What to Know About Autism

There seems to be a lot of discussion online lately about "changing" autistic children VS letting them do what they want. It seems to blend with the conversations about masking. These topics cause a lot of confusion.

I’m hearing stories

One example is autistic students who “lose it” in the classroom and literally tear the room apart. The adults just try to ignore and let the student do his destruction.

Another theme is students with ASD who “play” by hitting other students, throwing toys and other behaviors that are not tolerated for the rest of the students.

There’s a line of thinking that suggests it is OK and even desirable to let these students “do what they want.”

Here is a different way to think about this

The way we think about a situation frames how we decide to handle it. Here’s what I know.

Autistic children learn patterns and routines. Their style of play is typical for very young children. Often, the way they handle frustration is more like young children do. They keep following those young child patterns, behaviors and routines because that is what they learned first.

Children who learn in a more typical way gradually move from the young child actions to learn more socially acceptable behavior because they observe and respond to what other children do and they imitate other children's behavior. They respond to correction from parents or other care givers.

Autistic children may not make those changes because they don't have the social awareness to make adjustments.

Autistic children are not as apt to "pick it up" by themselves like other children do. They may need to be specifically taught certain play skills or what we would call “more appropriate” behaviors.

What is autism masking?

There is a lot of conversation in the autism community about masking. Masking is defined as when a person learns, practices, and performs certain behaviors and suppresses others in order to be more like the people around them.

Does masking occur just in autism?

Nope! Many neurodivergent individuals, like those with ADHD also share how they mask.

But, when you think about it, do you and I mask? I would say the answer is yes. We change our behavior to match different people groups and various settings. The difference is that when neurodivergent people mask or change their behavior, it’s more likely to create stress or anxiety than the same behaviors for the neurotypical population. Masking creates exhaustion.

Is masking bad?

People talk about masking as if it is a bad thing. Perhaps we need to re-frame how we think about it. Consider this.

We don’t fix autism. . . we don’t cure autism

I understand the current sensitivity about not trying to "cure" autistic children. People reject the goal of trying to "make them normal."

Currently, autism is being described as a different way to learn. It represents a different way to connect with the world.

That means that the teaching techniques used for other students may not work in the same way for these students. 

We need to teach students what they need to learn in the way that they learn. WE need to change what we do and how we do it.

On the other hand, these students require teaching so they can learn new skills, just like any other child. In fact, they may need to be taught very specific skills. Sometimes they need to be taught skills that we don't specifically teach to most other children.

So, perhaps the student who is tearing up the classroom needs to learn how to self-regulate or make requests or meet some other need that is triggering his behavior. Or the child who hits and kicks other students while playing needs to learn how to play in a socially more acceptable way.

It’s important to remember that they are neurodiverse individuals but they live in a neurotypical world that doesn’t understand them or their needs very well.

Adjusting to the needs of various environments is part of living successfully in this world. But for autistic individuals that may take a lot of extra effort and energy.

Teaching skills is different from forcing behavior

We all need to learn to adjust our behavior for various situations in our lives. All children need to learn to use "library behavior" in the library which is different from what they display at a basketball game.

We are doing a disservice to our autistic population if we don't teach them various skills and the social awareness to know how to make adjustments. Ignoring is not a strategy to teach appropriate behavior.

How do autistic students learn?

There is great research about how autistic children learn new skills from watching videos. Videos work really well for demonstrating behaviors that are difficult to represent in other ways.

Keep in mind that knowing the rules and expectations and having the impulse control to follow them are two completely different skills. Imitating behaviors shown in a video is a different way to learn the desirable actions.

Make some short videos of the kinds of play skills or self-regulation skills or any other skills that you want your autistic students to learn. (Not the inappropriate behaviors, just the good ones.)

Create videos that demonstrate calming techniques that a student can imitate. Use some children who are a bit older who can follow your directions and video them performing appropriately. Then arrange for your student to watch those videos (over and over).

The research says that your autistic students will start to imitate the behaviors demonstrated in the videos. It’s an effective way to teach new skills.

Autism behaviors

Of course, there are other reasons autistic students may display challenging behaviors. Emotional or sensory dysregulation are two common causes. It’s important to try to determine the “root cause” of the behavior situation to know the best way to handle it.

What is your perspective?

Trying to make a student “normal” is a very different goal from teaching skills to manage specific situations and needs. How we frame a situation determines how we handle it.

P.S. Please comment. I think there are a lot of opinions on this topic of managing situations with autistic students.

P.P.S. Topics like masking and dysregulation are important for educators and parents to understand so they can provide the right kind of support  for each autistic student. I have a list of about ten more topics that are "essentials" for autism success. New book coming soon!

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Fat Brain Toys Simpl Dimpl
I love this simple toy to help with sensory regulation or just to keep kids busy when they have to wait. The hook is perfect so it can be clipped to a jacket, a belt loop, back pack or purse so it won't get lost. It's a mini version of the bigger pop-its. Clipping it onto something helps so it won't get lost. Check it out

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  1. Great post! Reframing the behavior and looking how WE need to adapt the activity, the environment and ourselves.
    I would love to see an example of a video created to teach an autistic child play skills.

