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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

In February’s newsletter, we discussed how calm adults are critical in creating calm children. Despite this, you’ll often see adults trying to help an upset child by telling him, “Just calm down!”. By then, neither the adult nor child is at all calm. I (Joselynne) can become enraged if someone tells me to “just calm down”. So why would we use that phrase with children?

There are many reasons why we might be ‘on edge’ and losing our cool. It’s impossible to be calm if you’re bothered, distracted, exhausted, or feeling unsupported or unloved. It’s also easy to blame other people when something has stolen your calm – for example, that driver deserved to have me yell at him, he cut in front of me!

To teach children how to self-regulate and further develop their executive function skills, we need to rid ourselves of CALM stealers. I (Joselynne) developed the acronym CALM to help us remember what it is that can steal our sense of calm and how we can help ourselves. Read carefully through each feature of CALM and see which ones work for you. Then work on each of the resources included in the fourth column (“So we need to ..”).

Model and discuss the features of CALM (Content, Attentive/engaged, Loved/supported, Mindful of self-care) with your child. Tell them and show them how to develop their own independent CALM traits. These are crucial life skills that lead to greater personal happiness.

Always remember that adults have better problem-solving skills and strategies than children. When two adults don’t agree on something, we need to ask, “Who’s going to be the adult in this situation and take a step to solve things?” With children who are already struggling to self-regulate and problem-solve, the adults need to take the first step to modify the situation so the child can be successful. Problem-solving takes time and guidance so avoid power struggles. Teach problem-solving in calm, positive ways so that these skills can also be used in more stressful situations in the future. 

We talked in February’s spark* News about assuming nothing. That is, never assume a child knows what you’re talking about and never assume he/she can do something until you’ve tried it out.

But this doesn’t mean to keep your expectations low. They need to be high. High expectations may mean frustrating the child at times but a little frustration helps to advance learning. Stretch children’s learning and keep stretching –  a little bit at a time. Never stop because of some presumed level of ability or notion of fixed unchangeable ability (see my article on Your view of intelligence for more information).

Back in the 1960s an experiment was done to see whether teachers treated children differently based on their assumptions about the children’s abilities – the so-called Pygmalion Effect (watch the video below for more information). Researchers found that when teachers viewed children as ‘more intelligent’ they treated them differently and the children rose to meet the expectations.

Sadly, this hasn’t changed. A recent study (1) found that approaches used with children labeled ‘low-attaining’ (low achieving) may actually increase dependence on adults and limit independent learning. Teachers tend to have lower expectations of these students which means the children get a watered down curriculum and fewer chances to become self-regulated and self-reliant. The same applies to teaching assistants who, as we discussed in the January spark* News, spend 86% of every day within three feet of their target child – not much room for independent learning there!

We know this happens with teachers and teaching assistants and it’s likely that these expectations and behaviors also apply to many other people who work and live with children with autism and other special learning needs.

What needs to change?
Four main factors were identified in the 1960’s study of the Pygmalion Effect, and now five decades later, they still apply to helping to advance learning in children. They include:

  1. Climate – providing a warm, engaging environment for students, where they are accepted and encouraged to think – relationships with the students matter; rid yourself of the notion of ‘fixed abilities’ (see the article Your view of intelligence below).
  2. Input – give the students richer and more interesting content, don’t water things down; I (Heather) watched a class in London where students with autism were learning (and loving) Shakespeare!  
  3. Response opportunities – give each student a chance and sufficient time to respond; support and scaffold (2) their responses to enrich and shape them.
  4. Feedback – give lots of praise but differentiate your feedback – “that was a good try” is also encouraging.

Above all, give children many opportunities to try things on their own. Most children with autism need time to think about and respond to learning. Don’t hurry them. Respect their need to process information thoroughly and carefully.   


Photo by Michael Mims on Unsplash
(1) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0305764X.2018.1441372
(2) scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance. Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility over the learning process to the student (The Glossary of Education Reform https://www.edglossary.org/scaffolding/)

We all hear that you should work on certain skills or use a particular program. Before diving in, we need to ask ourselves what we really are looking for. What do we want for children with autism?

From the spark* viewpoint, we want quality of life for people with autism, not just social skills, imitation skills, play skills, etc.

