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We’ve talked about calm adults and how important it is to be calm around children, especially those with autism. But how about the children?

We know that anxiety is a huge issue for most people with autism. Around 80% experience mild to severe anxiety on a daily basis (1).

We simply can’t remove every source of anxiety and stress.

In fact, anxiety can sometimes be helpful. Being a little bit anxious can keep us on our toes and  alert to what’s going on. If there’s a total lack of stress, it’s easy to slip into boredom – not great for learning.

But too much anxiety pushes children with autism into distress. Distress can be caused by an unscheduled change, too much stimulation, anything unknown … all sort of things. Check out my adaptation of the Groden Stress Survey to see what things stress out your child with autism.

Our goal should be to expand the range of optimal stress. That’s the place where our children are alert and interested. They need effective strategies so to help them expand that region and regain it if they start heading into distress.

About the worst thing you could do is to tell a stressed child, “Just calm down”. That’s like adding fuel to a fire. It can make things worse.

We need to teach child how to be calm when they’re calm. First, our children with autism need to experience what calm feels like. Many of them have no idea what their bodies and brains feel like in a state of calm. That’s where we start – we have to help them understand what ‘calm’ is.

Using a simple technique like Turtle Breathing (slow mindful breathing) is powerful. You help them focus on the inflow and outflow of air through their nose or mouth. Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out. Think only of your breath. Let ideas that sneak into your brain float away and think only about the air coming in and out of your nose or mouth. Do that for just a few minutes to start. Help your child understand that this is what ‘calm’ feels like. Being calm helps your brain and body work better.

In spark* and spark*EL, we practice Turtle Breathing until children learn they can do it themselves (the Awareness of Ability phase of learning). Then we help them understand where and when it can be helpful (that’s the Awareness of Need phase of learning). After carefully establishing those things and practicing, we’re ready to take it on the road and into action in everyday life.

Practice Turtle Breathing with your child. The video below will give you some ideas about how to teach slow calm breathing.

Check out some of the Resources below.


Yes, that’s what we have to do with children learning self-regulation. We have to allow them time and space to become more independent.

Our ultimate goal in teaching self-regulation is for children to make choices for themselves. They need to develop a sense of freedom. This means they become more autonomous …. and they don’t need us so much.

How do you go from hovering so disasters don’t occur to giving children space to become more independent? How do you stop acting as children’s frontal lobes?

First of all, we have to teach them how and when to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions. They need help to become aware of their ability to self-regulate, of when and where they need to use these skills, of how to be more resilient and how to advocate for themselves. We don’t just throw them into a situation and hope they can swim!!

Find the balance between your actions and your words. Stay calm (calm adult = calm children) and show confidence in the children’s ability.

The words we use are critical. Even if you’re not sure the children understand everything, at the very least they’ll understand your tone of voice. When working with children with autism, we become used to telling/ordering them what to do. We also help them a lot – doing things for them. These are ‘doing-to’ and ‘doing-for’ approaches that ultimately keep children dependent on the adults around them.

There’s a time and place for telling children what to do (like, “Stay away from that dog!”). Some ‘doing-for’ things are steps in the right direction. For example, when we set up visual schedules and streamline the environment, it’s clearer to children what they’re expected to do. Over time, we want them to organize themselves and cope with some uncertainty.

We need to move to ‘doing with’ the children. That means becoming a learning partner. It’s not easy to do. You have to be willing to wait, watch patiently, and let the children make mistakes. You have to focus on the end-goal: we want children to do-it-yourself. We want the children to plan and organize on their own, inhibit unhelpful behaviors, remember what they plan to do, check their own progress, and change approaches if need be.

