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Getting Ahead Of The Game: Autism, Behaviors and Winning

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At a very early age, games enter and become a part of our life. Childhood games, board games, and card games to name a few. Even as adults, the games continue as does our enjoyment and participation in a variety of ways. Depending on your own perspective, some games are fun, others not so much. The same can be said for behaviors, especially when in combination with autism. Some are wonderful and engaging, while others can be challenging, frustrating and downright insufferable. So a general understanding of the ground rules for behavior increases your odds of winning.

I’m often asked how I handle and manage certain behaviors, both with Jonathan and my students. My first response is that it all depends on the function of the behavior. Once you know and understand the reason, it’s much easier to address the behavior and determine your next move. Somewhat like chess. The players stay the same but there are many ways to approach the game and determine the best strategy. 

Let’s take last week’s post for example: Jonathan the runner. Commonly seen with many children, not just those on the spectrum it usually consists of running to or away from something. Basically there are two things at play, eloping and destination. What are you eloping from and where are headed. For Jonathan, it was typically for a tangible. The playground, vending machine, a car that went by and looked like Jeff’s, a ball rolling outside, other children playing, something at the store and so on. They made sense but still were not desirable and were often a safety concern. 

The opposite is running away from something. We run from danger or anything that threatens us, right? Same for my son and my students. The difference being their perspective of that part of the equation is quite different from ours. Jonathan to this day does not recognize the obvious safety concerns and dangers that I do. A stranger wanting to harm him, guns, knives, our house catching fire. Which, years ago it did and even after months of teaching him what to do if he heard the smoke alarm, when it did, he did not respond. I had to physically assist him away from the danger. 

Every day demands can be too much of a contest, so the end result is to flee. I can’t tell you how many times I was called to assist a student who had eloped from the classroom. When I would find them either roaming the hall or sitting outside their classroom, the answers were often the same. The demand or rigor of the classroom assignment was overwhelming or they felt incapable. Better to leave the classroom then to let others see you as less than a player. Work avoidance was game changer, until they realized the work would still be there when they returned. The solution was to find ways to alter the rules a bit. Breaking down the size of the work, sometimes literally, visually or both. Giving choices and alternative ways to complete the assignment. The options often depended on the skill and ability of the student. The goal being  empowering them to feel in control of their learning as well as successful. We implemented these strategies for Jonathan as well. 

Then there is the attention seeking eloper. How you play your cards on this one, depends on the dealer. I had a student years ago that decided he didn’t like reading, so one day when it was time to read, he left the room. I was called and we discussed why he had left. It took some coaching but eventually I was able to get him back in the classroom and reading. It happened again the next day, and the next day and the day after that as well. When called on the 5th day in a row I noticed something, my friend was smiling, like it was a play date. It dawned on me that was exactly what my arrivals had become. 

The time had come for me to change the game back to the one I wanted to play. I proceeded to walk right past him without looking at him or saying a word. A few doors down was a teacher who knew my friend’s routine and was checking to see if I needed a pinch hitter. I began talking to her out of earshot from my friend and my peripheral vision confirmed a change was coming. As the student came closer, I excused myself and proceeded down the hallway. I made a few short stops along the way until I was back to base-his classroom. He was still in pursuit of my attention and was getting desperate. I walked in and sat at his desk, then began helping the classmate in the seat next to him. My friend sharked past the door— a term I use when a student walks back and forth outside their classroom door to see if anyone is paying attention to them. 

The pressure became too great as did the need for my attention. While I could see him out of the corner of my eye I continued reading with his classmate, when he walked in. Unfamiliar with my new rule, he quietly walked up and said my name. I responded by saying I was hoping to read with him but since he wasn’t at his seat, I decided to read with his classmate. But I was happy to see him and had a few minutes before I needed to leave. We read together and made plans to meet twice a week for reading. 

Now as lovely as that story is, this same student did continue to elope for attention. At first he upped his game and eloped more frequently. I countered by responding exactly the same way every time. No attention until he was back in the classroom.  However, a few things changed. The thrill of the elopement began to fade and I began to surprise him with check ins at his desk. One day when he eloped, he missed my visit. From then on, his frequency dropped and continued to do so. He was being reinforced for the desired behavior, being in the classroom. It began to sink in and it led to some great information as to what worked for him and what didn’t as time went on.

Like games, there are as many behaviors as there are reasons for their existence. Jonathan has been an incredible coach as have my students. Each time I’m called to bat, it is an opportunity to learn, to up my game, to be a better player. It’s not about the win or the rules but more importantly, how your efforts and abilities triumph.

Oftentimes, addressing behaviors is not a game, but with the right strategies, understanding and insights it can be a game changer for everyone.

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