Monthly Archives: July 2012

Autism Conference Webcasting!

The Penn State Autism Conference (with FREE Webcasting!) is now up! The conference runs from Monday July 30th (today) until Thursday August 2nd. As an added bonus: all of the presentation notes and handouts can be downloaded from the Penn State website! Check it out here!

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Visual Supports + Autism

Many children with autism are visual learners (see Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures). That said, it’s not surprising that visual supports often play a key role in intervention programs for children (and adults) with autism. Even so, sometimes it can be a tough job trying to convince people of the value and importance of using visual supports.

Over the next few posts, I’ll address some of the most common barriers to using visual supports and share some of my favourite resources.

“I don’t understand why we need visuals”

Every child is different, but more often than not, visual supports make a big difference, especially when it comes to addressing problem behaviour (and transitions, communication, social skills, leisure activities, daily living skills, and vocational skills). Basically visuals rock for a number of reasons. Here are a few:

Visuals enhance the understanding of expectations. Unlike words, which are fleeting, visuals are concrete (i.e., you can see them) and they stick around longer so your child can refer back to them a number of times if they need to. This is especially important for children who have difficulty following spoken instructions or processing difficulties. In short, visuals help children with autism better understand what we are saying to them.

Visuals break it down. Using visuals, you can break down complex tasks and display them in a simple and manageable step-by-step format. If you’ve ever been on Instructables (learning how to build a HUGE BUBBLE MAKER no doubt), or learned how to make a cool craft from Pinterest (like an origami paper crane), you’ll know that when you’re learning something new, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Also, this can reduce your child’s frustration by making the task seem easier and more approachable.

Visuals increase predictability. Children with autism often thrive on consistency and predictability within their routines and daily schedule. Visuals allow you to present the passage of time, events (including what events are going to occur and the order they are going to occur) and changes in daily routines in a clear, simple way. In addition, visuals give your child a way to reliably predict when an activity or task will be “finished”.

Visuals increase independence.  The great thing about visuals is that once you teach your child to use them, you can back up and gradually fade yourself (and often the visuals) out so that your child is engaging in the activity or task independently. In contrast, if you’re only using verbal prompts or cues, someone always needs to be there to tell your child what they need to do next.

Other reasons why visuals rock? They increase motivation (think: first/then boards), support choice-making (think: choice boards), and enhance communication (think: PECS).

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Evidence-based Practices + Autism

In a world of endless interventions and treatments for children with autism, parents and professional have a big job of sifting through which ones are likely to be effective, and have some scientific backing (aka evidence-based practices) and those that are not.

Fortunately, there are a number of free and easily accessible publications to help you navigate this process:

(1) AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS: GUIDE TO EVIDENCE-BASED INTERVENTIONSThis is the newest publication from the Missouri Autism Guidelines Initiative, and companion document to the widely respected 2010 publication, “Autism Spectrum Disorders: Missouri Best Practice Guidelines to Screening, Diagnosis, and Assessment”, which can also be downloaded from their website.

The director of Autism Speaks, Alycia Halladay, PhD, says, “This is an excellent resource for information on evidence-based interventions. It clearly spells out types of interventions and how they can be useful for individuals with ASD in a way that is understandable for multiple audiences. Parents and professionals working together on an intervention plan can use this guide to work through ideas, suggestions, or behavioral concerns.”

(2) A PARENT’S GUIDE TO EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE AND AUTISM: The National Autism Center has published a number of documents based on the National Standards Project, including this one, aimed at providing parents with information on evidence-based interventions.

Peter Gerhard, Ed.D., the Founding Chair of the Scientific Council Organization for Autism Research says,“In a field rife with fads, pseudoscience, and popular, yet unproven, interventions, the findings of the National Standards Project are a welcome and much-needed counterbalance to much of the hyperbole for both professionals and families.”

(3) THE NATIONAL PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT CENTER (NPDC) ON AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS (ASD): While not a guideline per se, the NPDC on ASD has identified 24 practices that meet the criteria for evidence-based practices for children with autism and has developed Evidence-based practice (EBP) briefs for all 24 that you can download from their website. They are also in the process of developing online modules for each of the evidence-based practices, which are available on the Autism Internet Modules (AIM) website.

