ASD: Reducing Anxiety Caused by Social Interactions

I read this beautiful blog recently. It was written by someone who was diagnosed with Asperger’s later in life, and talks about how their ‘cup of human interaction’ was full and how hard this made school.

It was timed perfectly as I had just had this discussion with a parent whose child was starting to school refuse. So, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to write some tips for an Autism Friendly Classroom- with a specific focus on reducing the social interactions that people with Autism (ASD) may find so overwhelming.

  • Use lots of visuals: children with Autism learn faster with visuals, and it reduces the amount of verbal processing they need to do. Make sure the visuals are age appropriate (pictures to support instructions and routines are great in grades Prep – 2, a high functioning grade 5er won’t thank you for it!) Don’t forget to be creative:  they can use diaries/lists/iPads to support themselves.
  • Create a distraction free environment: most neurotypical (non-ASD) teachers love a colourful classroom with lots on display. The processing capacity this requires for a child with Autism is likely to overwhelm them. Provide a quiet workstation that *any* child can use when they need a quiet space. This will normalise this form of self-regulation for the child with Autism, and all children in the classroom.
  • Have a breakout space: Children with Autism are often taught how to recognise when they are feeling overwhelmed in therapy. However, this skill is useless if they can’t then put this into practice. Some children may need a quiet space or tepee in the corner of the room they can access any time; others may need a separate room or office they can go to when needed. They can take their work to this place and complete it without all the social and sensory pressures of the classroom.
  • Think about social times: Most children need to let off steam in their recess or lunch break and they will do this in different ways. Some love to run around, some to sit quietly with one or two friends, some would love to go to a library and be alone. Think about the options you have available in your school, and practice getting children to check in with their feelings, and work out what they need to do to be ready to learn afterward.
  • Use simple language: This works for any child. Don’t give too many instructions at once, use concrete language, don’t use saracasm.

 

Remember that all children are different: it is important to monitor success of strategies over time, and adapt these as needed. If you are looking for individual PD to support a child with Autism in your school, below are a list of resources you may find useful:

Amaze (www.amaze.org.au) previously known as Autism Victoria, provides tip sheets and training

Sue Larkey (www.suelarkey.com.au) is a highly experienced and inspirational special educator who provides tip sheets and online e-learning that specialises in supporting children with Autism

Victorian State Government (www.education.gov.au) provides resources to support your professional development

Inclusive Classrooms (www.inclusiveclassrooms.com.au) can also provide individualised, tailored training in your school, meeting your whole school’s professional development needs in a time and place that suits you

 

What we can learn from Superman about raising children

Following on from yesterday’s post about Superheroes in the Classroom, today’s post is just a bit of fun about how we can learn from Superman.

This is adapted from Rosenberg (2008) ‘Superman’s Personality: From Krypton, Kansas, or both?’

Behavioural Activation Systems:

We are all born with innate ‘activation systems’ that vary depending on our biology and genetics. Some children are born with Behavioural Activation Systems (BAS) that are easily activated, causing us to actively seek out and engage with the world and other people (these children will be more motivated by rewards). Some have a Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) that is more easily activated, causing us to withdraw and avoid things in our environment (these children are more anxious, and more responsive to punishment).

Superman, Roseberg states, does not have an overactive BAS as he is not lured by the power, fame and money that he could achieve through his powers. On the other hand, Superman appears to have an underdeveloped BIS as he actively seeks out trouble, and does not seem put off by danger.

Attachment Styles:

Attachment is established early in life through family environment and social closeness. Children’s attachment styles can vary depending on how they develop an understanding of the world, on the basis of how well their needs are met in infancy. It is known that Superman builds a close relationship with his parents on earth and trusts them immediately. This would not have been possible without a secure relationship with his birth mother on Krypton, causing him to believe in the goodness of people.

Giftedness:

Studies have shown that children who are gifted, tend to develop better academic self-concept if they are educated in a mainstream classroom than in a gifted special programme. This has been labelled the ‘big fish, little pond’ phenomenon. These children also tend to underplay their giftedness in order to fit in socially. Indeed, Clark Kent hides his superpowers through being ‘bookish’ rather than ‘athletic’, for fear that his superpowers will be revealed in sport.

Culture and Values

Cultures can be divided into ‘collectivist’ cultures, where value is placed on getting on with others; and ‘individualist’ cultures, where autonomy, self-reliance and assertiveness are valued, and individual achievements take precedence over group goals. Parents’ descriptions of what they want for their children can yield interesting insight into what type of culture is present. Parents who live in an ‘individualist’ culture tend to want their children to mind their own business, toughen up, have self-confidence; while those in ‘collectivist’ cultures tend to want their children to be hard workers, honest and loyal. Superman seems to live in a collectivist culture (as farms often are) and yet he displays characteristics of individualist culture in his jaded world view.