Quality of life (QOL) refers to a person’s general feelings of well-being, positive social involvement, and opportunities to achieve personal potential. QOL for individuals consists of eight hierarchical factors (1):

  1. Physical well-being – health, nutrition, exercise, activities of daily living, leisure and recreation
  2. Material well-being – financial security, employment, shelter
  3. Rights – being treated with respect, dignity, equality, privacy as well as having legal rights observed
  4. Social inclusion – the feeling you are a valued and important member of society
  5. Interpersonal relations – being able to participate with others in your community
  6. Self-determination – making your own choices and decisions, having a sense of personal control
  7. Personal development – having opportunities for education and purposeful activities, feeling competent and fulfilled
  8. Emotional well-being – including freedom from abuse and neglect, feeling happy, having a sense of security, having friends and caring relationships, feeling of contentment

Overall, QOL rejects a deficit approach to autism. It focuses, instead, on strengths, human diversity and human rights.

Self-regulation weaves through all aspects of Quality of Life. Physical well-being, for example, is achieved through planning and organization, balancing impulses (controlling the amount of chocolate cake you consume), remembering your goals and ways of achieving them, monitoring your progress and state of being, etc.

(1) https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/9bb428e9-e6dd-43b2-9298-f96b679f4079/Schalock_2000_Three_Decades_of_Quality_of_Life.pdf

In spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life, after making sure children are aware they have the ability to do what we’re asking, we move on to working on their awareness of need. The focus of these activities is to ensure that they understand where and when they need to use the skills and strategies we practiced.

Why do we spend the time on this? Why do we prompt each child to think of times and places at home, at school and in the community where he needs to use his skills? Can’t we just skip over it?

Children on the autism spectrum have difficulty transferring or generalizing skills and knowledge from one situation to others. It’s been reported over and over again since at least the 1970’s (1).

Our children need direct support and help to generalize learning. They need our guidance in determining when and where to use their skills and strategies. This is what the Awareness of Need stage is about. We take the time to help the children form a solid foundation before moving on.

(1) https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/eb9486b3-e419-4544-bb96-5b40338f4e93/jaba00045_0033.pdf

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

Children, especially those on the autism spectrum, are like emotional sponges; they absorb emotions and feelings of others around them. They may not understand these feelings or why they’re experiencing them. They’ll just feel on edge and agitated. Stress can shut down your capacity to think. You then lose access to higher level thinking, creativity as well as normal cognitive capacities (1).

It’s critical that, before working on self-regulation, people around the child become calm and centered. Learning and practicing Turtle Breathing (more on it in future issues of spark* News), a form of mindfulness, enables you help children you care about remain calm.

To experience what happens when you simply pay attention to your breathing, watch and listen to the video below. You’ll be surprised by how calm and relaxed you’ll feel after taking even a short break.

Mindfulness isn’t quite as simple as it seems. It takes discipline. You need to cultivate and practice it. Our minds focus on what we should have done and what we need to do. In order to capture our moments in awareness and sustain mindfulness, you have to put in some effort.

Mindfulness is on a continuum. We’re all mindful to some degree at times. We all have the capacity to be mindful but we need to practice in order to increase our ability to exist in the present momen. And not just while practicing, but throughout our daily lives.

Once you’ve experienced and practiced mindfulness, do a few minutes of focused breathing immediately before interacting with children. You’ll be surprised by how smoothly things can go. We worked with a group of university students who were implementing spark*. We noticed that their first sessions were chaotic. We then walked them through 10 minutes of mindful breathing before each session. The difference in the children as well as the adults was astounding. The grad students remarked about how well-behaved the children were. They wer ebeginning to see how their state of calm impacted the children.

Remember, the calmer you are when practicing self-regulation or when just interacting with children, the more likely it’ll be positive and successful.

Take a few minutes to calm and center yourself. It’s important for both you and the children you care about.

We all hear speakers at workshops talk about mimetic-ideational informational processing, episodic memory, etc.

We consciously DO NOT use a lot of complex terms. We want people to understand and not feel intimidated by information.

When someone uses bafflegab* likely that, there’s usually a reason. They may want to impress the reader/listener with how sophisticated their knowledge is. On the other hand, they may want to avoid being accountable for these concepts or terms – “if I drown you in a sea of words, you’ll be less likely to question me and my knowledge”. Image result for baffled
We want people to understand and to be able to use what we’re talking about. That’s why we avoid all but the essential terms in our writing and presentations. As Albert Einstein noted:

If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.

* Milton Smith who coined the word bafflegab defined it as “multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”  Go figure.

Should we just dive into teaching social skills without considering self-regulation? That doesn’t make logical or practical sense but let’s look at the evidence.

First, let’s remind ourselves about the executive functions that underlie self-regulation. Executive functions include the ability to:

  • initiate actions when appropriate and inhibit impulses and emotions when necessary
  • plan and organize your actions and activities
  • hold information in memory and change it as things proceed
  • monitor your progress
  • be flexible enough to change plans and approaches if need be

Remember, executive functions turn intentions and ideas into actions.

