Randy Horowitz is the associate executive director of educational services at The Eden II Programs in Staten Island, N.Y. Horowitz has a Master of Science in Education from Queens College and Certificate of School Administration from the College of New Rochelle. She is an adjunct lecturer at Queens College and has presented at local, national and international conferences on topics relating to educating students with autism. Her particular areas of interest include preparing and supporting students with autism for integration into school and community activities.
How has 2011 turned out for you and your family? Are you satisfied with the progress made on your goals and those of your loved ones? Are you pleased with the quality time you spent with relatives? Did you like the gifts you gave and those received?
Working with children with autism and their families has given me a whole new perspective on reviewing the progress of the last year and planning for next. Eating healthier foods should have been easy for me. It was difficult in the Jones household because they have a 6-year-old son with autism who has PICA (a pattern of eating non-food materials).
Hosting a holiday party for my family and serving food and drink should have been easy for me. It was difficult in the Smith household. They have a 10-year-old child with autism who likes to turn cups upside down and watch the liquid spill on the floor.
Putting up and taking down a tree in my house was easy compared to the stress it caused in the Brown household. They have a 15-year-old daughter with autism who cannot tolerate change. Re-arranging the furniture to make room for the tree was extremely unsettling. By the time she got used to it, it was time to take it down and re-arrange the furniture again!
Buying presents for my friends and family should have been easy compared to the stress it evoked in the Kelly family. They have 4-year-old twins with autism and had no idea what they wanted for Christmas. They’d love to have asked their children, but both girls are non- verbal and cannot request their needs and wants, not even by pointing to pictures.
Start Now for 2012 Holidays
Many children with autism may engage in problem behavior when offered non-preferred foods, or when asked to wait in line. Activities to which children with autism are infrequently exposed (like these annual holiday events), may also evoke problem behavior. In many cases, the problem behavior serves as a means to communicate a need or to avoid an unpleasant situation. This infrequent exposure, combined with fears associated with sitting on Santa’s lap, going to new places, wearing new things and being in overcrowded chaotic environments, prevents some children with autism and their families from participating in holiday festivities.
Breathing a sigh of relief that the holiday season is coming to an end, and hoping and praying for a better year to come will not ensure better outcomes in the future. Systematically teaching specific skills and behaviors can help people with autism successfully navigate these “real life” situations and achieve better outcomes. This is a perfect time of year to make your new year’s res-OAR-lution.
Set goals that are Objective, Accountable and Realistic:
- John will increase his repertoire of foods by trying at least three new food items before the end of the school year.
- Joseph will sign, “no, thank you” when offered a non-preferred food.
- Sammy will request a non-edible item from Santa this year (meaning she will develop an interest in toys).
- James will wait appropriately in line in the store while Mom purchases gifts for the family.
- Sammy will open a present, smile, and say, “thank you” to the person who gave her the present.
- Bryan will wear something other than sweatpants to school.
- Jimmy will wait at least 10 seconds for a requested item. This means accepting treats on Halloween, putting them in his bag, and waiting to eat them until after dinner.
You may be thinking that these are goals that ALL kids (adults) ought to strive to achieve. True. The difference, however, is that most children with autism will not learn these skills by observing their peers and siblings. Children with autism need to be systematically taught these skills and behaviors. Repetition and intensity of instruction is critical. Opportunity for practice is mandatory.
Acquisition of such skills may take a very long time. Don’t give up, keep at it! In the meantime, until mastery is achieved, it’s okay to create situations in which your kids and family are more likely to be successful. Avoid food fights; serve chicken nuggets and French fries with your ham and turkey. Don’t pack away the trains from under the tree; add them to your Thomas the Tank Engine collection.
Remember to celebrate all the progress you and your family made last year and get started with your new year’s res-OAR-lutions.