Superheroes in the Classroom

In his book ‘The Psychology of Superheroes’, Rosenberg explores the context, happiness and positive psychology of popular superheroes. As Peterson & Park point out in chapter one, superheroes do not seek pleasure with their superpowers (indeed, it is normally their arch-nemeses that are doing this), but create happiness through connecting with something larger than their self, and something that provides them with meaning.

Peterson and Park argue, convincingly, that superheroes are positive psychology in action. They find meaning, engage and connect with something larger than the ‘self’ and they are aware of their ‘signature strengths’. These area all tenets of the Positive Psychology movement.

Add this to recent research (White, Prager, Schaefer, Kross, Duckworth & Carlson, 2016) that has shown that children who are pretending to be a fictional character work harder at a boring task, and we may have an interesting classroom intervention!

In this research, White et al.  assigned children to various conditions under which they were asked to complete a boring task (pressing a space bar on a computer when a picture of cheese appeared) either as themselves or as a well known character. They were told they could take a break whenever they wanted, and were asked every few minutes whether they were working hard (i.e. ‘are you working hard?’; ‘is Julia working hard?’; ‘is Batman working hard?’). The children who were pretending to be characters completed more work than either of the other groups, even when accounting for age and  other factors.

Indeed, in a real world example, Chartered Psychologist Dr Veronica Roberts, states

“I was an avid reader when I was little and when I started a new primary school I used to ‘become’ Roald Dahl’s Matilda on the journey into school. For various reasons I had been accelerated a year academically and being Matilda helped me cope with the step up in learning demands. She gave me the confidence in myself and determination to face my challenges in school.”

So, how can we create classrooms that support our children in working hard?

  • Ensure your children know their own strengths: use activities that help children to identify what they are good at and allow them to utilise these strengths in the classroom
  • Develop a collectivist culture in your classroom: ensure children have an opportunity to work together for a common good, whether it be a whole-class behaviour management system (marbles in a jar; earning a reward etc.) or working on a group project
  • Use Batman: why not provide a superhero cape so children are encouraged to do their work as Batman/Wonder Woman/Thor and see if attention improves!
  • Mixed Ability Groupings: encourage children to work together in mixed ability groups so the children can each use their strength (or practice something they need to work on) with reduced pressure to carry all of the load themselves. Some children will need to act as a scribe, some as a leader, some as the reader etc.

If you are looking for a program that uses Superheroes as part of a behaviour management system, I love the Superflex curriculum (available at www.socialthinking.com.au).

And remember, if you want any support setting up positive, inclusive classrooms in your school, we are available to come to you and can arrange Professional Development support within your budget, just get in touch.

If you are in the UK and looking for support in your school, you can contact Dr Veronica Roberts through her website at http://drvroberts.wixsite.com/edpsych or via linked in at https://au.linkedin.com/in/dr-veronica-roberts-778b5360.

How Growth Mindsets improve student pride

The following is a summary of a research study undertaken by Ellen Maria Cook, Tim Wildschutt & Sander Thomaes (Educational and Child Psychology, 2017, 34(3))

Those working in and managing educational settings should consider implementing teaching approaches and learning environments that are inclusive, supportive and conducive to the development of a Growth Mindset.

Carol Dweck and colleagues defines Growth Mindset as a collection of attitudes that encourages seeing failure as a starting point for a learning process, and focuses on effort over outcome. A Fixed Mindset, by contrast, refers to attitudes that encourage viewing ability as static, and failure as the point at which you should give up.

By measuring student’s conceptions of intelligence (using the Scale of Personal Conceptions of Intelligence), and asking them to keep a diary of their experience of pride, shame and competence at school, Cook, Wildschutt & Thomaes were able to discover an interesting relationship between the variables.

As they predicted, adolescents with a Growth Mindset experienced more intense feelings of pride during school days, and fewer feelings of shame. What they also found though, was that this was greatly impacted by the person’s perceived academic competence (how capable they think they are at academic tasks). Research has shown that academic competence decreases at adolescence; now we can see that this decrease can be ‘buffered’ by encouraging a Growth Mindset.

The results underscore the value of fostering Growth Mindsets in students by:

  • creating risk tolerant learning zones (emphasising the value in challenge and learning from failure)
  • providing feedback on the basis of the process of learning, not solely on outcomes
  • introducing students to dynamic theories of intelligence, not crystal theories

If you want to know more about how to develop a Growth Mindset in your students, why not get in touch and find out what training I can offer your school.