Children with autism often find social situations stressful, making school and family outings difficult. A process developed by a special educator helps prepare children with autism for such outings, allowing them to go more smoothly. Included: An outline of the I.D.E.A.L. system.
Often one of the most vexing and unpredictable problems confronting children with autism is difficulty socializing, which can make participation in family and school events stressful. The key to making those activities go more smoothly is preparing the child for what is to come, keeping in mind his or her particular strengths and weaknesses, according to Laurie LeComer, author of The Socially Included Child.
LeComer, a special educator, inclusion facilitator, and child evaluator, developed a process she calls I.D.E.A.L. to help children with autism manage transitions. The letters in I.D.E.A.L. stand for the five steps LeComer considers necessary to prepare children with autism for social activities. The I stands for introduce the activity; D for determine the tasks involved; E for evaluate expectations; A for accommodate for success; and L for list the activity components visually.
LeComer talked with Education World about her experiences working with autistic children and their families, and why she thinks I.D.E.A.L. can be effective.
Education World:What prompted you to write this book?
Laurie LeComer: I saw parents struggling with issues that really had to do with quality-of-life, and I wanted to help parents of children with autism give their children a real chance to become participants in recreation, activities, and celebrations in natural social environments -- which are different than the therapeutic environments in which social skills are commonly worked on.
I also wanted parents to know that their children do not have to wait until they have reached a certain social-skills level to begin to take part in activities with family and others. Using the I.D.E.A.L. system, parents can learn to prepare and individualize their approach to social activities -- there is way they can think about this and do it that can have a positive result.
EW: How can classroom teachers use this book?
LeComer: Both at home and at school, children with autism often feel discomfort with changes in routine; they also often have communication and sensory issues that can set off anxiety and discomfort that can result in behaviors that are difficult to handle -- as well as safety issues from escape behaviors such as running, bolting, or aggression. This book helps guide parents and teachers by showing readers how to pre-plan, and how to really look at a situation so both child and adults can be prepared, and accommodations can be made to make the situations easier and more enjoyable for all.
EW: What makes the I.D.E.A.L. system different from other approaches to teaching children with autism?
LeComer: I.D.E.A.L. is a tool; its different because it can be individualized to whatever level, need, behavior, or sensitivity a child brings to the table -- and every child with autism is unique and truly individual. Teachers do not have to wait until a child shows joint attention or until a child is no longer self-injurious. Teachers can start to use I.D.E.A.L. to begin a life-long process -- even if in small increments -- to begin to expose children to natural social environments, so they can begin to gain a familiarity in those environments, and can grow in their ability to participate.
EW: What are some simple ways teachers can incorporate I.D.E.A.L. into their classroom routine?
LeComer: Teachers can introduce the activity in several ways. They can individualize their approach for a child; for example, there are different approaches for non-verbal children, low-language children, and higher-level spectrum children. Some teachers might find that using pictures or photos of the actual activity site the child will be going to works well -- that is called taking a photographic walk. Others might find that short priming stories or social stories work well as activity introductions.
Step two -- to determine the tasks involved -- involves breaking up each activity into a list of sequential parts or tasks. This step is really important because teachers can determine by looking at each task which one the child will be able to do independently and which will need to be prompted or assisted. Teachers will see when to intervene, and can plan to intervene when the child needs extra help.
Teachers also can individualize as they evaluate expectations. Sometimes an activity can go well for a period of time, but go downhill as the activity length extends beyond a childs stamina or self-regulation ability. The duration the child will spend at an activity needs to be looked at, as well as whether the social activity is a good match. For example, can the child use any of his or her strengths at the activity? Teachers need to determine what activities -- or pieces of activities -- the child can handle at that moment in time, or at that time of day.
To accommodate for success, teachers can plan to make accommodations that will help the child participate successfully in those activities. Accommodations can be as simple as bringing a set of headphones for children who have sensitivity to sound; allowing the child to snack or chew gum; or arriving early or late to an activity to avoid commotion and/or over-stimulation.
Listing the activity components visually also can help prepare children. Many -- but not all -- children with autism are highly visual, and seeing exactly what they will be doing before each step or task helps alleviate anxiety and confusion. When children are in novel situations and unable to process and/or respond as well as they do in familiar environments, or when they are unable to access some of their skills due to stress, having a visual crutch to rely on helps them immensely. Some children are more comfortable with pictures; other children like to look at a list of words or sentences.
LeComer: Evaluating ones expectations can be difficult; sometimes the childs preferences, strengths, and weaknesses are not taken into account. Some also find it hard to ask others for help. For example, if an accommodation requires special permission from recreational staff or administration, some decline to ask for fear of being refused, so needed elements might be ignored or let go.
EW: Do you think some teachers and parents set unrealistic goals for children with autism, based on benchmarks for a normal childs development? Why?
LeComer: I absolutely think many parents and teachers set unrealistic goals for children with autism. Conversely, I also think that for many children with autism, expectations are sometimes set too low. Both parents and teachers are encouraged to look at the skills and performance of same-age peers -- and there are some good reasons for that. Its important for parents of children with autism to keep in touch with the things same-age peers are into, such as how they dress and what they talk about.
Parents often are simply trying to be positive -- feeling they must assume intelligence -- because they often learn of instances of talent and intelligence that are hidden by the disability. Teachers are expected to keep an eye on grade-level expectations -- some even are instructed to write Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) with objectives that are only modifications of regular education grade-level objectives. Many teachers end up frustrated as a result. Children with autism often dont develop skills in the consistent fashion demonstrated by typical peers.
This e-interview with Laurie LeComer is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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