How You Can Elevate Your Child From Deck Hand to Captain of The Ship
8 years ago, we had a star student at SAI (Support for Autistic Individuals)
He breezed through his language and skill drills. In a couple of years, he had mastered every objective I set for him. The ABLLS (Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills) grid was full. He had achieved all his targets.
It was time for him to graduate to a school which would take care of his academic needs. So we initiated his transfer.
It was a great feeling to see him move on due to the amazing progress he made. On his last day at SAI, he came into my cabin for his daily ritual — to watch his favorite rocket video. As always, he watched it with rapt attention.
I was overcome with emotion. I would never see him again. The tears wouldn’t stop and I kept reaching out for tissues. He walked away as soon as his video was done, not noticing or acknowledging my feelings.
One thought reverberated in my mind — “I taught him everything. But what did I really teach him?”
We’ve taught skills for many years. There has never been a problem with skills. Every child needs skills and abilities to complete tasks.
The problem is teaching skills without teaching the function. By function, I mean the ‘why’ or the ‘why bother.’ One of my colleagues, Lisa Palasti, likens functions to the glue that holds skills together. By themselves, skills will not take a child too far. It’s about the process and not the product.
Examine these 2 scenarios:
You keep everything in place for your child to make perfect French fries.
You instruct the child to pick up the potato and peel it. You prompt if he doesn’t peel it correctly. Then you instruct him to cut the potato finely.
You prompt him physically or partially till he gets it just right. Then you ask him to add a certain amount of oil to the pan. It has to be the exact quantity.
When it’s hot enough you instruct him to add the potatoes. You teach him to wait till the potatoes are fried. Then he’s prompted to drain the oil, transfer the fries to another plate and add salt.
If this activity is broken down into tasks and each task is practiced to perfection, your child becomes independent eventually.
Mission accomplished — you’ve taught your child to make perfect French fries.
Your child wants to make French fries. Your aim is to focus on his thought process and rather than the skill of making French fries.
The same activity can be done keeping the process in mind. No item is arranged for the child. You are a co participant, not an instructor. You can help with the skill — if his thinking is in place.
You ask the child to take initiative. He needs to find the potatoes, the chopping boards, peelers and knives. Give him time to figure out where each of these is.
Once this is in place and he starts to peel a potato, you can pick another and start peeling it. Remember, you can help with the skill, if he requires.
Peeling and chopping is secondary. The emphasis is on thinking and problem-solving. Once the chopping is completed just pause. Give your child time. Will he get the frying pan on his own?
Does he realize he needs to turn on the gas? (Safety is of utmost importance.)
Does he find the oil and add it? Let him figure out how much is good enough. If he adds too much. Don’t stop him. Instead use it an opportunity to force him to think. “Its too much, what are you going to do about it?”
At this point, do not indicate, or point or glance at a probable solution immediately. Let go of your own thought process and see what he comes up with. Challenge him to problem solve.
You may be surprised with what he comes up with. Once he figures it out, proceed with the next step. If not – stay with the problem for at least 45 seconds and then help as required.
Give him the responsibility to think and problem solve at each step.
There’s a stark difference in working with skills and working with function. It’s easy to break an activity into tasks and teach each step. Whereas when you work on functions, you’re faced with a dynamic situation and you don’t know how it will turn out.
It’s not difficult to work on perfecting skills. Working on the process is far more time consuming. But it’s worth it. You will see the smile of competence on your child’s face.
Over time, the intrinsic motivation you seek for you child, will come knocking at your door — unasked. The emotional connect between you two will develop too.
Keep in mind the points below when you work on functions and processes.
1. Be a guide, not an instructor
2. It’s okay for your child to make mistakes
3. Use minimal words
4. Use non verbal communication to enhance your communication
5. Stay with the questions. Don’t give your child the answer immediately.
6. Give him the responsibility to self correct and problem solve
7. Above all, give time.
Dear Friend, you have two choices.
You can teach each activity 10 times to perfection, or you can give your child the tools to think so he can engage in 10 different activities — without teaching each and every activity.
Don’t be under the illusion that your autistic child cannot think for her/himself. Foster independence. Let your child learn from experiences. Let him learn from mistakes.
I’ve outlined one activity in this article. You can access many more ideas in my ebook — Independence in Autism.
Incidentally, I met my star student a couple of years after he moved from SAI. He was a shadow of his former self. It broke my heart to see him clinging to his mother, filled with anxiety.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince his mother to move away from academics for sometime to strengthen his developmental foundations and functions. I hope this article will inspire you to take a step in the direction of working on the process rather than the product.
When your child can be the captain of the ship, why make him a deck hand? He’s been ready all along. He’s waiting for you. Are you ready to give him the gift of thinking for himself and creating an emotional bond with you?