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Teaching Safety Skills to Children with Autism

Here are the highlights from another talk that I attended at the 39th Annual Applied Behaviour Analysis International (ABAI) Conference in Seattle on the importance of teaching safety skills to children (and adults) with autism.

Teaching Safety Skills to Individuals with Disabilities:                                                                    

Every parent wants their child to be safe. And for many parents of children with autism, safety skills are often top of mind. Safety skills cover a broad range of skills, but when you boil it down, they can be put into one of two categories: (1) dangers in the social environment (such as kidnapping, abuse); and (2) dangers in the physical environment (such as poisons, matches).

In this talk, Miltenberger stressed the importance of reliably assessing the safety skills of children with autism and other disabilities after they have been taught. Because you want to (need to) know that if your child found a firearm in the home (there was a heavy emphasis on this during the talk, assuming because this is more common in the US because of their laws around firearms), that they would in fact: (a) not touch the gun; and (b) go and tell an adult immediately.

It turns out that it doesn’t matter if your child can tell you what needs to be done when faced with a safety threat, nor demonstrate that he/she could act it out successfully in a role-play situation; it’s the real-life simulation (i.e., your child doesn’t know that he/she is being tested) that will give you the real measure of how your child will stand up if it actually happens. It’s like those “quality” daytime talk shows when they set kids up by knocking on their door when their parents aren’t home, and pretending to be a stranger to see how the child will respond (all the while their parents and a video crew are watching from a live feed in the backyard). It looks like Oprah wasn’t so off on this one.

Miltenberger also stressed that these real-life assessments need to be carefully designed with the child’s safety and well-being in mind. It’s meant as a protective measure and a learning opportunity.

Sound scary? Definitely. But in this case, isn’t knowing better than not knowing? If you want to learn more, check out this article by Miltenberger that looks at the different types of safety skills, how to assess safety skills, and general guidelines for teaching safety skills to children.

What are your top safety concerns for your child? What strategies have you found to be effective?

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38th Annual ABAI Conference Highlights

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a self-professed “Behaviour Geek”, and any opportunity I have to learn about the wonderful science that is behaviour, I’m in. And so, every year I pack up and head to a number of different cities to attend training seminars, workshops and conferences. This year, I had the wonderful opportunity of going to visit one of my favourite cities in the States for the Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) 38th Annual Convention in Seattle (aka a Behaviour Analyst’s heaven).

In between waking up early to walk down to the market to Le Panier to devour the most incredibly decadent almondine croissants,  drinking the most delicious coffee on the earth from Monorail (a really cool, walk-up coffee window in the heart of downtown, almost too conveniently located a block away from the Convention Center), and meeting up with a few of my incredible advisers and professors from UBC, Dr. Joseph Lucyshyn (see wonderful, and this equally wonderful book on Positive Behaviour Support with families) and Dr. Pat Mirenda (see amazing, and this equally amazing book on AAC), I managed to pack in quiet a hectic schedule of workshops and lectures, leaving me tired and delighted, my brain filled with all things ABA.

Over the next few posts, I’ll highlight some favourite workshops and talks. Here’s the first:

Interventions for Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviour in Children with Autism:                          

Anyone working with children with autism has probably experienced what I call the “Thomas the Tank Engine” phenomenon – an almost obsessive interest in all things Thomas.

There has been a lot of interest the field of autism and ABA regarding the presence of OCD-like behaviours in children and adults with autism (sometimes referred to as autism obsessive-compulsive, or autism “OC”). The main difference it seems is that autism OC behaviours are not always related to relieving anxiety; rather, many individuals with autism often enjoy these repetitive behaviours (whether it be reciting lines from Thomas, talking about Thomas, playing with Thomas toys, looking at Thomas books, etc.).

The second part of this talk was about finding ways of taking these restricted “obsessive” interests and behaviours that are all too often seen as a hinderence and using them to teach skills. I love this! Embrace the laser-like focus children with autism have for these interests! I mean, what would have happened if someone told Stephen Wiltshire that he was drawing too much as a kid? Or told Temple Grandin that she thought too much about cows?

One of many the areas that the researchers are exploring is the use of these interests in teaching joint attention skills.

What are your child’s special interests and talents?

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