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Teaching Your Child with Special Needs Difficult Skills

Teaching Your Child with Special Needs Difficult Skills

Patricia Romanowski Bashe, M.S. Ed., author of The Parents’ Guide to Teaching Kids with Asperger Syndrome and Similar ASDs Real-Life Skills for Independence, shares the importance of teaching children on the autism spectrum difficult life skills and how you can help your child learn those skills for independence.

Our emotional investment in our kids’ success can be both a blessing and a curse. Why teaching children difficult skills is worth it for parents, despite frustrations—and some ideas for making the process a little bit easier.

Parents of children with special needs wear many hats—advocate, protector, interpreter, coach, chauffeur, tutor, playmate, social guide—and they often wear at least some of them for years, even decades, longer than parents of typical kids. When we learn that our child has an ASD diagnosis, most of us bolt out of the gate, determined to win this race, no matter what the emotional, financial, or social cost. We will, as we tell anyone within earshot, “do anything” that might help. By late elementary school to middle school, most of us are still in the race, but the pace has slowed as we take in the weary realization that even the best efforts sometimes come up short.

As a teacher-consultant, I give a lot of advice to parents and other professionals. I’m full of suggestions, tips, and strategies for things that parents can do to help their kids, and I admit that I sometimes have a hard time understanding parents who freely admit that they try but do not always follow through on everything that professionals like me have to offer. Of course, as a parent, I know firsthand how hard it is to always follow through on each and every recommendation your child’s teacher, behavioral therapist, or other professional suggests; it can be easy for professionals to lose sight of how much parents are juggling. If you could assemble all the wonderful teachers, behaviorists, occupational therapists, speech teachers, coaches, trainers, socialization therapists, audiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, special education attorneys, and other wise people who have helped my son, Justin, it would make the Verizon network look like a coffee klatch.

It would be wonderful to follow through with everything that I know might possibly help. That said, some suggestions are more likely to be followed than others: namely, those that work. The recommended strategy probably won’t be easy or quick, but whatever effort you and your child put into it will be worth it. It’s clear that parents recognize the value of these skills, and they are willing to do the work. But, like everyone, we too need some reinforcement to keep going.


Parent as Teacher

Parents are different from teachers (and here I include any therapist or other professional whose intervention succeeds through teaching). Teachers are trained for this work; they know how to depersonalize a kid’s anger, resistance, and whining; they have done this all before, so their faith in knowing it works goes far to carry them—and their students—through the rough patches. And they get paid and go home at some point.

In contrast, parents do not come to this task as much as it falls upon them. Untrained, emotionally tethered to their child, unsure whether the work will be worth it, and ‘on duty’ all the time, mothers and fathers start at a real disadvantage. That extra, emotional investment we bring to endeavors such as teaching our kids difficult skills can be both our noblest trait and our undoing.

For parents, some advantages of using behaviorally-based strategies are the focus on objectivity, systematic teaching (that is, there is a reason behind everything you do), and consistency. Once I learned to use Applied Behavior Analysis strategies with my own son, I saw immediately how time-consuming and unproductive my earlier efforts had been. I’d been engaging in a lot of ‘mom talk,’ such as “I have shown you this a million times,” “Isn’t there something wrong with your socks?” or, “Don’t forget to put the cap back on the toothpaste!” These nonteaching comments undermined teaching because they shifted his focus from learning the task to having a conversation with me. They also made learning less pleasant and less reinforcing than it needed to be for my son to succeed.

For several years after receiving my son’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, I rejected structured teaching approaches like those based in ABA. I thought that caring, supporting, helping, doing for, and understanding would help him more. While those are definitely essential to his well-being and to my sense of myself as a good parent, I missed a crucial reality: None of those things teach my son the skills he needs to no longer need me.

All that said, parents can be the best teachers for conveying these skills. Why? To begin with, you know your child better than anyone else does, and you already have a rapport with her. What’s more, you don’t have to work at establishing yourself as a reinforcing presence, and you control and inhabit the natural environment where most of these skills can be taught and practiced. Finally, no one in this world, no matter how dedicated and expert, cares more about your child than you do. This bears repeating. No one cares more about your child and her well-being than you.

When a child struggles to learn, and especially when it’s for reasons that we do not expect or cannot fully grasp, the situation certainly can feel overwhelming. Often, though, our emotional response to our child’s frustration and failure (and, I daresay, our own), is what complicates the picture. If you step back far enough to turn down the emotional static—yours and your child’s—and focus solely on the task or skill and the behavior needed to complete or teach it, things will be much easier.


Setting Goals

For children with Asperger’s syndrome, daily living skills do not take root and grow on their own. Not only do people with AS (and many on the autism spectrum) need to actively learn basic skills, they need them to be taught using techniques that replace, mimic, or impose missing order on the learning processes that do not work sufficiently at the neurological level. In her book The Parents’ Guide to Teaching Kids with Asperger Syndrome and Similar ASDS Real-Life Skills for Independence, Romanowski Bashe serves up specific ABA-based strategies so you have the tools on hand to become an effective teacher to your child. As a special education teacher, early-intervention provider, board-certified behavior analyst, and mother to a child with AS, Romanowski Bashe deftly blends hard science with a personal understanding of what works for parents.

aba task chart
*Click image for printable version

A major aspect of a functional teaching plan is breaking goals into bite-sized pieces. This chart illustrates different levels of breakdowns—or task analyses—for a child to make oatmeal. It may take you watching your child try to perform a specific task a few times before you are able to effectively break them down in a helpful way—you, after all, are used to doing these tasks without a second thought, and you don’t want to miss steps that are not intuitive to your child.

Comic Relief: What are some of the things that moms and dads find themselves most in need of when trying to teach skills to their children? Patience, time, repetition, and consistency were most often cited as helpful by parents in an anonymous survey conducted by Romanowski Bashe. One joked, “A loudspeaker with the tasks repeated over and over, so I don’t have to say it anymore.” Other replies included winning the lottery, hiring a full household staff, and having a “magic pill.”


Reprinted from the book The Parents’ Guide to Teaching Kids with Asperger Syndrome and Similar ASDs Real-Life Skills for Independence by Patricia Romanowski Bashe, MSEd, BCBA. Copyright ©2011 by Patricia Romanowski Bashe. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.


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