That’s huge! But here are some beginning steps:

  1. Sit back and pretend you’re in the passenger’s seat and the child is the driver. Trust yourself and trust the child. 
  2. Use inclusive language. Use “we”. It’s a simple but powerful way to tell children you’re in this together and you’ll be there to support them if needed. 
  3. Ask rather than tell. Use words like “How about …?”, “What do you think if we do it this way?”, “What’ll happen if we do it this way?” when making suggestions. 
  4. Give hints and encouragement. Prompt children to think for themselves and figure things out. Ask them, “Did you notice this thing over here? Do you think that might help you?”, “What do you need to do?” or “What could you do to help yourself?”
  5. Give them choices. Choices can be about what to do, how and/or when or by giving a reason when choice is limited. Choice is powerful. It tells the children they’re important and have some say. Choices can start out really simply. For example, you decide what things need to be done but the child determines the order for completing them. You offer milk and juice and the child selects one. Remember, once children make a choice, you have to respect it … even if it’s not what you had in mind. 
  6. Invite and value their opinions. Ask about what they’d like to do, how they’d like to do it, why they don’t want to do it, etc. Listen to their ideas and respond to their suggestions. Acknowledge their outlook even if you disagree.
  7. Think out loud. Explain in simple terms what you’re thinking and the reason you want to do things in certain ways. You may not get your way but the children will learn about other ways of doing things.  

Self-regulation starts with the brain, with executive functions. Brains work 24 hours a day and move into high gear when you’re working on self-regulation. This is especially true when you’re first learning.

So what’s your tummy got to do with it? Well, your brain needs fuel to function and that fuel comes from food. Not just any food but good quality foods that have lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (1). A balanced diet includes a variety of foods that contain nutrients necessary for good health …. and for brain function.

We know that up to 90 per cent of children with autism have selective diets (2). That means they have strong preferences for just a few favorite foods. Those favorite foods are usually carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and highly processed snack foods (3, 4, 5, 6). Favorites I’ve seen are goldfish crackers, chips/crisps, dried fruit snacks, and noodles. Those foods don’t fuel brains or bodies very well or for very long.

Food and mood are also linked. That is, the better the food you eat, the better your mood. Children with autism who have selective diets (limiting the amount of protein and fiber they eat) are more likely to have temper tantrums (7). And it’s not just children with autism! Non-autistic boys whose diets are low in vitamins and minerals are more likely to have behavior problems (8). I worked with a lot of children who were selective eaters. You can almost predict their ‘mood crashes’. It seemed that they soared on the sugars they ate and then just fell apart when their ‘fuel’ ran out. Two hours after they ate, they’d become irritable and angry and couldn’t do much of anything.

Watch them carefully and know what they eat. If we expect them to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions, their brains need lots of good quality ‘fuel’ from food. If we want them to interact positively and consistently, their mood needs food too.

In spark*, I emphasize the importance of fueling the children’s brains when working on self-regulation. Young children trying to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions should eat nutritious foods every 2 to 2 1/2 hours to keep their fuel levels up. But how do you get them to eat something other than ‘the usual’?

Selective eating in children with autism is related to sensory issues and to their preference for sameness.  Food texture, appearance, taste, smell, and even temperature can figure into food choices (9). I’ve heard of children who’d only eat yellow food or crunchy textures. The way food is presented (such as food packaging, how food is placed on a plate) and eaten (fingers, spoon, fork) can affect whether they’ll eat them (10) – they prefer the same old things. Our children aren’t keen to try anything new.

We know that straight behavioral approaches (like rewarding acceptance of new foods) have limited success (11). They resulted in children eating more food but not a larger variety of foods. Other approaches, like desensitization and reducing sensory issues, haven’t been well-studied so the jury is still out.

There is one approach that is really appealing to children with autism. That’s The Eating Game (stands for Get Awesome Meals Everyday). It’s visual and structured. It makes meals predictable and, best of all, children learn to self-regulate their eating – they know when they’ve had enough and when they need more of certain types of foods. The Eating Game presents a visual plan for each day that shows the number of servings for each major food group. The food groups are color-coded as are pictures of foods within each group – of course, you can add personal favorites. Children match the color of each food option and see when they have the right ‘balance’ of foods. I’ve tried it. Children love it and it helps ensure they get the brain fuel they need.


