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Autism Tasks…Galore. Literally.

What’s a Structured Work System?

Structured work systems are probably best known as “TEACCH Tasks” or “Tasks Galore”  or simply “tasks”, and they’re a component of the structured teaching approach developed by TEAACH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped CHhildren).

In structured teaching, tasks and activities that are set up so that the child knows exactly what they are supposed to do, how much they are supposed to do, and what happens after they are finished. Visual prompts and cues are used to help the child understand what is expected. 

And yes, structured work systems are evidence-based! Wahoo! Check out this overview on The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder’s website.

Last week, I spent a day putting together structured work systems, or tasks, for a child on one of my teams. It started with a trip to the dollar store, a couple of hours of putting things together on my living room floor, and voila! Here are a couple of the tasks that I put together:

Tasks Example

Tips for Creating Structured Work Systems

When creating tasks, consider a few things:

  • Where is the child at? What tasks will the child be able to do?
  • What tasks will be meaningful and functional for the child?
  • Be creative! Think beyond colour/number/alphabet sorting and matching.
  • Tasks don’t have to be fancy or expensive. Tasks can be created from everyday materials you have at home or in the class, using containers and materials you would normally put in recycling and dollar store items.
  • Create tasks that serve multiple functions, and can be easily transformed into new tasks. I like to put all of my materials into ziplock bags and keep the containers separate for easy storage (rather than having hundreds of shoe boxes or containers all stacked up!).
  • Have a plan to fade the work systems or containers themselves so that the child will be able to do the tasks in the natural environment (because doing a task in shoe box or container is okay initially, but not really helpful in the long run).

Need some task inspiration? Check out the Tasks Galore series – you can order them online, or check them out at the Autism Calgary library here in Calgary (they have the whole set!). Also, there are literally hundreds of ideas and pictures on Pinterest.

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Top Free Resources for Visual Supports + Autism

Over the last few posts, I’ve talked about why I think visuals  rock, and how, despite a number of perceived barriers to implementing them, they can do amazing things (they really can!). Two other barriers that I haven’t talked about, but come up frequently when discussing the use of visual supports are, cost and time. Fear not! Even if you’re not fortunate enough to have an incredible Resource Centre like the The Ability Hub in Calgary, where you can make Boardmaker visuals gratis, there are a number of free, ready-made resources available on the web. Here are my favourites (in no particular order):

1) Boardmaker Share: Yes, you must have/buy Boardmaker in order to actually use the materials you download from this website. And yes, that costs money. But, once you do, you can sign up and access literally thousands of free, ready-made and totally customizable visuals. Amazing! When I first stumbled across this website, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why didn’t I discover this sooner?” What a time saver!

2) Geneva Centre for Autism: Want to start using visuals, but don’t know where to start? This site has all of the basics covered, including: first/then boards, choice board templates, simple visual schedules, wait cards, relaxation visuals and volume meters. And all the visuals are real, live, Boardmaker pictures! Cool right?

3) Do2Learn: This site is a good option if you aren’t too worried about having colour pictures (all of the cartoons are in black and white, and I guess that you could colour them yourself, but it’s probably not the highest priority on my list of things I want to spend my time doing). That said, it’s free, and the visuals are organized by category, including: self-help, social, safety, activities, home and school, and calendar. They also give you the option of large, 2 inch, or 1 inch pictures, with or without text.

4) Visual Aids for Learning:  This is another site that has a number of ready-made, cartoon-like visuals organized into popular sections, including: school, early childhood, home, and toilet training.  It also has an adolescent-specific section that includes visuals related to puberty.

5) Picto Selector: Similar to Do2Learn (and for the most part, any site that offers free visuals), this site has only black and white pictures to choose from. But, unlike Do2Learn, where you download or print off ready-made visuals, Picto is very similar to Boardmaker in that it also offers a platform for customizing your visuals, including searching for specific pictures, adding text, and formatting the layout. Not bad.

6) ConnectABILITY: Back in the day, when I first started out working with kids with autism at Community Living Toronto, we were just developing the ConnectABILITY website. It’s come a long way since then, but they’ve kept the classic “Visuals Engine”, where you can select a template, choose a picture, add text, and print or save your visuals as a PDF. And as an added bonus, the site uses real photos and they’re all in colour (Wahoo!).

7) PictureSET: Here’s a little gem from SETBC. It’s a database of visual supports created by professionals working with  students in British Columbia. All of the visuals can be downloaded as a PDF or Boardmaker file, and it’s absolutely free!

Know an amazing site that offers free visuals that I’ve missed?! Share it!

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Visual Supports + Autism II

Another barrier to using visuals that I often hear, especially when working with adolescents and adults with autism is that:

“He/she doesn’t need visuals” or “Visuals are just for kids”.

Not true.

The truth is, visual supports are EVERYWHERE and we all use them in our everyday lives, not just children with autism. From street signs, to calendars, to figuring out how to sort your recycling or where to put your dirty spoon in a coffee shop (see below). These are all visual supports! And yes, we need them! They help us get through our daily routines, remember important things (like your grocery list that you happen to leave on your kitchen counter), and allow us to know what to expect and how to behave at any given time.

Visual supports come in all shapes and sizes. Yes, you have your typical Boardmaker photos that seem to be synonymous with visuals supports and that most people are familiar with. But, if you feel that these are “childish”, that’s okay – in the world of visuals this is only one option. There are photographs, drawings, cartoons, written words or phrases, or a combination of these.

So, how do you choose? In order to ensure that the most effective and useful visual supports are developed,  it’s important to get input from the individual and family regarding what they feel will be most appropriate. It’s also helpful to look at the individual’s skill level (i.e., look at their understanding of pictures, drawings and words as representations of actual items and activities), and their interest in the different types of visuals available (e.g., does the individual seem to be interested in, look at, or attend to actual photos of themselves doing activities, or are they more interested in cartoons?).

That said, regardless of what type of format you choose, visual supports are likely to make a big difference in the life of a person with autism (for more information on the value and importance of using visual supports, see this post on why I think visuals rock!).

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Autism + The Importance of Pairing

 

When you first set out to start working with a child with autism, your first step should always be to pair (or associate) yourself with good things, so that eventually you yourself become a reinforcer (be the “M&M“!). Here are some tips for successful pairing:

  • Do a preference assessment or reinforcer assessment to find out what the child’s interests are, and what they may be potentially motivated by (see this really great video on how to do a preference assessment from Autism Training Solutions)
  • Ensure the environment is “sanitized” (i.e., make sure the child’s toys and reinforcing items are put away and are out of reach). This is done to ensure that the child has to come to you to get access to items they want.  It is also a good idea to bring along with you new and exciting toys and activities that may be motivating to the child and that child only has access to when you’re there.
  • Be the “giver of all things good”.  Do this by delivering reinforcement “non-contingently” (i.e., give the child things that he likes for “free”!). In other words, child does not need to request or “earn” the reinforcers.
  • Do not place any demands on the child (this includes asking questions!), stop or remove fun things. Instead, follow the child’s lead, and if the child is already engaged in a fun activity, join in and make the activity even more fun! And if the child becomes bored with an item or activity, find another one!

Once the child is frequently approaching you, you are ready to start slowly introducing demands and begin teaching!

Check out this video of pairing in action:

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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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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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