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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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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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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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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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Autism-Friendly Summer Camps in Calgary 2012

The end of the school year is fast-approaching and for families of children with autism this can be both wonderful (see: lot’s of free time) and stressful (see: lot’s of free time). Yes, summer is almost here, but it’s not too late if you’re looking for a summer camp and there are quite a few options here in Calgary to choose from:

Janus Academy has three, 2-week long, full-day (9am-3pm) summer camps. Kids can go for just one, all three sessions. This is a popular camp, and spots fill up quickly.

Between Friends (BF) offers a range of camps for children with and without disabilities. In most of the camps, kids are in small groups (from 1:2 to 1:6 camper to counselor ratio). As with most of the autism-friendly camps in Calgary, a 1:1 ratio is not offered, BUT they’re super open to outside support coming into the program (wahoo!).

  • Bonaventure is their outdoor summer day camp for kids and teens (between 4 and 17) with a list of activities that make ME want to go to camp (like horseback riding, canoeing, wall climbing, swimming, sailing, and arts and crafts).
  • Camp Fun’zAmust is a residential camp (i.e., it runs for a week during August, including overnight) and is designed for youth and teens (between 7 and 17). This camp is at the Easter Seals Camp Horizon site near Bragg Creek, and has some really cool activities like ropes courses, river rafting, hiking, archery (for all the Hunger Games fans out there!), and swimming.
  • I.C.A.N! (Inclusive Community Activities With No Barriers) Camps  is a program set up by Between Friends where they’ve partnered with a number of community summer camp providers to train Recreation Inclusion Coordinators (RIC) to educate staff on inclusion, best practices, and offer some support while your child is at camp (note: this isn’t a 1:1 support model, but rather camp staff have someone to go for guidance). Here are some of the ICAN! camps to check out:

The Talisman Centre is one of the many programs to partner up with BF, and offers a schwack of integrated programs from “play for life” (a little bit of everything camp), to gymnastics to yoga.

The Calgary Zoo has the same deal going on as the Talisman. They’ve also partnered with the BF to make sure that all kids, including kids with disabilities can go to camp. So if your child is an animal lover, or Zoologist at heart, this might be the camp for you! The Zoo Tots (ages 4-6) is sold out, but they still have spots left in their Discover the Zoo Camp (Grades 1-6), Art Camp (Gr. 1-6), and Youth Wildlife Workshop for Teens (Gr. 7-12).

The City of Calgary’s Southland and Village Square Leisure Centres offer your traditional summer day camps to children 3-12, with a range of activities such as  swimming, arts and crafts, games, sports and field trips. They have both full day and half-day programs and run from July 3 to August 31 (to see the camps, click on the link and scroll down to page 36).

Let us know if you’re planning on sending your child to summer camp, share your experiences with sending your child to camp (the good and the bad!), and Contact Us and we can help you make the most out of your child’s summer camp experience!

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