(1) antioxidants protect your brain from oxidative stress or the “waste” (free radicals) produced when your body uses oxygen. Free radicals can damage brain cells.
(2) Ledford J. & Gast D. (2006). Feeding problems in children with autism spectrum disorders: a review. Focus Autism Other Dev Disabilities. 21, 153-166.
(3) Schmitt, L., Heiss, C. J., & Campdell, E. (2008). A comparison of nutrient intake and eating behaviors of boys with and without autism. Topics in Clinical Nutrition, 23(1), 23–31.
(4) Ahearn, W. H., Castine, T., Nault, K., & Green, G. (2001). An assessment of food acceptance in children with autism or pervasive developmental disorder—Not otherwise specified. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 505–511
(5) Schreck, K.A., Williams, K., Smith, A.F. (2004). A comparison of eating behaviors between children with and without autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 13(4), 433-438.
(6) Williams, K. E., Gibbons, B. G., & Schreck, K. A. (2005). Comparing selective eaters with and without developmental disabilities. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 17, 299–309.
(7) Dominick, K., Davis, N., Lainhart, J., Tager-Flusberg, H., & Folstein, S. (2007). Atypical behaviors in children with autism and children with a history of language impairment. Res. in Dev. Disabilities, 28, p. 145-162.
(8) Robinson, SL, Marín, C, Oliveros, H., Mora-Plazas, M., Richards, BJ, Lozoff, B., Villamor, E. (2018) Iron Deficiency, Anemia, and Low Vitamin B-12 Serostatus in Middle Childhood Are Associated with Behavior Problems in Adolescent Boys: Results from the Bogotá School Children Cohort, The Journal of Nutrition, 148, 760–770,
(9) Schmitt L, Heiss C, Campbell E. (2008). A comparison of nutrient intake and eating behaviors of boys with and without autism. Top Clinical Nutrition. 23, 23–31.
(10) Williams P.G., Dalrymple N., & Neal, J. (2000). Eating habits of children with autism. Pediatric Nursing. 26, 259–264.
(11) Marshall, H., Ware, R., Ziviani, J., Hill, R., & Dodrill, P. (2015). Efficacy of interventions to improve feeding difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Care, Health & Development, 41, 278-302.

Eye contact needs meaning to make it useful and natural. Telling someone to look at you isn’t natural or particularly useful.

Eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication. It involves looking into or in the direction of another person’s eyes. Most people don’t look directly at another person’s eyes. Instead, they look around the bridge of their nose and near their eyes. Eye contact doesn’t last very long: each gaze is only three seconds and when people look directly at each other, it’s for less than a second! Also, when talking to another person, we look at them 30% of the time or less.

We adults make eye contact for five main reasons:

  1. Giving and getting information – Eye contact lets the other person know we’re listening and understanding what they’re saying.
  2. Regulating interactions – Eye contact helps organize and control when each person speaks. Interestingly, it’s when we’re finished talking that we tend to look at the other person.
  3. Expressing emotion – Eye contact helps us flirt and show attraction and general interest in another person or it can show our anger or disapproval.
  4. Exercising social control – Eye contact helps show hostility and aggression but it also can be used to convince or persuade someone (picture the salesperson who makes a lot of eye contact as he tells you the merits of his product)
  5. Helping achieve goals – Eye contact helps you get assistance (at a restaurant, when you want your bill, you try to catch the waiter’s eye across the room so you can signal what you want).

Eye contact ‘gone wrong’ is when a stranger looks at you too long. That can feel downright creepy. If you avoid eye contact, others may think you don’t care, you’re trying to avoid something, or maybe you’re defensive or embarrassed. Darned if you do and darned if you don’t!

We know babies like human faces and respond to direct eye contact from an early age. Preschoolers figure out that eye contact can help them start and stop interactions with others and get what they want. They can look at something and then at Mom or Dad to signal they want it. As children mature, they learn to use eye contact to share enjoyment. It’s not until children are about 11 years old, that they start using eye contact for the reasons outlined above. They begin to understand that eye contact gives feedback to the person they’re talking to. They recognize that, by making eye contact, they can gather important information about the other person, like does he understand or cares about what you’re saying?

