I have always been amazed by the amazing abilities individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have. Sometimes these gifts are hidden and I have to help parents dig for the treasure that lies within. Other times this extraordinary talent is obvious to all, which makes it easy for parents to nurture and cultivate.
Then there is another scenario – one where this skill, this aptitude, is forever present and threatening to interfere with other aspects of daily life. Here is such a situation that was presented to me recently:
“My grandson, 6-1 / 2, frequently plays 'computer games' in his head. He will fixate on one specific game, and will play it in his mind, complete with hand movements and sound effects, for extended periods of time. It is very hard to get him to 'turn it off', and since his voice level also increases when playing these games, it can be disturbing to others, especially if it is during school time. ', which means turning it down, and we also try to get his attention to distract him from playing games in his mind excessively as he completely withdraws into his own little world that way. ”
What an amazing visual brain! Yet, what a dilemma!
Maybe you can identify with this exceptional challenge. Have you discovered the unique and astonishing ability your child on the autism spectrum possesses? Does it occupy more time in the day than you would like?
Once discovered, how do you manage your child's remarkable gift (s) so that it does not hamper growth and development in other areas, such as social skill development? If your child's strong passion to use her unique skill over and over again is presenting a challenge to you, keep reading.
The caregiver mentioned here is justified with her concerns and I applaud her for proactively seeking guidance to prevent this behavior from becoming an obsession. To her credit, she is already employing two very effective strategies that I encourage parents to use in situations such as these – prompting and distraction.
It is important to feed any child's passion but balancing it with everything else that needs to be done and attended to is essential. Here are eight strategies to help you do this.
1. Expand your child's horizons. It is always good to broaden your child's focus beyond his or her immediate environment and interests because you never know when you will discover the key to unlock the special gift he or she has been blessed with. If your child's talent is already handsome, exposing him to the greater world can help you channel his amazing skill onto the most appropriate path. In the example above, it may make sense to introduce this child to the process of creating video. With such a visual talent this child could easily have a wonderful future as a software developer for video games. Beginning to explore the video game world and tapping his passion into the practical side of how video games are made could give this child something else to occupy his mind.
2. Use distraction. When you notice your child beginning to engage in a repetitive behavior give your child something to do or start a conversation. When we are bored, we all default into behaviors that we are not even conscious of doing. So just in case the trigger is boredom, get your child physically active – engage her in exercise or some other activity she can chose from. Sometimes just asking, “What are you thinking about?” will be enough to distract her and stop the behavior.
3. Create opportunities for social interaction. This is a great distraction tool and will help prevent the possibility of your child becoming isolated from peers. Children with ASD struggle enough with social skills and when a child's focus is too narrow, it becomes even more difficult to meet and make friends. Finding like-minded or other minded peers can be a challenge so take the time to explore social situations, groups, clubs, activities that will not only make your child hone his social skills but may introduce him to other interesting topics as well.
4. Pay attention. As the caregiver above points out, her grandson will easily withdraw into his own little world therefore she has to consciously keep her grandson from disappearing into his head too often. Paying attention to the default mode you may tend to fall into when your child is 'employed' and not demanding your attention is critical. When your child is requiring very little from you it is sometimes tempting to allow the behavior to continue. But, you must be careful not to allow your child to hyper-focus in any one direction. Remain hyper-vigilant and always asking yourself, “In what way is the behavior my child is engaging in right now helping her become the person I hope for her to be?”
5. Use realistic prompts. Prompts can be verbal and direct or nonverbal and indirect. Identify in advance, a variety of prompts that will help modify your child's behavior. Prompts should be taught ahead of time so the child understands what they mean. Direct, verbal prompts, are good to use when first addressing a behavior. Verbal prompts give direction and information that helps shape behavior. Parents should eventually move towards the non-verbal and less direct prompts in order to encourage dynamic thinking. Children with Autism ever need to become proficient problem solvers on their own. Encouraging your child when developmentally appropriate to have input into prompts will not only increase the likelihood that they will work, it will also help him become more self-directed. Gradually weaning to indirect, nonverbal prompts will hasten this process.
6. Be proactive. Seek to understand the function of these behaviors. It is important to remember that most of these are unconscious and they occur involuntarily to some degree, especially in the beginning. However, once a child realizes the rush or relief it brings to her senses and how it helps her cope it then becomes more intentional and easily gets reinforced into a habit. As long as it is deemed appropriate it can become a functional way to comfort and entertain one self but if it is seen as dysfunctional and not channelled in the right way it can easily spiral out of control. Ask what function this behavior is serving and see if you can introduce another activity – a more appropriate substitute – that will provide the same results.
7. Focus on your child's positive behaviors. Focusing on appropriate behaviors and explaining the function they serve and why they are acceptable can reinforce more of the same. “I like the way your hands are being quiet. It makes it easier for you to pay attention to what is going on around you.” Then the focus can turn to redirecting the appropriate behaviors and substituting them with more suitable outlets.
8. Schedule time for the behavior. No one can stop a behavior cold turkey, especially if it has been meeting a physical, psychological or sensory need and there is nothing much to replace it with. Schedule times and places through your child's day when she knows she will be able to engage in the behavior you are trying to modify. Allocating time for this behavior into your child's visual schedule will comfort her to know it is not completely banned and will also teach appropriate time and place. Think of it as a gradual weaning process – as you decrease engagement in the negative behavior you slowly increase exposure to a more positive substitute.
Helping your child utilize her passions, interests and talents in a productive way is a constant balancing act yet it does not have to be a struggle. Sometimes conscious paying attention to how these wonderful gifts impact her life is all that is needed to help keep her on track to becoming the amazing person she was meant to be.