Q: Is spark* just for children with autism?

A: Even though spark* was developed with children with autism in mind, it can be used with just about any child whether he has special needs or not. The activities in spark* are meant to be fun so brothers and sisters and friends can enjoy participating. Any child who has difficulty modulating and modifying his behavior in different settings (like speaking too loudly at a restaurant, church or temple) would benefit. The children I see as having the clearest need for help in developing self-regulation skills in addition to those with autism are children with Fragile X and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

Q: Is spark* just for children with high functioning autism?

A: spark* was developed for and with children who would be consider to have moderate delays. The use of music and rhythm really engages children, even those considered to be ‘lower functioning’. You have to make sure the lessons (a) involve content that’s interesting to the child, (b) use high predictability and visuals to support language you use, and (c) do a bit at a time (that is, sessions should be short and positive and focus on teaching specific self-regulation skills). Planning is beautifully supported by visual schedules and routines (and of course, lots of Velcro!). I emphasize the use of “highlighting” throughout the spark* program where I point out to the child how he used a self-regulation strategy (for example, “Wow, you really used your soft hands!”) to allow for repetition without drills.

Q: What age of child with autism can use spark*? 

A: spark* is intended for children from two years of age through about twelve years of age. The Behavioral Self-Regulation unit can be introduced to very young children as it incorporates music and rhythm which tend to be highly engaging for young children. Music and rhythm are engaging for most children, especially those on the autism spectrum.

For older children, suggests are made for more age-appropriate materials when using the spark* lessons. We’ve used music from Lady Gaga because it tends to have a strong rhythm and lots of repetition as well as being considered ‘cool’ by older children.

To paraphrase Jerome Bruner, the foundations of any skills can be taught to anybody at any age in some form. You just have to be creative in presenting and practising the learning in interesting and meaningful ways.

Q: What is the Language of spark* and spark*EL?

A: Here’s a Backgrounder that will help you understand what the Language of spark*/spark*EL is and what it focuses on – Backgrounder – language of spark and sparkEL.

Q: Can I just skip the Behavioral Self-Regulation unit with more able children? 

A: The issue of shortening spark* has arisen a few times. I developed the program starting with physical/behavioral self-regulation so that a foundation would be built. We start there so that the child develops an understanding of his ability to self-regulate at a very basic physical level.

Also, Turtle Breathing is introduced in the behavioral self-regulation unit and then it’s used througout the other units. That very beginning mindfulness activity is really important.

Within the behavioral self-regulation unit, the idea of being resilient in difficult and more challenging situations is introduced and practiced as is self-advocacy.

So, with the behavioral self-regulation unit, we’re helping each child learn some basic skills and strategies as well as helping him build capacity.

Every lesson is criterion-referenced so that, if the child meets a criterion, he can move relatively quickly from lesson to lesson. For example, the objective for Lesson B:B3 says, “The child will be able to use Turtle Breathing and other calming strategies at least 50% of the time in appropriate situations.” (page 106), he could accomplish this within a lesson and then move to the next lesson. In the next lesson (B:F1. pages 108-111), the child moves on to self-regulating his feet.

I’m reticent to just skip any part because one lesson builds on another to form a foundation. This has been reinforced by therapists in the field who are using the program. They’ve found that even very able children struggle with some aspects included in the Behavioral Self-Regulation unit. Our research has shown also that, during the Behavioral Self-regulation unit, children are developing conscious control over their executive functions which is critical to developing cognitive and emotional self-regulation.

Q: Do you have to use spark* in groups or can I use it in individual sessions or in day-to-day life?

A: spark* can be integrated into classroom and therapy programs as well as into daily family life.  I’ve used spark* in groups as well as with individuals. I like groups because you can often engage children who may be a little more difficult to reach. But you can easily use spark* lessons as warm-up for individual sessions as well as in classrooms and at home in daily life. Read more information on different formats for spark To help you organize your groups, we’ve written a manual – setting up spark and sparkEL groups.

Q: Can I do anything to help kids in everyday life? 

A: Developing self-regulation takes time, as well as support from parents and other adults. Here are some important ways to help in everyday life:

  • Give children choices so they can start learning how to make decisions as well as how to live with the choices they made.
  • Respect children’s opinions so they can begin developing a sense of themselves. This also provides opportunities to talk about how other people’s opinions may be the same and how they may be different.
  • Explain your thinking about why you make certain choices. This will help children learn to make good decisions as well as to accept a different viewpoint. For example, if you have several household chores to do, talk out loud about how you will organize yourself and what you will do first, second, etc. and why.
  • Talk about your own self-regulation. For example, “I would love to have a donut right now but I don’t want to spoil my supper”, “I can just ignore that noise so it doesn’t bug me”, “Oops, I made a mistake but that’s okay because I can fix it up” or “I feel really disappointed that I didn’t win but maybe next time I can.”
  • Let children make some ‘slips’ in self-regulation so you can discuss what they might do next time and how you might help remind them.

Make self-regulation an everyday topic. Notice and comment when it happens. Comment when you use self-regulation (“Wow, I looked really carefully and was systematic and it worked!”). Remind and discuss when self-regulation doesn’t happen and when you forget to use it so everyone can learn from the experience.

Q: Should a child just start using a strategy after I teach it to him?

A: Remember, it takes a long time for typical kids to develop basic self-regulation skills. Children with special needs, autism included, will need many chances to practice their self-regulation skills. The more times you point out to them how they used their self-regulation skills, the more likely they are to remember and use them again. Be sure to take those opportunities to notice and celebrate  – “wow, look how you were systematic! Boy, you didn’t miss a thing!”

Most of the time you will teach a skill directly one or two times and then after that you will prompt the child by asking a question like “What could you do to help yourself?” or “What do you need to do?”. We want him to think about it and remember what you taught him.

If we just keep telling him over and over what to do, he will be more likely to just rely on you to remind him and not bother thinking for himself. For children with special needs, there tends to be too much adult direction. The children wait to be told to do things and not to do other things – when to stop, start, calm down, stay, eat, sleep, etc. They never make the shift from being adult-regulated to self-regulated. We want each child to think things through on his own and make his own decisions as much as possible so he can realize his full independence and potential.

If you do all of these things, each day will bring some improvements but be prepared for some slips. If the child is not feeling well, is tired, hungry or just not himself, he may forget to use the strategies he knows. If he is really out of sorts, don’t worry about self-regulation – that’s time to just back off. Keep perspective and learn when to push and when to relax.

Q: Can parents use spark*?

A: spark* includes complete step-by-step lesson plans – one builds on the next. I’ve written each lesson so that the instructions are scripted for the person using it. There is a complete description of how to practice with the child and help him solidify his learning. Along with all of this are most of the materials you would need and sources for any additional resources. Even though a lot of the information presented in the spark* model would be a little foreign for most parents, the lessons could be pretty easily implemented by anyone because of the detailed way they are presented.