One of the first things that people notice in children with autism is their weak or inconsistent eye contact. There are two plausible reasons for that:

  1. Processing language is demanding. When you speak, you need to plan and organize your ideas, communicate them and then see if the other person understands. These are all demanding from a processing point of view. Most people, autistic or not, look away when doing it. If you have to make eye contact and process language, it might just throw you into overload.
  2. Eye contact is overstimulating. Many people with autism find it over-stimulating to look at another person’s eyes. Some say that it literally hurts. Read more here.

So back to the question of why we don’t work on eye contact.

When helping children develop skills, I (Heather) believe we should use main criteria: the approach must be (1) developmentally appropriate, (2) culturally grounded, and (3) respectful of the experience of the person being taught. We don’t expect the adult uses of eye contact to emerge until middle childhood. Use what’s culturally appropriate; in some cases, not all five of the reasons outlined above will be appropriate. And, we have to understand that it can hurt and overload the person with autism if we push them to make eye contact.

We don’t work directly on eye contact within spark*, spark*EL, and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life. We use it as a meaningful social and communicative tool. We make sure children understand why we make eye contact with other people. We also help them understand when and where it’s necessary and appropriate. We work on eye contact so the children will use it in ways that don’t produce cognitive or sensory overload …. or make them seem ‘strange’ to others.


Photo by Gabby Orcutt on Unsplash

There are a number of ways to evaluate a child’s self-regulation skills. There are a few standardized (see notes below on standardized tests and scales) rating scales, direct standardized assessments, and quite a few non-standardized measures – in the September spark* News we included an informal survey I developed.

The list below isn’t exhaustive but it’ll give you a good start.

Standardized Rating Scales. These questionnaires are used to rate children’s performance and skills. Typically, the teacher or parent rates the accuracy or frequency of each statement about the child. For example, an item may ask how often the child “Acts too wild or out of control” – never, sometimes, frequently.

  • Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF). The BRIEF in its various forms  is designed for children from two to 18 years of age. It has both parent and teacher questionnaires. There’s a self-report version for children from 11 to 18 years of age as well. The results reflect such things as the child’s inhibitory/impulse control, attention, emotional control, initiation of activities, working memory, planning and organizing, organization of materials, and self-monitoring. Find out more here
  • Comprehensive Executive Function Inventory (CEFI). The CEFI is designed for children from five to 18 years of age. It too has parent and teacher questionnaires as well as one for children 12 to 18 years of age. The CEFI identifies strengths and weaknesses in attention, inhibitory/impulse control, planning, emotion regulation, self-monitoring, initiation, flexibility, working memory, and organization.  Read a review here
  • Burks Behavior Rating Scales (BBRS). This measure is for children from four to 18 years of age and has rating scales for both parents and teachers. It looks at a number of behavioral, emotional, and social issues but it also examines impulse control. Find out more here
  • Conners Comprehensive Behavior Rating Scales (CBRS). The CBRS is for children from eight to 18 years of age and has both parent and teacher forms. It looks at a number of different emotional, academic, and behavioral issues as well as executive functioning. Find out more here

Standardized Direct Assessments. These instruments require children to complete activities that tap their executive functions. I’m aware of two standardized direct measures.

  • Minnesota Executive Function Scale. The MEFS is a standardized assessment of executive function skills (specifically focusing on working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility) designed for children ages two to seven years of age. It’s a child-friendly assessment that’s administered individually on a touch-screen tablet. The assessment takes an average of four minutes to administer. I (Heather) observed a demonstration of the MEFS and found it very engaging and wonderfully child-friendly. Find out more here
  • NEPSY. This measure, for children from three to 17 years of age, is designed to assess neuropsychological development. The name, NEPSY, is an acronym that was formed from the word neuropsychology, taking NE from neuro and PSY from psychology. It looks at Attention and Executive Functions (planning, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, working memory), as well as language, sensorimotor functions, visuospatial processing, memory and learning, and social perception. Find out more here

Non-Standardized Rating Scales. These are rating scales that haven’t been tested on larger numbers of children. They’re at least superficially valid (that is, they focus on executive functions) and can be helpful in looking at areas of need and in checking progress. 