Now, let’s look at the research.

In a study of children with delayed language (1), executive functions were found to predict social skills; interestingly, language skills didn’t figure importantly into social skills. The researchers looked at results from tests of executive functions, language, and social skills to see what predicted what. They found if executive functions were strong, social skills were more advanced but not vice versa. Behavior regulation (like inhibitory control) in particular figured importantly in the predictions – this makes complete sense: if you can self-regulate your behavior, you’re more likely to be tuned in to social cues and to control your body.

The relationship between executive functions and social skills was looked at by another group of researchers (2). They found that children with autism who had poorer executive functioning were more likely to play alone and have less engagement with other children. Working memory and planning and organization skills were especially important to the children’s social functioning. Children with poorer executive functioning skills struggled with planning and organizing their approaches to social situations. They had problems anticipating and planning the steps involved in play and in conversations with others. They struggled to plan steps needed to interact socially which then lead to less engagement with others. Working memory is critically important to social interactions: children had to keep multiple pieces of information in mind and change and update that information at a second’s notice as things moved along. The swift pace of social interactions puts huge demands on working memory.

Working memory, planning and organization and self-monitoring were found to predict social functioning in children with autism in another study (3). When combined with behavioral self-regulation (principally inhibitory control), these weaknesses clearly predicted social problems in the children with autism. That is, children with less developed executive functions had more social problems. 

A study of spark* (4) showed that, after just ten sessions focusing on behavioral-regulation, the children with autism showed significantly improved tolerance for change, better inhibitory control, and increased ability to recognize different emotional expressions. The improvement in affect recognition wasn’t expected since the sessions focused only on Behavioral Self-regulation. When a child is helped to focus his attention, increase his inhibitory control and improve his planning and organization and working memory, his ability to detect important information in the world around him develops.

All of these studies point to how important a solid foundation of self-regulation is to learning and using social skills. Also, work on executive functions transfers learning to many different and seemingly dissimilar skills and areas (more on that in upcoming issues of spark* News).

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(1) Hungerford, S., Call-Morin, K., Bassendowski, N., & Whitford, S. (2009). Do executive skills or language skills best predict social competence? American Speech Language Hearing Association Convention. New Orleans, LA. https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/ee33e97c-e608-4812-989c-57b4f4b6c33e/2310_Hungerford_Suzanne.pdf
(2) Freeman, L., Locke, J. , Rotheram-Fuller, E. & Mandell, David. (2017). Brief Report: Examining Executive and Social Functioning in Elementary-Aged Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 47. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314232611_Brief_Report_Examining_Executive_and_Social_Functioning_in_Elementary-Aged_Children_with_Autism
(3) Leung, R. C., Vogan, V. M., Powell, T. L., Anagnostou, E., & Taylor, M. J. (2015). The role of executive functions in social impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Child Neuropsychology, 22(3), 336–344. https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/1f69800b-348e-46ac-8702-c5eed92ee605/Leungetal.2015ChildNeuropsychology.pdf
(4) MacKenzie, E.H. (2014). Enhancing Self-regulation in Children with Autism. In SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS. Felice Corona (Ed). Rome: Aracne.https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/3f6f78ce-0fb0-4bcb-9d29-c77097aac649/Chapter_self_regulation_in_children_with_autism.pdf

In spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life, we start everything by making sure each child is aware s/he has the ability to do what we’re asking. We want them to show themselves (and us) that they can do it.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the years: NEVER ASSUME. Never assume a child knows what you’re talking about and never assume he/she can do something until you’ve tried it out. I remember talking to a young child about using ‘gentle’ hands. He sat there and watched me demonstrate it with my hands and then with his. Then I asked him to show his hand how to do it – he looked surprised that he could do it on his own. He looked like he was saying, “Wow, you mean my hands can actually do that when I want them to?”

There was an interesting study (1) reported recently that looked at motor learning in children with autism. Children were taught to throw beanbags toward a target. Some children were taught to focus on the target (external focus) and some were taught to focus on how their arm and hand moved (internal focus). The children who were taught using internal focus remembered the skills longer and generalized them to other situations.
This study suggested that, if we just focused on prompting children to use ‘gentle hands’ or pointing at objects of interest without working on how it feels, our children will likely be less able to remember to use these skills.

By first focusing on awareness of ability (“I can do it”), our children can learn the motor patterns more easily and can take pride in their abilities.

(1) Tse, A. (2017). Effects of attentional focus on motor learning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. Dec 1:1362361317738393.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29241345