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’Tis the Season … for Opportunities!


Vickie Dieter is an Autism Resource Specialist in the Catawba Valley region and mom to a son with autism.

Many families who have children and other family members with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have a collection of war stories and battle scars (emotional and physical) associated with the holiday season. Children, youth, and adults with autism who already struggle with over-stimulation, change, and disruption are bombarded with a barrage of sights, smells, sounds, schedule changes, and challenging social situations during the holidays. While many families enjoy the holidays and find these sensory and social experiences exciting and pleasurable, they can cause increased anxiety and discomfort for people with ASD. But, as difficult as the season can be, the holidays offer unique learning opportunities for teaching your child coping, social, and academic skills.

The holidays were not pleasant for our child and family, especially during his first six years or so. I remember feeling helpless and desperate to do SOMETHING to make the holidays more tolerable. It helped me when I was able to shift my focus beyond the difficulties associated with the holidays and take a proactive approach to help my son have successful, positive experiences. Focusing my efforts on pinpointing the root of my son’s behaviors and researching strategies to help him cope in difficult situations helped me gain a sense of control. The perception I had of our family as prisoners of our son’s disability changed when the strategies I tried with him began to have positive results. Over time, my son became more and more engaged in holiday activities, and our family has enjoyed many traditions and celebrations with family and friends.

I hope the following ideas will help your child and family share a more meaningful and positive holiday experience:

Use visual images, objects, videos, songs, and foods associated with the holidays to explain abstract concepts and deeper meanings of holiday traditions and religious beliefs.

Use a nativity set to help your child understand the meaning of Christmas.

A dreidel can be used to explain a historical element of Hanukah.

Turkey, corn, and other foods (pictures, real food, or play food) can be used to represent the pilgrims and Native Americans coming together for the first Thanksgiving.

Incorporate the Kinara, a visual symbol of African history and heritage in discussions about Kwanzaa.

Help your child understand what other people are thinking and feeling through the use of social stories, books, and videos.

For example, the characters in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas have exaggerated facial expressions that can make it easier for children to identify the characters’ feelings. When reading this book with your child, help him or her make the connection between the characters’ facial expressions and what they are feeling. Use the context of the story to discuss the reasons that the characters feel happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc. Talk about how the characters’ actions affect the feelings and thoughts of others in the story.

Use your child’s preferred interests to engage him or her in holiday activities.

For example, for a child who has a strong interest in tornados, you might modify The Night Before Christmas story to include a tornado that interferes with Santa’s flight from the North Pole.

If your child has an intense interest in flags, try to engage him or her in a game to match flags to their respective countries. Explore holiday traditions and practices of each country and compare how your family’s traditions and beliefs are alike or different from people in other countries.

Use holiday symbols and images to promote academic skills.

Sort unbreakable ornaments by color, shape, type, or category.

Label holiday items throughout your home with words written on sticky notes or post cards, e.g. Santa, tree, pumpkin, candle, gift, Zawadi, gelt.

Practice addition and subtraction using holiday objects as manipulatives.

Work on sequencing with pictures, objects, stories, etc. Drawing or building a snowman is a fun visual sequencing activity.

Strategies to teach coping skills

Employ strategies that have worked for your child in the past but are no longer necessary under normal circumstances. For example, if your child responded well to the use of visuals but has “outgrown” the need for them, consider trying visual schedules, cues, or gestures again to help him or her understand and prepare for unexpected, unfamiliar, or overwhelming situations.

Coping with sensory overload and changes in routine can be exhausting and stressful for individuals with ASD. Try to pay attention to “warning” signs that your child is feeling tired, anxious, or frustrated and use this opportunity to help him or her learn to ask for a break through the use of visual and verbal prompts, redirection, or calming strategies. Ask your child’s teacher what type of behavior management system is used in the classroom and try to use that familiar system or a modified version in other settings. The Autism Society of North Carolina Bookstore has some great books and videos about using visual supports to help your child recognize and manage his or her feelings and behavior. The Incredible 5 Point Scale is one of my personal favorites.

Learn to recognize when your child has had enough. All of the tricks in the book probably won’t help once your child reaches the dreaded point of no return – parents, you know what I’m talking about.

Happy Holidays!

Contact one of ASNC’s Autism Resource Specialists for additional information and resources. Vickie Dieter can be reached at vdieter@autismsociety-nc.org or 828-256-1566.




Managing Frustration and Anxiety



Dr. Jed Baker, noted autism expert and author, shared some of his expertise with parents and professionals last week at a one-day conference in Raleigh. His presentation was titled “Managing Frustration and Anxiety and Teaching Social Skills” and provided strategies for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, anxiety, mood disorders, and learning challenges.

For those who could not attend, we are sharing highlights of the portion of Dr. Baker’s presentation on managing frustration and anxiety. You can also learn more with his award-winning books, available in the ASNC Bookstore at www.autismbookstore.com.

Keep Your Cool

Dr. Baker’s first tip was that caregivers must learn to control their own emotions. “If you can be cool, you can get someone else cool,” he said. Reacting to someone having a meltdown by either giving them what they want or forcing their compliance is not effective, he said. Giving in doesn’t last; it feels good in the moment but has disastrous long-term consequences. Getting angry comes from not feeling respected. Caregivers can use fear and unpredictability to scare individuals into complying, but in the long run, the individuals don’t trust you anymore, they don’t want to be in your home or class, and they will not like you, he said.

“90 percent of teaching and parenting is tolerance,” Dr. Baker said. Caregivers must tolerate their own discomfort long enough to think about what to do and not give in or get angry.

So how do caregivers control their own emotions? Number one, by having hope! Tthink of challenges as a temporary issue that can be fixed, not a character flaw. Know that things will get better eventually as long as you stick to strategies. Studies have shown that parents who are optimistic stick to strategies and therefore bad behaviors lessen over time.

