have to say, however they communicate it, whether it be through an AAC device, sign language, PECS, or verbal language. It also means giving them breaks if they need it, and allowing them to use tools to cope (e.g. stuffed animals, headphones, weighted blankets, etc.). Looking back on my experiences as an autistic child has been very helpful in trying to help children who are at AST.

HOW DOES BEING AUTISTIC INSPIRE YOUR WORK IN ABA? 

Being autistic allows me to see different perspectives and ideas compared to neurotypical people, as they tend to think differently than I do.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE AND HOW IT WORKS. 

Basically, we are trying to re-vamp ABA materials through a more neurodivergent-friendly lens, so we can make our treatment as effective as possible. Having autistic people and other neurodivergent people look at ABA therapy through their eyes allows them to explain what works and what doesn’t work. This way, we can work to have treatment be as effective, safe, and as fun as possible for everyone involved. Having BCBAs see the autistic perspective is important because we have direct experience with what worked for us growing up versus what didn’t and might be able to help streamline the treatment to be as effective as possible.

CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE OF SOME FEEDBACK YOU HAVE GIVEN IN YOUR ROLE ON THE COMMITTEE? 

I tend to give feedback on the more artistic and creative side of things, as I am very geared towards having an eye for creative things in the world.

FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVES IN OUR FIELD? 

Including autistic people in ABA is super important because we need to account for neurodivergent perspectives to make treatment as effective as possible. Since I am autistic, I can give a firsthand account of what has personally worked for me throughout my life, and what hasn’t. I myself was never in ABA therapy growing up, but I did other types of therapies that I also have found helpful from time to time.

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER PLACES IN OUR SOCIETY THAT YOU THINK IT WOULD BE HELPFUL TO LISTEN TO THE AUTISTIC PERSPECTIVE?

I think listening to autistic perspectives in the workplace would be very helpful. I think having a quiet room for staff that has sensory toys specific for staff would be very helpful, also maybe including a comfy place to sit with a weighted blanket would be good too. Another place it would be helpful to listen to autistic people is when it comes to shopping at malls, since malls can be overwhelming for most autistic people. I know some stores have “quiet” shopping hours where they reduce the lighting and turn off the music, and I really wish more places would do this.

ASH, THANK YOU FOR YOUR THOUGHTS AND FOR THE EXCELLENT WORK YOU’RE DOING ON THE NEURODIVERGENT ADVISORY COMMITTEE!

Ash Franks is a Behavior Technician for Learn Behavioral. Ash works in AST’s Hillsboro, Oregon location. Outside of work, she enjoys photography, cooking, video games, and spending time with family and friends. 

Understanding the IEP Process and How to Best Advocate for Your Child

Mo Buti, an advocate and instructional expert for people with autism joins us to take a deep dive into the IEP process. She shares details about all the people that make up the team and how parents can best prepare and advocate for their child. As Mo shared, “It’s so important that communicate well and build relationships with your team. Even if you disagree, it makes the process so much more successful.”

For More Information:
https://www.aiepautism.com/

 

Understanding the IEP Process and How to Best Advocate for Your Child

Mo Buti, an advocate and instructional expert for people with autism joins us to take a deep dive into the IEP process. She shares details about all the people that make up the team and how parents can best prepare and advocate for their child. As Mo shared, “It’s so important that communicate well and build relationships with your team. Even if you disagree, it makes the process so much more successful.”

For More Information:
https://www.aiepautism.com/