August 11, 2012

Autism & Ability

Eric Chessen

For children with autism, learning new skills is often made more difficult because of sensory processing issues. There may be too much noise in the next room for Jill to concentrate on the directions, or Marcos may not be able to look at numbers on a computer screen and relate them to those on a page of homework. It all has to do with contingencies. Success in anything doesn’t just happen.

Contingencies are “if-then” relationships. All individuals with autism have some level of difficulty with contingencies. The most obvious are social contingencies, but cognitive “if-then’s” are just as important to consider. Does Ricky make the connection between Mom saying “Press down on the pedal” and the action of his foot applying pressure downward? If not, his mom can say it over and over again, and both can grow frustrated in the process.

Some of my athletes are nonverbal, but understand just about everything that is said. Others are verbal to an extent, but have enormous difficulty attending to or following verbal instructions.

It is absolutely critical to ask the following questions:
  1. Is the individual a more auditory or a more visual learner?
  2. Has he/she had prior experience with the words I am using right now?
  3. Is he/she motivated to perform this particular activity? (Does he/she like it?)
  4. If not, what would be motivating?

I call these the “PAC” abilities and they are the foundation of my assessment and programming method, the PAC Profile ( If Rachel is having difficulty riding her bike, is it because she cannot do it, won’t do it, or some other reason?

How do we assess what is going on without drawing incorrect or unproductive conclusions? Saying she is “lazy” does not give us much help. How do you “un-lazy” somebody? Do you snap your fingers and all of a sudden they decide that they will do something? Not the kids I’ve worked with, and probably not yours either. That’s why it is so important to assess abilities first.

Alex was 11 and his mother contacted me specifically to work on bike riding skills. Dad had attempted several times to teach him, but wound up screaming at Alex instead because Alex was not learning quickly enough. If you are reading this now, stand up quick and learn to ride a unicycle while juggling. In the event that you do not master this in a week I will personally call up to berate you. Oh, and you need to be having FUN While you do it. Doesn’t sound to reinforcing, does it? Alex wanted to ride his bike; he just didn’t want to be yelled at while learning. I thought that was reasonable enough.

After about ten minutes of physical assessment, it was clear that Alex could move well. His bike riding issues were not because of physical or gross motor issues. He was highly motivated, which took care of the Adaptive area of functioning, and was great with verbal directions. Alex needed two things: time on the bike, and support from an instructor. He was riding independently within two months.

Alex learned to ride because the teaching was appropriate. The program was run at his speed and style of learning. He would frequently, and I mean frequently, ask if he was going fast enough. I told him that it was fine as long as that was the speed he wanted to go.

Eventually, he learned that the faster he pedaled the more it balanced the bike. I could have explained that to him but it wouldn’t have made sense or mattered much. Learning is an experience that requires the individual to “invest” into the process. That’s why we learn best when we’re having fun. We are automatically engaged or focused on the activity without someone telling us to “pay attention ‘cause this is important.”

The assessment is pretty straightforward. Does he/she have the physical ability to ride a bike? Is he/she motivated to ride the bike? What type of learning style does he/ she have? In chapter 6, I will provide some great exercises that can strengthen the muscle groups and movement patterns needed to ride a bike correctly. Riding a bike is also a very specific activity that requires time spent…riding a bike.

Adaptive ability is the most important aspect of functioning. If Tracey has some motor planning issues, but is determined (motivated) to ride her bike, she is going to log in a good deal of time learning to ride. As long as she stays motivated and has a good fitness program that strengthens the areas of deficit, she will learn to ride with success. For the less-motivated crowd, aka the majority of kids on the autism spectrum, we will cover some practical strategies in chapter 4.

Cognitive ability is not “smart vs. stupid”. We all have different levels of learning ability depending on the subject. I got D’s and occasionally F’s throughout math in elementary, middle, and high school only to get an “A” in statistics in college. Did I suddenly get smarter, or was the subject taught in a way that I could understand it?

Most individuals on the autism spectrum are not auditory learners. They are usually better at visual learning (having the concept or skill shown to them), and many require physical prompting or cueing to perform different movements correctly. Saying the same thing over and over is not going to be much help if the individual is not making the connection between words and action. This is where I have seen the highest amount of frustration build up on both sides (parent and child).

The best way to learn is to do. When we have the opportunity to experience learning and sort the steps out for ourselves, skill mastery comes faster and stays longer. Ironically, other skills are often compared to “learning how to ride a bike” because once you learn you “never forget.” That may be true, but we need to make sure that our children want to get back on the bike again once they’ve learned how to ride.

Courtesy of Parenting Special Needs  |  Source: Autism Support Network

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