    1. Thank you for commenting! That’s exactly the point. How you define something impacts how you handle it.

      Here’s a YouTube video that I just quickly found. I know it would be nice to find your videos already created, but if you make them yourself, I suspect they will meet your needs better. This example shows how simple it can be. It’s showing appropriate play with the gravel and tools available. If I were creating my own video, this is what I would do. 1. try to be in a quieter room so there isn’t so much background noise. 2. I would try to use children who can clearly model the language I want my targeted child to hear or learn. (setting up your video area with a microphone could be something to try.) Otherwise, the children playing with the tools is what you would want to demonstrate, for example, for a child who throws materials. (One more thing. According to the research, the models in the video don’t have to be young children. They could be adults. But I do prefer kids if you can get it to work. Just remember that your video cannot show negative or inappropriate behaviors. . . just the good ones.)

  2. I don’t understand how an autistic child can be taught to change his behavior. My wonderful grandson,14, tries his best everyday to learn and cope with changing circumstances as they occur but I don’t understand how he can be taught and then expected to anticipate that a possible change might or might not happen. I am an Early Elementary teacher and I know how hard it is for my general education students to anticipate change, eg fire drill.

    1. Yes, change can be difficult and unexpected change is extra hard for autistic students. That’s one of the most important reasons we use visual strategies. I have several blog posts sharing different ways we can use visuals to give students information. Check those out to give you more information to help your grandson.

  3. Hi Linda I’m probably in your age genre. I believe we were Ithacans at the same.
    Anyway so much has evolved over the years
    I have some Questions
    1 Are you recommending PECs
    2. What do you think avout Augmentative devices for young autistic kiddos
    3. Do the you think they can be used simultaneously
    4. Personally I do not know much about AC
    Any recommendatiion for a specific device?
    In regard to your behavioral info. I think that modeling pictorally is a good idea along with whatever is calming for that individual!

    1. You are asking questions that don’t have simple answers. If you think of augmentative communication as using “non-speech” ways to communicate, then PECS and AAC are both augmentative tools. PECS is low tech system using picture cards and computer types are high tech. There are many variables such as age, how the child communicates now and what the child understands that are a part of making decisions about what choices to use. Some children use PECS to help them learn the power of initiating communication. Then when their skills grow beyond what PECS can do, they transfer to a high tech device. Other students start with high tech. It’s important to work with a Speech Therapist who understands AAC to help make decisions. Each child can have different needs and that would guide selecting which tools to use.

  4. I've been struggling with the new perspective on "masking" in ASD. We all choose to display certain parts of our unique humanity in particular circumstances and not in others. I (also an SLP) gave a talk about how to help kids shape certain behaviors into more prosocial behaviors and got lots of feedback about how neurodivergent kids don't need to change their behaviors, everyone else needs to be more understanding and accepting. Although that's part of a kinder and more loving world, I don't think changing the 99% is the answer, especially when the behaviors we're seeing from our ASD kids are not helping them socially, academically, or practically.

    1. I appreciate your comments. You’re right.. . . changing the 99% is not a reasonable goal because it’s not attainable in a generation, let alone a shorter time frame to be meaningful for an individual student.

      The problem is that as a new concept is introduced (neurodivergent kids are different from neurotypical), people easily take that concept to an extreme because of what “someone” says.

      I like to work through some of our ASD challenges with wisdom and logic. Here’s my question. Why do we correct the behavior of our neurotypical children when they are growing and maturing? Why do parents and teachers respond to stop a 3 year old from throwing food or stop a child from stealing a candy bar from another child’s lunch box. Or what about the child who continually hits and pulls hair of peers? If you honestly answer why you teach these children to have different, more socially appropriate, behaviors why would you deprive the neurodivergent child the same teaching?

      Neurodivergent children can learn. But it’s important to understand that the causes of their “different” behaviors may be different from other children. The actual skills we need to teach them may be different. And. . . the strategies to teach them new or alternate behaviors may need to be different from other children.

      My opinion. . . . I think a lot of our “social skills training” is misdirected. Finding a good curriculum with weekly lessons probably won’t accomplish the real goal. I hope this swing of the pendulum gets a quick course correction. We need to teach these students what they need to learn to live comfortably in a complex world. The right option is figuring out what to teach and how to teach it.

      One more thing. . . there have been a lot of comments lately about masking. Is masking really bad? Or is the negative reaction to masking related more to the way it has been taught or the expectations that have been placed on individuals? This would be another topic for conversation. If masking is displaying different behavior in different situations or locations, I suspect we all mask at times.

  5. Hi Linda,

    I have a student whose teacher leaves him in the self-contained room when he decides to masturbate. Do you have any suggestions for teaching a high schooler how to find an appropriate time/place for this activity? My first thought was to redirect him to the restroom.


    1. Sounds like you might need to have a conversation with parents so you can develop a plan that is consistent at both home and school.

  6. autism is a complex developmental disorder that affects individuals in different ways. It's important to familiarize ourselves with the signs and symptoms of autism, as early intervention can lead to better outcomes.

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