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.
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!
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