Here’s one I developed for young children:

Here are some I found online (I’ve requested permission to use them but never received a response):
Executive Function Survey for Adults:

Executive Function Survey for School-Age Children:

Non-Standardized Direct Measures. There is a growing number of direct non-standardized measures, chiefly used in research but they can be used to check progress.

  • Corsi Blocks Task. This is primarily a visual working memory task for children from seven years of age. It involves imitating a sequence of taps on up to nine identical separate blocks. The sequence starts out simple, usually with two blocks. The task has forward patterns done in the same order as demonstrated and backward patterns where the child must touch the blocks in a reversed order. Try it out here
  • Dimensional Change Card Sort –  This task is similar to the Minnesota Executive Function Scale described above. It assesses working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility in two to five year old children. After learning to sort the cards according to one dimension (shape or color), children are asked to sort the cards according to the other dimension. For example, the first sort might focus on color, the second sort on shape, and the final sort might be a mix of color and shape depending on whether a card has a border or not. Find out more here
  • Heads Toes Knees Shoulders Test. HTKS looks mainly at inhibitory control but attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility are also needed to be successful. Children, three to seven years of age, are asked to play a game in which they must do the opposite of what the adult says. Children are instructed to touch their head (or their toes), but the children are supposed to do the opposite and touch their toes. Find out more here  and watch the video below
  • Numerous tests of inhibitory control/impulse control: Tongue Task (children are asked to hold a cracker or M&M/Smartie on his/her tongue and to keep from chewing it for increasing intervals of time); Crayon Delay Task (looks at children’s ability to keep themselves from coloring when left alone with coloring supplies); Gift Delay Task (the child is asked not to peek while the adult wraps a “surprise”, then the wrapped gift is put in front of the child and he’s told not to touch it while the adult leaves “to get a bow”); Whisper Task (children are asked to whisper the name of 12 familiar cartoon characters (e.g., Elmo, Dora the Explorer, Mickey Mouse), inhibiting the urge to shout out the names); Pig-Bull Task (children are told to do what the pig says and ignore what the bull tells them to do); Simon Says (children are told to follow a command only if it’s preceded by the words “Simon says”); See more here

Keep in mind that a standardized survey or test is carefully developed, then tested on a number of people. Developers of these surveys and tests make sure they test what they say it does (that is, it’s valid). The survey/test needs to be consistent – no matter who’s giving the test or how many different children are being tests (that means it’s reliable).
Non-standardized measures aren’t necessarily always valid and reliable. If given at different times by different people, the results may be different. In fact, they may not even be measuring just self-regulation or executive functions. This is not to say you shouldn’t use these test/surveys. They can be used to check a child’s progress, by comparing before and after you began using spark* or spark*EL. Just remember to compare only the results for that child and be aware that different testers may get different results.

In previous posts, we’ve talked about the four phases we address with every skill in spark* and spark*EL. First, we teach children to become aware of their abilities to self-regulate. Then we focus on the need to modulate their behavior, thinking and emotions in different places and at different times. Third, we help children to become more resilient in their use of self-regulation so they can cope better in everyday life. The last phase is teaching them self-advocacy.

This is another unique features of the spark* model.

Sometimes, being able to cope isn’t enough – there’s too much going on, the child is tired or feeling overwhelmed. Children need to know they can help themselves. They need to learn there are alternatives to having a meltdown, running away, or hiding. In the spark* model, we help them choose healthier alternatives BEFORE things become overwhelming.

I recall a child whose kindergarten teacher flicked the lights on and off in her classroom when the children got too noisy. This fellow used the same strategy to signal to his classmates and teacher that he was having difficulty coping with the noise level. He hopped up on his own and flicked the light switch. I was thrilled by his self-advocacy skills. He could have done all sorts of less appropriate things (like melting down) but he chose a positive alternative. Although the teacher wasn’t with his taking control of the light switch, this provided a wonderful opportunity for his teacher to show him other ways to advocate for himself.

Besides developing resilience, self-advocacy is a critical life skill for our children. They need to learn they can cope but, when things get to be too much, they can do something to help themselves.

All four phases used in spark* and spark*EL  (awareness of ability, awareness of need, resilience, self-advocacy) are critical to any learning model.


Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Self-regulation is about making conscious decisions in relation to your executive functions – planning and organizing, controlling your impulses, engaging your memory, self-monitoring, and thinking and acting flexibly.

Here are five things you can do to encourage self-regulation in everyday life.

  1. Prompt children to plan and organize activities. Start with one or two steps in a familiar activity and then gradually move to more complicated, less familiar things. Start an activity and ask the child, “What do you think we should do next?” No matter what the child says or does, give it a try. If it doesn’t work, that’s a learning opportunity – you can gently guide him into rethinking the approach. When it works, ask him to choose “the next step” and the one after that. This helps children to start thinking ahead and develop more independence.
  2. Teach children they are the masters of their own brains and bodies. I found that when I used ‘self-distancing’, children were more likely to start self-regulating. Self-distancing is a simple but powerful tool – children are prompted to step back from their brains and bodies and tell their brain or body part what to do. I (Heather) teach children to talk to their brains, hands, feet, voices, etc. so “you can help them learn”. By using this simple distancing process, emotions are removed and children become their own teachers. Try it! Telling your brain or body what to do is remarkably powerful.
  3. Model ways to help yourself remember. When you’re trying to remember something, talk out loud about what you’re doing: “Okay, now what was I going to do? That’s right, I’m going to the kitchen to see if we need more milk from the store.” That shows your child a way to ‘remind’ your brain about plans. Another strategy is to visualize: “Let me make a picture in my head. I want to go to the bedroom, get my shoes and then get my jacket  …. It’s like making a movie in my head!”
  4. Make checking progress part of every activity. After you start an activity with your child, stop and say, “Let’s see how we’re doing. Are we following the plan? Does it look like the picture in our heads?” Model how you can stop and change things if the activity isn’t proceeding as you expected. Have your child evaluate the progress too so he can learn to self-monitor on his own.
  5. Change your mind. This is part of learning cognitive flexibility, a sometimes challenging thing. Once you have a plan in place, announce “I’ve changed my mind”, and change one small part. You might change the order of doing things – “I’ve changed my mind, let’s read a book first and then watch the video” or “Let’s put on your shirt and then your socks”. Progress to larger changes – “I’ve changed my mind. How about we go to Safeway/Tesco/Hyper U instead of our usual store today?” Make small changes part of everyday and be sure to reassure your child, “We can change our minds. That’s okay sometimes.” Be sure to let your child make changes too. It’s important to help him take a more flexible approach to life.

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A: spark* and spark*EL work on foundation skills for learning. By helping children develop self-regulation, you’re making it easier for them to translate their ideas and thoughts into action. You’re also helping them balance their wants and desires with responsibilities.

Better body, cognitive and emotional self-regulation will make it easier for children to benefit from teaching of most other therapies, and in classrooms. They’ll be better prepared for learning with a calmer, more alert brain and body. Your occupational therapist, speech-language therapist, psychologist, etc. will thank you.

spark* and spark*EL can also be done within regular classroom programs. Intersperse each day with short periods where spark* and spark*EL activities are introduced and practiced.

We’ve found that spark* and spark*EL can be incompatible with strict behavioral (ABA) practices if the ABA program:

  • Focuses only on the student’s behavior or performance at a task.
  • Expects the student’s behavior or performance to consistently improve with the use of reinforcement and rewards.
  • Provides motivation solely through external rewards.

We focus on children’s thinking and how they take in and process information, not just external behavior. We also work collaboratively with children to figure out what affects their learning. Then we help them learn to regulate their bodies, thinking and emotions. Children are given more control over their own behavior and thinking with less adult input and direction. A major focus within spark* and spark*EL is on building intrinsic motivation, rather than having children expect external rewards. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for personal satisfaction, fun, or challenge, not for rewards or fear of punishment. It can be counterproductive when children are more concerned about what they’ll earn when they finish a task than about the task itself. In life, we can’t expect to receive rewards for everything we do. When children feel competent and challenged, they’re more likely to be intrinsically motivated and enjoy achievement in its own right. That’s what we do in spark* and spark*EL. 

