As a parent or carer of an autistic child, you may find it takes a lot of effort to teach your autistic child new skills. From life skills and physical tasks to more structured, traditional learning, it can take a lot longer for new learning to ‘stick’ for a child on the autistic spectrum.
Whereas neurotypical* children seem to learn very naturally and quickly, with very little effort at all, it may take a great deal more time, effort and patience for parents and carers to teach their child with autism the same things.
It has been said that a neurotypical child has to be taught something 25 times for it to stick, but an autistic child has to be shown 250 times. Let’s look at why this may be, and how you can help and support the autistic child you care for.
Why does it take so long?
Here is the science bit…. As I talked about in post my post about executive functioning, neurodiverse people often struggle with getting themselves organised, particularly how to make sense of and order everything they need to do to complete tasks in everyday life.
There has been a lot of research into the differences between how autistic and neurotypical brains work. A lot of it points towards autistic people struggling more with working memory, not noticing context as much (what is going on around them at the time) and making more abstract associations than typical brains (which can make it harder for them to focus on the task at hand). Visual memory and spatial memory and awareness are also different for autistic people, meaning it can be hard to replicate the movements of others or follow written instruction.
True, a lot of the ways their brains work differently give autistic individuals amazing ways of seeing and recalling the world, and the ability to focus without paying attention to the flotsam and jetsam around them. We don’t want to lose any of these abilities, and should celebrate them. But to those of us whose brains work in a much more straightforward way, this can look like slow learning or not paying attention. This isn’t the case – our kids are just learning differently, and need a bit more time for those lessons to sink in and become second nature.
How can we help our kids?
Putting it simply, it isn’t about ‘how can I get my child to do this?’ but more about ‘how can I help them to do this?’
Breaking tasks down into their component parts and simplifying instructions will go a long way to helping your child master new skills.
The chaining method
Chaining is a useful technique we can use to help remove stress from learning. The basic idea behind chaining is to break each task down into manageable chunks. A good example would be preparing a bowl of cereal (find a bowl, find cereal, open cereal packet, pour some cereal into the bowl etc.). There are three types of chaining:
- Total Chaining With the first type of chaining, you teach each stage of the task together until the end, prompting and helping.
- Forward chaining Your child learns how to complete the first step of the task independently (when you say ‘right, time for breakfast’, they go and get the cereal bowl with no help. Then, you help them get breakfast ready. Once your child can complete the first step independently, he or she can work on completing the first two steps independently (finding the bowl and cereal) before you help, until they can complete the task on their own with no help.
- Backward Chaining Backward chaining is the opposite of forward chaining. You help your child with all of the steps of the task, except the last one, which they do independently. This type of chaining has a big advantage over the others; the child feels the satisfaction and rewards of having completed the task on their own, making them more likely to want to achieve completing the task in the future (Yay! You got the spoon and put it in the bowl on your own! Now you can eat your cereal!)
Think about what tasks you wish your child could do on their own – write down the steps they would need to go through and try this with them. You may be surprised at the results!
Along with chaining, the use of visual sequences can be a great help for our children. Clear pictures or lists of what steps the child needs to take to complete the task make it easier for them to learn and become independent.
Visuals and lists have other benefits as well in that they may take the pressure off of you to work out how to teach your child – the steps are already set out clearly for you to use. Additionally, having visuals posted in your home are gentle reminders for your child. So, instead of mum or dad nagging about hand washing, a visual prompt you could simply point to may save some stress.
In summary, our children need more time and more patience, and a different way of approaching teaching them stuff, to achieve. There is not much we can do to make the process quicker, it is just the way their brains are wired, but we can make it easier, and less stressful, with a little bit of knowledge and more time.
Here are some great resources for visual sequences:
Practical Autism Resources has hundreds of free downloadable choice boards.
The Educate Autism site is a treasure trove of all different visual printouts, from colours to body parts and most are free.
Here are some free Makaton resources.
Amazing bunch of free resources from Giving Greetings including hygiene sequences, toilet training and social stories.
Connectability has free templates for visual supports.
Picto Selector is free software containing thousands of visual symbols. Please note that it is made for autistic people of any age, for any scenario, so does contain some explicit symbols.
Not free but well worth a look, ASD Bright Ideas has a huge range of excellent visual communication tools.
Twinkl also has some very useful printables.
More information on backward chaining
*children without neurological disorders