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Let ’em Cry (or drop to the floor) at the Grocery Store

To all of you mothers out there who manage their children’s behaviors effectively, despite the crying or tantrum that might ensue, I applaud you. It’s a rather infrequent occasion that I come across a mother who despite knowing her inevitable fate, will effectively manage her child’s behavior, in hope that each and every little step will make a big difference in the life of her child. So when the rare occurrence of a mother pulling out a token board, PECS book, or schedule at the grocery store takes me by surprise, I make sure to tell her that despite the way the situation appears to everyone else, she is my hero.

It still shocks me that even with the incidence of autism rapidly increasing and all of the press surrounding the disease, the general public still remains so unaware of the difficulties a child with autism faces. My first tip is simple; don’t allow yourself to perceive negative energy from others. Otherwise known as: don’t bother yourself with what other people think. Taking the time to correct a behavior, practice communication skills, and/or encourage your child’s growth is not solely limited to the confines of your own home. Make a point to take your child on one errand each day. Equip yourself with any token boards, communication systems, and/or schedules you may need to enable your child to benefit from community outings.

Set a goal with your child; if your child attains all tokens on his or her board by behaving appropriately while on an outing, reward your child immediately following the outing. Encourage your child to use language functionally and interact while out in the community. For example, if your outing consists of picking up a prescription at the local drug store, have your child tell the pharmacist your last name and pay for the prescription. The first few times running an errand may require a lot of facilitation and coaxing, but equipping your child with functional lifelong skills could never be matched. And what happens if the trip does not go as planned and your child requires facilitation to cooperate? When debating whether to correct a behavior or encourage the use of communication while in public, despite the glances and whispers that might plague you, think of this: would you rather instill critical lifelong skills or succumb to the ignorance of people foreign to the disease?

My second tip is to simplify your (and your child’s) life through the use of a (visual) schedule. Schedules not only provide children with visual cues on upcoming tasks/events, but allow them to functionally prepare themselves for what lies ahead. Think of it as your child’s calendar or Blackberry. I know that I am not the only one who would be lost without my calendar. Encourage your child to create a schedule with you; by doing this, you are enabling your child to become an active decision maker (while you control the options). Start out by giving your child a choice between two options and expand from there. Use language your child can understand; for example, some children benefit from using simple terms (e.g., first bath, then bed), while others benefit from language containing more linguistic information (e.g. first we are going to take a bath and get all clean, then we will go lay down in bed). Have the schedule displayed in a place that is easily accessible to your child.

My third tip comes from my passion for speech and language and the development of communication skills. Require your child to use language at all times throughout the day. I maintain a firm belief that language learning should not be a frustrating and overwhelming process. For many children with autism, communication proves to be the most difficult and frustrating process to acquire and maintain. This upsets me greatly and has been the foundation for most of the work I do today. Approaching language comprehension and use lightly and functionally goes a long way. Try not to demand language from your child as much as encourage it. A great way to encourage language use is through requesting or “manding”. For instance, if your child’s favorite activity is drawing, withhold desired objects until your child requests the objects appropriately (whether through the use of PECS, verbal communication, or sign). Facilitating such language use is encouraged (e.g., I know you want to draw. Tell me what you need.) This may also be further expanded upon to provide your child with necessary support (You want a marker to draw; I have a marker.). If your child responds with “I want marker”, “marker”, or “I need marker” the communicative need was met successfully. If your child proceeds to request an undesired object (“I want trampoline”) the communicative need was not successfully met and the desired object should not be given. Proceed to prompt your child to request the desired object and then reward them naturally by following through with the request. I often use phrases such as, “I love how you asked for the marker!” “I am so proud of you!” “Here’s the black marker.”

Other situations that lend themselves nicely to successful communication include routine events (getting dressed, packing bags), activities of daily living (taking a bath, brushing teeth), and activities with multiple steps (cooking, cleaning). If your child is learning about body parts in school, make use of bath time and talk about all of the body parts that are getting wet/washed. You may also choose to play a few extra games of Simon Says or sing a few extra verses of Head Shoulders Knees and Toes. Opportunities for communication are endless; explore, facilitate, and conquer your child’s communicative intent.

My fourth tip comes from all of the professionals and paraprofessionals who discourage children from speaking about desires at inappropriate lengths. Don’t get me wrong, I still get great use of the phrase, “We’re not talking about that right now” during therapy sessions when a client brings up superman in the middle of a cooking exercise. I have learned, however, to incorporate superman during appropriate opportunities more frequently and have continually encountered success while using children’s desires to my advantage while facilitating language. My advice to you is to expand on your child’s desires during appropriate times. For example, while getting dressed, you may say to your child “Superman wears a suit and a cape. It’s red and blue.” What are you wearing today? Do you have on the same colors as superman? Children naturally speak more readily and easily about things pertaining to them and of interest to them. Why not encourage your child to speak about the superman in his or her life while creating opportunities for successful communication/learning.

My fifth and final tip is derived from the many wonderful parents I have had the pleasure of guiding and working with. Take advantage of the knowledge, experience, and guidance the professionals in your child’s life can provide you with. Don’t be afraid to ask many questions and request assistance when needed. The professionals that work with your children have a wealth of knowledge and would be happy to help your child in any way possible.

And I leave you with this: On my next visit to the grocery store, I hope to see you and your child shopping together, earning tokens, and disregarding any onlookers.