We all believe certain things about intelligence, whether we’re aware of it or not. These personal ‘theories of intelligence’ (TOI), or mindsets, have important effects on our expectations from learning, school and life for ourselves and our children.

Carol Dweck, an American psychologist, found that people tend to hold one of two main TOI: fixed and growth.

People who believe in a fixed TOI see it as a something that doesn’t change. They believe that you get what you’re born with. Someone believing that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable, they may just give up if they don’t do well on a task or if they’re given negative feedback. They may think, “Well, that’s that! I just don’t have the ability.” Intelligence to them is like a box, either big or small if you’re smarter or less smart and it doesn’t change.

People who believe in the growth TOI view intelligence as something that grows as you learn. They’re more likely to put more effort into learning if they experience failure because that’s part of learning. With practice, it’ll get easier. That’s what learning is about – some challenges and some failures are expected along the road to greater mastery.

There are enormous benefits to helping our children see intelligence as something that can change and improve with effort. They’re less likely to give up if they make mistakes or get negative feedback. Learning is seen as a process of ongoing improvement and consistent effort is critical.

How to help children with autism develop a growth TOI

One important way to help children develop an incremental TOI is to use P.R.A.I.S.E. – that’s an acronym for important ways to respond to learning.

P.R.A.I.S.E. focuses on trying, learning and improving, not on whether the child does something perfectly.

P = Positive attitude – praise children for trying and remaining positive in the face of mistakes and challenges – for example, “You really worked hard on that one. Good going! Your brain is learning.”

R = Rising to a challenge – comment about how, even when doing something difficult, they kept on trying –  for example, “Boy, you really kept working on that even when it got pretty tricky!”

A = Advancing skills – remark on the progress that children make, not just whether they did something correctly or completely – for example, “You’re getting closer to figuring that one out. Well done!” or “I noticed how your printing got clearer each time you practiced. Fantastic work!”

I = Inquisitiveness – encourage children to be curious and to ‘just try things out’, without worrying about whether it’s going to be perfect – for example, “You tried that out to see if it’d work. That’s a good way to help your brain learn.”

S = Sticking to tasks – praise children for persisting and continuing to try – for example, “You really worked hard on that. You should be proud of yourself.”

E = Effort – comment on the effort children put into something, not whether it’s perfect but whether they really truly tried – “This is challenging but you kept on working on it. That’s how we learn things.”

Wouldn’t you love to hear some of these comments every day? Use the P.R.A.I.S.E. acronym at work and at home and encourage everyone to use it.

In spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life, after working on awareness of ability and awareness of need, we help build the children’s resilience in using the skills and strategies. This is one of the unique features of the spark* model.

Resilience is a process where children adapt positively to challenges to their attention and learning. They learn to withstand and recover from distractions, disruptions, and temptations. They adjust to these in positive ways (for example, not melting down) and they don’t let things get to them.

When starting work on resilience, always start in a position of trust with children. That is, they know us and trust that they are safe with us. We then systematically introduce things that might tempt them (like a favorite activity or interest) or distract them (like a noise). This should be done in a playful way so that children feel like superheros of their own brains.

With our support and by modeling a ways to deal with disruptions, children learn “I can do it even when ….”. They continue on with an activity, thought or intention, regardless of what is going on around them.

Most of the executive functions are needed for the resilience stage. Inhibitory control is strongly challenged with the children’s having to stay the course regardless of what happens. They must learn to resist temptations and not just slip into old familiar behavior patterns. They need to rely on their own planning and organization, working memory, and self-monitoring to stay on track. Cognitive flexibility is challenged but, with our support, they learn how to flow with challenges.

Typical advice for parents, teachers and therapists dealing with children with autism is to structure the environment and tasks, ensure a calm and quiet setting, and more. At some point, however, we need to help the children develop resilience in dealing with less structure, less-than-ideal settings, other people’s motivations and interests, and distractions. This is what they’ll encounter in real life and that’s why we work on resilience in spark*.

Becoming resilient means that the child can continue his/her path toward a goal and isn’t deterred by disorganization, interruptions, distractions, or the obstacles that are likely to occur in everyday life.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash