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Parents: Preparing for the Winter Holidays

The winter holidays can be a difficult time for children with ASD and their families. Difficulties may arise from too much free time, changes in routine, and gift giving.


Most school-age children are off school for two to three weeks for the winter holidays, leaving six to eight hours of unstructured time for families to fill each day. You’re not alone if you dread the school holidays; past experience has taught you that a lot can go wrong in two or three weeks. If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to plan how you will structure that free time for your child with ASD. Plan activities for each day of the vacation, and create simple visual supports (e.g., print a picture of a park from the Internet if you will be taking your child to the park) to prime your child about the activities you have planned. If possible, allow your child to help decide on the activities you are planning. During the vacation, review the schedule for the day the night before and on the morning of the day to which the schedule refers. Of course, you can’t plan for everything, and you will invariably have to make changes to the schedule. Let your child know of any changes as soon as possible, and provide visual supports to make the changes concrete for your child. If your family will be traveling during the vacation, changes to the schedule such as flight delays are even more likely. Prepare your child that more than likely, there will be changes to the schedule, perhaps through the use of a social story. Don’t forget to bring an assortment of things for your child to do such as coloring, books, games, or a laptop computer. plane travel.jpg
Where your child will go and what he or she will do in a day are not the only changes that may be upsetting during the winter holidays. Many people visit with friends and relatives during this time that they rarely see during the rest of the year. These people may feel like strangers to your child, and he or she may behave accordingly. Forcing your child to hug Aunt Mary because “She came all the way from Boston to see us,” is likely to induce challenging behaviors from your child and to make Aunt Mary very uncomfortable. Aunt Mary insisting on a hug may produce similar results. Inform Aunt Mary that your child may view her as a stranger and she should not be offended before Aunt Mary arrives at your home (or you at hers). If possible, show your child pictures of friends and relatives you will visit and review the names of these people before the visit.

Mansnowman.jpgy people exchange gifts during the winter holidays. This can be a source of great disappointment for family and friends of a child with ASD. As a behavior therapist, I once special ordered a beach magnet set for a child I worked with one-on-one, three hours a day, five days a week. I was sure he would love it. I imagined all the exciting language he would produce when we played with those magnets. I heard in my mind spontaneous comments he would make and squeals of delight he would emit. As you probably guessed, the boy opened the magnet set, said nothing, put it down, and picked up another toy. I tried to engage him with the magnets through my enthusiasm. Nothing worked. I have heard similar stories from parents and educators time and again. Even when the child showed intense interest in a toy when it belonged to someone else or requested the toy, the same toy is often of little interest to the child when received as a holiday gift.  As a parent, there is nothing you can do to prevent this. If you have a neurotypical child, you may have complained that he or she only played with a new toy for a day and lost interest. This is part of being a parent, but it is especially disheartening when your child is on the Autism Spectrum, has limited interests, and you worked so hard to find that special gift. Remember that your effort is special regardless of the immediate reaction to the gift. And time may reward your effort. I heard that the beach magnet set became a preferred toy for the boy I worked with over a year later.

How to find a behavioral consultant

Lisa_Simpson.gifWhen looking for a behavioral consultant, it is really important that you look at the qualifications of that person, particularly at the supervision level.

The California Association of Behavior Analysis provides a useful article about how to find a behavioral consultant: http://www.calaba.org/AAMR-BehConsultantsFlyer.pdf.

header.gifHere is another excellent article about finding a behavioral consultant from Community Gateway: http://communitygateway.org/faq/behavioral.htm

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board is the first organization to provide national certification credentials for behavioral consultants.  When you see BCBA or BCABA after sowia_photo.jpgmeone’s name, this assures you that the person has completed the required number of hours, supervision, education, and passing the national board exam.  If you would like to know if someone has these credentials, you can look them up on the BACB site!  This is a great place to start looking for someone to help you with a home program that lives in your state. 

Recently Published TeachTown Research: Positive Behavioral Changes Associated with Computer Use for Children with Autism

Treatment EfficacyLast year TeachTown received a grant through the Department of Education to evaluate an early prototype of TeachTown: Basics.  The results were recently accepted by the Journal of Speech and Language Pathology and Applied Behavior Analysis.

To view the entire article, download the PDF from our website: www.teachtown.com/research/

In the study, all children in the study showed significant improvement in their skills on the computer with a 53% increase from pre- to post-tests.

This part is not surprising, as there is already significant research about the value of computer-aided learning (both for typical children and children with autism.)
What was surprising were the positive behavioral results!Positive Behavior

  • Children with autism showed a 61% decrease in inappropriate behaviors while using the TeachTown software compared to baseline sessions.
  • These children also showed a 44% decrease in inappropriate behaviors in TeachTown’s off-computer generalization activities with their parents compared to baseline sessions.
  • Children with autism had a 105% increase in social behaviors and language while using the TeachTown software compared to baseline sessions.
  • Although only a small increase (11%) in social and language behaviors were observed in TeachTown’s off-computer generalization activities compared to baseline, however, these changes had significant clinical impact for some of the children (e.g. parents feeling “connected” to their children in these activities).

These results may seem counter-intuitive as most of us probably have less language and social interaction while we are using the computer. However, this is not the first research study to demonstrate that children with autism are very motivated by the computer. This increase in motivation and the fact that the computer is a clear focal point may have lead to these increases in spontaneous language and social interaction.

Negative BehaviorsLike many other researchers, teachers, and clinicians, I think the computer may be a very valuable tool for teaching certain skills to children with autism. In fact, some research studies have shown that children with autism may acquire skills faster using the computer compared to traditional teaching approaches. More research is needed to examine the efficacy of using computers for treatment and to assess the generalization of skills to the natural environment. More research is also needed on child characteristics for using TeachTown (or other computer-assisted interventions) and on how these programs can best be utilized in a school, home, or clinic setting.

It is very important to note that TeachTown is not simply a computer therapy, it is a computer and off-computer package meant to be used as such, we do not advocate ONLY using the software, the off-computer activities are equally or perhaps even more important to the success of this program for children with autism. The decrease in inappropriate behaviors was observed both using the TeachTown software and using the TeachTown off-computer generalization activities. I think this might be due to the fact that parents had some tools for interacting with their child (i.e. the software and the activities) which allowed the child to have a better sense of what they were supposed to be doing. Often times in research studies and in clinical practice, giving parents guidelines for working and playing with their child will result in a decrease in inappropriate behaviors without directly targeting those problem behaviors.