Time on Task

Somehow, between June 18th and September 4th, my son changed. Some of the changes I could see unfolding right in front of my eyes; other changes happened instantaneously. Caleb is more self-reliant,¬† polite, controlled, and has dramatically reduced his defiant behavior. He walks with my husband and I without running off. He actually seeks out approval by asking to help me. I’m not sure what created the change, but I have some ideas.

First of all, for the first time, I made sure that Caleb and I did “study time” every day for about an hour and a half a day. I theorize that for Caleb to truly know something, he has to practice it for longer than his neurotypical counterpart. Caleb needs to strengthen his neural pathways with repetition, and once those pathways are forged, that information is locked in. (I want to say that I agree with those who say, “if you have met one autistic child, you have met one autistic child.” All I am say is how I see Caleb and how I respond to what I see.)

Another change we made was his token economy system. Instead of just earning stars which can be traded in for books from Amazon, we have allowed him to also save up cash; this money is then used for large trips with the grandparents, such as to the aquarium or zoo.

Finally, we started expecting more from Caleb. He now has to groom himself every morning; we help him, but he cooperates now. I mean, yes, Caleb is going to complain every time I brush his hair, but it is just a verbal complaint. No hitting, no screaming, no falling to the floor. He also participates in chores; he is in charge of picking books up and putting them away because otherwise the puppy likes to chew on them.

Whatever the reason, the change is incredible. It gives me such hope for the future.

I remember having to digest that I had a son with “severe autism.” We didn’t know if Caleb would ever speak, let alone be able to lead a “normal” life. I remember the tears and the fear and I just wish I could go back in time and tell myself that everything would be okay. Back when Caleb was first diagnosed, I read horror story after horror story about autistic children being violent and having to be institutionalized. I knew nothing about autism, other than it was a dream wrecker.

For those of you who are just going through the beginning stages of autism-acceptance, please take heart that it can be okay if you put in the work. There are many studies that show that the greatest indicator of success is time on task. Want to be the best piano player ever? Practice every day for as long as you can. Want to be the best writer, the best rollerblader, the best hot dog eater? Time on task.

Temple Grandin, who is a goddess, suggests that autistic children get somewhere between 20 – 40 hours a week in therapies. Obviously she doesn’t mean that a child go to Occupational Therapy 40 times a week; there are plenty of therapies we parents can do at home with our children. Everything from core exercises, to art projects, to playing games – every exercise has a lesson to learn. How to hold scissors, how to wait for your turn, how to follow instructions – all of these are important lessons beautifully hidden in fun time.

To be truthful, many of my attempts to teach Caleb have failed. It has been through sheer force of will that I have been able to get through all the rejection I felt and still try to help Caleb be happy and interact with the world. It is time on task for us parents as well; I don’t blink an eye when Caleb has a meltdown in public. I attend to his needs by sitting down next to him and telling him I love him (which is what he asked me to do when he has a meltdown), but I also do not give in and let him have whatever sparked the meltdown. I am loving but strict, and I believe you can be both. I am strict about him using the potty or eating well; that said, I don’t regulate his electronic time except for when it is electronics’ bedtime. For me, finding that balance has all been time on task.

I cannot speak as to how other autistic children work or feel or anything – I just know what has worked for Caleb and me. I hope that maybe what has helped us can maybe help others as well.

P.S. I am not a behaviorist, I just sound like it.

Fun at the Detroit Zoo

As I have mentioned before, we keep a token economy in the house. Caleb can earn stars which he can use to buy books, he can earn money to save, and he can earn money to pay for trips. So far this summer, he has paid for a trip to Sea Life Aquarium and Lego Land, and most recently, a trip to the zoo with the ultimate experience, including Dinosauria. We even bought tickets that allowed us to feed a giraffe. Caleb was not very well behaved with the giraffe, but each one of us got a turn, and it was really cool.

Each trip, he has paid for himself, my husband, my husband’s parents, and me. Now, I have incredibly generous parents-in-law who like to pay for themselves (I ask them to just put the money back in Caleb’s trip fund).

In order to make each trip easier, Caleb (via me) has prepaid for the tickets and then set aside money to spend on gifts and stuff. Caleb is not really good at standing in line, so any obstacles we can remove ahead of time, the better.

This past Friday, all 5 of us went to the zoo, and like I mentioned before, we got the ultimate experience. I would totally recommend it.

