A Creative way to help your child with autism learn to follow directions

A Creative way to help your child with autism learn to follow directions

As every parent, educator, and professional coping with an autistic child knows, one of the most frustrating aspects of the disorder is “How do you reach this child who seems to have absolutely no interest in me or the world?” There is no “one size fits all” answer. It’s different with every child, and unfortunately, what works for you today may not work a year from now, or even tomorrow. What DOES work, without fail, for every child – autistic or not – is to be a student of your child and FIND THEIR PASSION.

Perhaps the best way to help you understand this concept is to share our own experience with our son, Scott. Taking the time to observe him and identifying his interests changed his life and made parenting much, much easier.

Scott was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 ½. I tell the story of his early years and our struggles in more detail in my book Autistic and Awesome: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Autistic Kids and Loving It. We had every struggle common to the parents of an autistic child. He had severe temper tantrums, screamed constantly, almost never made eye contact, avoided everyone, including Mom and Dad, and had virtually no language skills. His autism turned our lives and our marriage upside-down.

One thing that he DID love to do, CONSTANTLY, was run around our basement ping-pong table. It was one of his favorite activities. He did it so often, and ran around the table so many times, I began to wonder how much mileage he covered each day, just running around that table! What amazed my husband, Ken, and I, was that even though he covered great distances running around that table, he rarely seemed to be out of breath or even breathing hard.

One day, on a whim, my husband decided to take him to the local track to see if he would do the same thing there. It was a natural turn of events, because Ken was a former championship distance runner who ran in the Big Ten. This was an effort to do something that he, too, loved, and perhaps create a father-son bond that, because of Scott’s autism, was so elusive.

More out of curiosity than anything else, I grabbed the camera and followed them both to the track. What happened next shocked everyone. Our little son, at the tender age of 3 years, ran almost effortlessly around that track multiple times, his little legs churning, Instead of weaving between the lanes or veering off the track, he stayed in his lane. It seemed as if he was born to be a runner, and knew exactly what to do. The picture I took that day remains one of our family favorites, partly because of its significance in his life.

When Scott was a little older, and physically ready, we found an ex-marine who ran a sensory motor program for special needs kids. He was affectionately known as “Mr. Jim.” It was a perfect fit. His no-nonsense, “I expect my directions to be followed” attitude commanded respect and obedience.
As I watched his hour-long sessions, I began to realize that he was not only teaching physical skills, but direction-following and eye contact. Each instruction that he gave was precise, short, and to-the-point. He would say “Scott! Look at me!” Then “mini-tramp” (or whatever apparatus he wanted him to be on), point to the trampoline, and then once he was there and on the tramp “Now count to 10 while you bounce.” Each instruction was a simple one-step direction (autistic kids have great difficulty with multiple step directions), and said in very few words. In between each direction, there was always the “Scott, look at me!” “Mr. Jim” was working with Scott on many levels in each session. He was helping him physically, educationally, and socially, all while doing something Scott loved – physical activity. Each session ended with a big hug and lots of praise. Scott knew that “Mr. Jim” loved him, and he would do whatever he asked because he trusted him.

An important take-away lesson from that ex-marine, “Mr. Jim.” As you work with your own child on a daily basis, take a few lessons from him. Keep your instructions short, as few words as possible. Don’t expect your child to handle multi-task directions, because most of them can’t. Give them one task to do at a time, be sure that is completed, then give them the next task. Always work toward eye contact. Say your child’s name to get his/her attention, and/or gently take their face in both of your hands many times during the day and firmly get eye contact.

Scott went to the local park with “Mr. Jim,” where they found a balance beam, monkey bars, and many other pieces of equipment that helped his physical skills. He also took Scott to the track, had him run up and down the bleachers, and timed him as he ran around the track. He was actually Scott’s first coach in a running career that eventually led to him being the most valuable runner on his college’s cross country team!

Eventually, we found some used equipment on the cheap and set up a little gym in our basement. A local school was getting rid of a gym mat and balance beam, so we got them for practically nothing, and also found a used parallel bar set. Adding an inexpensive mini-trampoline (they can be had for under $60) to the mix gave us all we needed to do the program both inside and out.

Don’t be intimidated by any cost for programs. As I said, our equipment cost almost nothing. We paid “Mr. Jim,” but it would be possible to find a local college student, perhaps one majoring in physical education, to do the same thing. If you follow the principles I outlined, with short, one-step directions, it would even be possible for you, the parent, to do such a program yourself with your child, using any form of exercise that they are interested in.

If you take the time to identify your child’s passion, and focus on developing it, you may find that you will see improvement in all other areas of the child’s life. It is possible that language will start to emerge, because he/she will see more need to communicate and reach out to the world. You may also see improvement in their educational skills, because learning will become more important to him/her. Parenting may become easier, because you will have a roadmap to follow to help your child. It may even help your marriage, because if you are both on board with helping your child with a specific area, there should be less confusion. In addition, if you have other children, they can get involved and may even become interested in the same activity your autistic child is involved in.

Take heart. Your child’s behaviors and current problems can subside, if you take charge and work on them now. Temple Grandin, a world-famous autistic woman, internationally recognized in the field of animal husbandry and a college professor, shares in her autobiography “Emergence: Labeled Autistic” how difficult she was as a young child:

I was a destructive child. I drew all over the walls – not once or twice – but any time I got my hands on a pencil or crayon. I remember really “catching” it for peeing on the carpet. So the next time I had to go, instead of using the carpet, I put the long drape between my legs. I thought it would dry quickly and Mother wouldn’t notice. Normal children use clay for modeling; I used my feces and then spread my creations all over the room. I chewed up puzzles and spit the cardboard mush out on the floor. I had a violent temper, and when thwarted, I’d throw anything handy – a museum quality vase or leftover feces. I screamed continually, responded violently to noise and yet appeared deaf on some occasions.

Temple Grandin’s parents and educators never gave up on her, and that’s why she is a functional and productive member of society today. That’s another important take-away for you today from this post – never give up!

If this has peaked an interest in learning more about the benefits of physical exercise for autistic kids, check out http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/sports-exercise-and-benefits-physical-activity-individuals-autism and http://www.pelinks4u.org/articles/ElyseMorin0309.htm.

Whether your child’s interests are in exercise, art, music, reading, math, or whatever…..Observe what they spend their time on, and get involved! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Good luck!

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