Autistic children often rely on routines and consistency to support their emotional regulation. When something out of the ordinary happens, it can really rock their world. This is also true for other children who have not yet learned strategies to cope when things go wrong.
Teachers and parents can give information to support kids to understand, think about, and plan a task before they start; then ask them to have a go and reflect on the experience – this is how they learn and become self-managing.
We all make mistakes every day – spill our coffee, lose our keys, forget something vital for tonight’s dinner at the supermarket. Every day, in classrooms all over New Zealand, children attempt both familiar and novel tasks. For most of them, spelling a word incorrectly, getting the wrong answer, or the paper or pen not being perfect is not an issue.
Children with autism tend to have very black and white thinking: mistakes and failure come in one size – bigger than a dinosaur.
For them (and others who struggle when things are not perfect), not having the usual pencil can create huge anxiety and a monumental meltdown. The chances of coming back from that and successfully completing the task are minimal.
On the other hand, some children are not even slightly concerned about mistakes or why things went wrong. Making mistakes is one of the ways that we learn, but if you don’t notice or care, then this can be problematic too.
Regardless of the child’s approach, we need to model for them the attempt must have a higher value than either success or failure. We also need to use our own mistakes and solutions to model the process – and to notice the attempts and strategies of other students and use them as positive examples.
Everyone makes mistakes.
Most of them are small, can be fixed and have few lasting consequences. Share your small mistakes to your child or student and label them as no big deal. We can change our shirt, think of strategies to find our keys, and write a shopping list.
At school, we can deliberately misspell a word or get the maths problem wrong and model that it is no big deal. It just means that we will learn from the practice.
Another word for mistake is accident. If we have an accident that affects someone else, it’s usually easy to fix it by saying – “I'm sorry, I will try not to do that again”. If someone else has an accident that affects me, they can do the same. We can’t always control how things happen, and most accidents are no big deal. As adults we can model this as well.
Everyone needs help (even Buzz Lightyear).
Children with autism usually have two approaches to asking for help – either they want help with everything because they don’t want to risk getting it wrong, or (more commonly), it simply doesn’t occur to them to ask. For the latter group, asking for help is a life and self-advocacy skill that needs to be continuously taught as it will become vital as they go through school, into the workplace, and in their relationships throughout life.
Your child or student will initially have difficulty asking for help. Many students don’t know how, and many don’t want to, because they don’t want attention or to appear unable to do the task. With support, they can learn that asking for help is a sign of strength and not a weakness. Model it by making a point of asking your child or student for help throughout daily life. You can also:
Ask about and point to the instances during each day where adults and kids ask each other for help. When did another student need help? What did they do to get it? When did the teacher need help?
Use a peer support network of siblings and friends. Coach them to ask the child for help. Make a list the things that your child or student is good at, and some questions that they can ask so that the interactions will be successful.
Set up classroom visuals – flow charts work really well that identify strategies to get support when you get stuck. This will support all students, not just the ones with autism.
A peer buddy system in the classroom can also support students to ask each other for help in an unobtrusive way. Notice the students that provide help and comment on the strategies they use that are effective.
Write a list of people that they can ask for help from such as parents, teachers, learning support staff, siblings or friends.
Give your child strategies to ask for help. Help them practise different phrases they can use such as “I need help, please” or “I don’t understand what I need to do?” Make a video model of the student using the strategy successfully using words supported by picture or cue cards.
Set up a Help!! topic box at home and/or school. Family members or students write down something they sometimes need help with. All the ideas go into a box and a slip gets pulled from the box. Family or groups of students can brainstorm some of the ways they could help another person with the problem.
Learn more strategies to support your child or student – join our online course www.tipsforautism.co.nz. Options for individuals, teams and whole school professional development. Download an application form here.