First we saw the penguins and then the reptiles, and worked our way past the camels and zebras, and found the entrance to Dinosauria. It was super freaking cool. The dinosaurs moved and made noises. There were not just adult dinosaurs, but whole families or packs. Lots of adorable little babies hatching out of eggs and such. I also got spit on right on my crotch, so it looked like I peed myself – it was pretty funny.

We saw lemurs, a beautiful lion, a grizzly bear, and seals.

Everyone at the zoo was very kind; we have been to the Detroit Zoo since Caleb was a baby, and we have always had a wonderful time. The workers there are incredibly understanding when it comes to Caleb’s behavior. I have never had a negative experience with a single zoo worker. That is another reason why it is worth the expense.

I have to admit, my phone died about halfway through our 4 hour tour (yes, 4 hours. Yes, I was exhausted.) because I was so busy catching pokemon and spinning pokestops. I caught about 25 squirtles. I know, I know, so silly, but it is something Caleb and I were able to focus on when he was getting tired. Plus, fine, I like it too. Fine. I’ll admit it. I like pokemon. Anyway…

We decided to not to take the train from the Africa stop all the way down to the exit because we wanted to stop at the experience center; our tickets allowed us entrance to a 4D movie or a simulation ride. We got there right at 1pm, right as the sea monster 4D movie was about to begin. I have to say, it was fun. Plus, Caleb sat through the entire 15 minutes, which is a pretty big deal. He was super tired, near tears, but sat through a short movie. (btw, we passed a family that was really tired but didn’t have the money to buy train tickets, so we gave them ours. We all were so happy that we could help someone else and that happiness gave us a little extra energy to get through the rest of the trip.)

4 hours was too long for Caleb and he was pretty miserable on the way out. He had to be carried for a while and tears were streaming down his face. We offered to take him to the gift shop; I offered him $50 that he could spend either at the shop or on anything else he wanted. He asked for some candy (I just paid for it); when I suggested he use the rest of his money to pay for the interactive globe he has been wanting for months, he instantly jumped at the chance. Again, here is Caleb, exhausted and overstimulated and he is making wise choices. I was super proud. Still am.

Overall, the 5 of us going to the zoo was about $150. This is definitely not something that we can afford every month; that said, I feel like we got our money’s worth out of the experience. We did bring all our own food and drinks, which makes a huge difference money-wise.

We had such a good time, we are looking into getting a zoo membership.
5/5 stars!

Behaviorism, Positive Reinforcement, and Unintended Consequences

When dealing with Caleb, I have found that I really rely on behaviorism. Because we have no real way to find out what is going on inside his brain (he doesn’t have the skill set to communicate well about his feelings), we have to treat it as a black box. Performance is our primary way of assessing Caleb’s abilities and evaluating success.

One of the biggest pitfalls with using behaviorism is that most people don’t understand the difference between rewards, positive reinforcement, and incentive systems. So, here are my operational definitions:

*Rewards: anything given to a person in hopes of getting that person to learn or extinguish a behavior.
*Positive Reinforcement: an action, stmuli, or gift given to a person that will encourage the person to either learn or extinguish a behavior. Unlike rewards, positive reinforcement guarantees success. Well, for a while, anyway. Then you need schedules of reinforcement, but that is a whole other post.
*Incentive Systems: this process is about creating an atmosphere that encourages motivation within a person. This means that like positive reinforcement, you are aware of what is important to the subject. However, positive reinforcement in contingent upon behavior  whereas incentive systems are in place before the person performs, and will continue to exist regardless of performance.

We do a combination of positive reinforcement and incentive systems. Our house is very Caleb friendly, as one can probably tell by the treehouse in our living room. Caleb has access to toys, electronics, books, and some art supplies, so he doesn’t have to ask us for everything. However, we do use a token economy a lot, and that is straight-up behaviorism and positive reinforcement.

There is one more pitfall when it comes to behaviorism: unintended consequences. For example, whenever I got into trouble as a kid, my punishment would usually include cleaning. I did a lot and lot of cleaning. We had 4 darn bathrooms in our house; there was always something that was in need of a good scrubbing. However, the unintended consequence my parents didn’t see coming was that for a long time, I hated cleaning. Even well into my 20’s, my house was a pig’s sty.

Now, as a mom, I definitely have more of a nesting mentality overall; I actually clean all the time without being asked and without negative feelings. But it took decades to get there.

