“Back door” problem solving for autism with simple tools

Sometimes issues that all kids can have become extra frustrating when working with children on the autism spectrum.  Here’s an example.

I was consulting with a Mom this week about Brian’s challenges in school.  She is frustrated because he brings home fifth grade homework that is “just too hard” for him to do.  We had to “unpack” a number of issues in this conversation so we could sort them out to begin to find solutions.

Here’s the situation

Brian has difficulty with his spelling words.  For homework, he’s supposed to write each word several times to master them. Writing is hard for Brian.  His fine motor skills are not that good and as a result, what he writes is not very legible.

In addition, since writing is difficult, Brian is apt to try to avoid the activity. As you can guess, one problem begets another problem. His protest for the spelling words rapidly turns into a bigger behavior issue. (That’s the autism part.)

Problem solving works

Mom and I talked about the fact that the goal for this activity is to learn to spell the words. There are other tools to practice spelling besides pencil and paper.  We listed several:  magnet letters, type on computer, iPad apps, dry erase board and chalk board were at the top of the list.

Simple tools

Mom left our meeting encouraged.  She’s going to try some of the options.  We discussed giving Brian an opportunity to choose which tool he wanted to use each day. Building choice making into an activity can really fuel motivation for students.

The choice is not – doing spelling VS not doing spelling.  The choice is which tool do you want to use to do the spelling. We also discussed the importance of providing the opportunity to use different tools each day.

There’s a bit of psychology here

This is important to remember.  It’s an “autism thing.” But it’s also a “kid thing.”  It’s called patterns.  Students develop patterns in how they respond to things.

So if a student has a bad experience with the neighbor’s dog and the dog scares him, the next time he sees the dog, guess what? He’ll respond with that emotion of fear.

Spelling words can work the same way.  Perhaps practicing the spelling words with paper and pencil is perceived by the student as a negative experience.  There can be a lot of reasons why.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that trying to work through that student response can be really challenging.

Go in “through the back door”

That’s what I call it. It’s a simple concept, really.  Going in the back door means changing something to change the situation.  For Brian, changing something can mean getting rid of the paper and pencil and using a different tool to learn the skill.  Remember, the goal is to learn how to spell the targeted words. The skill of handwriting is a different objective.

Achieving autism success

I realize that this substitution might seem like a very simple no-brainer for some of you. It is for me, too. That back door is one of the strategies that I’ve used for years to maneuver out of challenging situations when working with children on the autism spectrum. Change something.

It’s easy but it’s hard

Brian’s mom needed a little help refocusing her task. What was easy for me might be something that she just didn’t think about. That’s why we need each other.

Athletes and businessmen need coaches.  Parents and teachers do too.  Sometimes having another viewpoint. . . a different perspective. . . is just the answer to get us unstuck from a problem situation. That’s what worked for Brian’s mom. Do you have someone who can coach you through those tough spots?

Need a coach?  Here’s an option.

P.S.  Dry erase boards can be a perfect “stocking stuffer.”  Besides spelling words, you can use them for writing notes and reminders, practicing math facts, posting rules, listing choices and many more communication needs.  Check this one out.


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  1. Thank you for this sage advice. In working with teachers, particularly general education teachers, it is important they understand HOW our children on the spectrum learn. They need to know that if the child is disgraphic, writing spelling words or math facts over and over is very difficult and often triggers behaviors and non compliance. I do like the idea of using other TOOLS that produce the same result. All teachers (gen. ed and sped) who teach our children on the spectrum or with learning differences, need those tools in their toolbox. Sadly, many do not. Thank you Linda

  2. Good Morning,

    I understand the frustrations our children can go through during the school years. My son now 28 is autistic and I was able to come up with ways to help him not become frustrated, it is hard enough for the right words to express there feeling to come out, and on top of that the adult not understanding or finding solutions to help instead of frustrating the child more. As the adult we can not allow ourselves to become frustrated in front of the child, we must be positive and speak out loud as we come up with the thought process of solutions. I would sound crazy at times when I would speak to my son while I was thinking of solutions, my other children loved it and it actually helped them be problem solvers. My son was diagnosed severely autistic, nonverbal at the age of 1year 8 months, I was only 22, but I made it my goal and his goal to take every challenge without frustration and to teach him how to deal with frustration. I would love to be able to share my ideas and experiences. How or where can I go to be able to be in contact with parents of autistic children to answer or share our experience? My son, graduated High School with principals honor roll, graduated JC Fullerton with a 3.8 GPA and graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a 3.5 GPA in film production and animation. No, he is not super smart, but we taught each other how to accomplish dreams and success. Now our only challenge is getting an interview with his dream companies, Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. He has created several short films some have won mention at film festivals and has also created many comic books. He works currently at AMC 20 Theatres just celebrated one year employed, and the staff loves him.

  3. I have an Autism student during finals that reverted to yelling horrible comments: going to hurt someone, etc. Frightened the class. He had to be removed from the class. He was sent home. I felt he needed to be calmed down in a 1:1 situation and have a staff member sit with him in a quiet, separate room so he could work on his final. Wrong or right?

    1. I have seen situations where students have used “bad” behavior as a way to get what they want. Makes me wonder about this student. Is he actually being rewarded? I think we need a lot more information.

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