Punishment is a very tricky process. Again, you want to encourage good behavior and extinguish bad behavior. That is kind of the beauty of a token economy; you can earn or lose stars and it isn’t me that is doing anything, as I am simply moving the stars he lost or gained. We do use timeouts, but only for when he has used his hands for hitting (this book is great for hitters). Plus, once we got into the habit of earning stars, Caleb has seen their value and really cares if he earns them or loses them.

Right now one of my main goals is for Caleb to be able to walk with me without me needing him to wear his monkey backpack (skiphop monkey backpack), and for him to behave when we are out shopping, ie, walking with my husband and I and not running off, not falling to the floor, not grabbing things off the shelf, etc. We took a long nature hunt yesterday, and Caleb was able to stay with us for the most part. He earned 7 stars for just staying close to us.

My recommendations are:
*Make sure that you identify the behavior you want to change
*Identify the difference between the “what is” and the “what should be”
*Put together an incentive plan that involves something important to your subject (ie, Caleb loves electronics, books, art projects, and going on family trips).
*Discuss with your family how the stars will be earned or lost; everyone needs to be on the same page so there is no confusion.
*Avoid punishment unless it is absolutely necessary
*We are currently trying to never yell unless it is because Caleb is in danger; this helps so much.
*Use a combination of contingent and non-contingent incentives
*Have a list of actions for your subject to complete; this list should be visible to your subject at all times and also state how many stars are earned for each performance.
*Push just hard enough, but not so much that they break. When trying to learn new skills, it can be overwhelming for Caleb; I have to constantly gauge Caleb’s mental load to make sure that he is not about to have a meltdown.
*Always think about what unintended consequences might arise from a punishment or incentive.

Study Time: Reframing Homework

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Because Caleb is insanely smart, my husband and I have worked to develop curriculum  that best suits his educational needs. Yes, he has a parapro at school, but what we are working with is a contextual issue. Caleb needs to attend public schools in order to learn how to properly interact with his peers.

However, the school is not an environment that is best suited for Caleb learning information or skills. This is where Amazon and Costco truly shine; they both sell workbooks that allow you to teach your child an array of skills without having to develop your own lesson plans.

The school did provide us with the first grade math workbooks, but we have blazed through those. We are now working on multiplication and division. Some workbooks focus on one subject, like addition or geography; there are also workbooks for each grade which are also incredibly helpful.

I have also found that flash cards are a great way to help reinforce information. With young children, Behaviorism usually works best; performance is the best indicator of success. It is all about practice, doing the same drills over and over again.

We keep a token economy at home, where he can earn (or lose) stars based upon performance. We use the I Can Do It chart at home. We first used a variety of activities, but now we just have one main theme of “No Mean Words,” and all of the stars go into the same pot. Caleb can exchange 10 stars for one book, or he can exchange stars for money which he then uses to pay for excursions to the aquarium or Legoland, etc.

At 3:30pm everyday, we have “study time.” Caleb can choose 2 of the 7 listed possible subjects, which include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, handwriting, reading, and geography. We also so vision therapy everyday. He controls which subject matter we study first, and I give him the time he needs to answer the questions. Being patient is not a strong suit of mine, but with autistic children, you need to relax and let them answer in their own time. I’m talking like 2-3 minutes, maximum.

The 4 cornerstones of motivation are challenge, curiosity, fantasy, and control. Malone only uses 3, but I have added “control.”

Challenge: Make sure that the subject matter is appropriate for their abilities. It should push them, but not too hard. They should have relative success in the end, even if it is a bit rocky in the beginning.

Curiosity: Be sure to pick a subject matter that is interesting to your child. Maybe they are not crazy about math, but they love Pokemon, so counting Pokemon is a great place in the middle. A lot of autistic children are naturally attracted to electronics; educational games on my son’s Kindle helped him learn how to read at age 2 1/2. Do not discount how helpful electronics can be, as autistic children are not the same as their neurotypical counterparts.

Fantasy: This refers to anything that doesn’t already exist; by taping into a child’s creative side, you allow them to think about the future they want. This may be as simple as thinking up numbers to add together or as complicated as an art project.

Control: Allow your child to have some influence over the subject matter they learn, including how to learn it (workbook, flashcards, problem solving, etc). By giving them ownership, they will be more intrinsically motivated to learn.