Two other things to keep in mind when attempting to control your own reactions: Realize that the individual’s behavior is not intended to challenge your authority but is rather a reflection of their lack of coping skills. Also, do not worry about what other people think. Most observers understand that a child having a meltdown in public is not a reflection of your competence, and they do not blame you. You can gain respect by controlling yourself, not the child.

Lastly, be sure to take care of yourself and maintain balance in your life. What are you doing to make yourself happy? Dr. Baker suggested trying yoga, meditation, and exercise as great ways to reduce your own stress and enable yourself to maintain control of your emotions in the face of meltdowns.

Build a Positive Relationship

The first step to managing an individual’s behavior is to build a positive relationship, Dr. Baker said. It is very important for children to know that adults around them actually do care about them; show warmth and caring.

Ensure that the individuals know what is expected of them by using structure, visual supports, and differentiated instruction. Fair is giving everyone what they need, not teaching everyone at the same level, Dr. Baker explained.

You can also build confidence through the 80/20 rule. Enable individuals to succeed by starting with tasks or lessons they already grasp, then move on to new or more difficult material for the last 20 percent. If you start with the difficult material, they will feel defeated, Dr. Baker said. If you don’t let them make a mistake or fail the first eight times, they will believe they can succeed.

And finally, avoid power struggles. For example on homework, allowing breaks or limiting the amount of time they spend on it is not giving in, it is managing the work. You could also try doing the work with them or doing the first problem for them.

Manage Crises

When an argument, meltdown, or crisis does come up, first be willing to take some time to manage it. Listen to their side of the situation, agree, and apologize when necessary. Show some sympathy; there is always a kernel of truth in why they are acting out. Then collaborate and ask them “what do you want? Let’s find the right way to get that.”

If the individual is too distraught to use logic or reason, try to distract them and change their mood or focus with novel items, special interests, or sensory activities. Dr. Baker said that when he is working with individuals on the spectrum, he always keeps his pockets full of things he can use to distract them. Distraction is not rewarding the behavior as long as you don’t give them what they were having a tantrum over. If the individual is trying to avoid a task, distraction helps them avoid it, so give them a legitimate way such as taking a short break or breaking the task into pieces.

Once the crisis is over, make a plan for next time.

Work on Repeat Behavior Problems

If the individual is repeating unwanted behavior, explore why it happens. Observe and keep a journal so that you know what happened before, during, and after the behavior. The difficulty is that causes for the behavior come before the behavior, when you might not be paying attention. But with practice and time, you should be able to discover the trigger for the behavior.

Some of the typical triggers Dr. Baker listed were:

  1. Internal issues – hunger, exhaustion, illness
  2. Sensory issues – noise light, touch, overstimulation, boredom
  3. Lack of structure – not enough visual supports to give expectations
  4. Challenging or new work, feared situations
  5. Having to wait, not getting what one wants, disappointments
  6. Threats to self-esteem such as losing, mistakes, criticism
  7. Unmet wishes for attention – being ignored, wanting others to laugh

Once you have data on the trigger(s), you can develop a prevention plan. Dr. Baker mentioned his No More Meltdowns app that will help caregivers keep track of behaviors. The app allows you to upload to www.symtrend.com/nmm, which will analyze data and give you a prevention plan.

A good behavior plan will change or remove the triggers as much as possible, teach the individual skills to deal with the triggers, and reward new skills. If the individual is not already frustrated, you can also use a loss system when they do not use new skills to deal with the triggers.

Demands for Work

When an individual is frustrated by demands for work, there are several ways you can change that trigger. First, model and prompt rather than test. This goes along with the 80/20 rule mentioned previously. “Teach” them something they already know first, so they succeed. You also can give them a choice of which work they do, or use their special interests to make the work more appealing. Visual supports, such as instructions, outlines, and labels are helpful for many individuals. Finally, try reducing the length of time and using a timer so they can see how long they must keep doing the task.

To help individuals deal with demands for work, teach “trying when it’s hard,” Dr. Baker said. For some individuals, the fear of the work is the trigger, and this can be overcome with gradual exposure. Get them to try a small portion of the work. Teach them to ask to watch first or to ask for help. Tell them that they may take a break for a certain amount of time and then come back to try again. Finally, be willing to negotiate how much they do (unless you know you are working with an individual who will keep negotiating, which Dr. Baker referred to as a “congenital attorney,” much to the audience’s amusement).

Dealing with Fear

Some individuals fear situations that can just be avoided, but many must face their fears because situations cannot be avoided. Start by persuading these individuals that they must deal with their fears. Talk about their strengths and their optimistic future, and then bring up that they should deal with their fears so that the challenge is not in their way anymore. It can be a relief for them to learn that they do not have to change fundamentally, they just have to make it so that the challenge does not stand in the way of their success, Dr. Baker explained.

Then explain anxiety and true vs. false alarms. Being anxious means that the brain lies to you and makes you afraid all the time, rather than just keeping you out of true danger, he said. Help them to think like a scientist and do research on their fears. For example, if they wash their hands constantly because they are afraid of germs, they should research the likelihood of contracting a disease. Let them convince themselves through logic that their anxiety is overblown.

You can also try gradual exposure to their fear. A visual aid of a fear ladder with rungs of exposure can allow for rewards as they reach each rung.

To reduce individuals’ overall anxiety, add exercise, mindfulness meditation, and relaxation techniques. Dr. Baker recommended the resource www.fragrantheart.com. Focusing on the moment means they are not worrying, and it recharges and re-energizes, he said. The best time for many is at night, because they are less occupied, and so that’s when all the worries come out.

Finally, if anxiety is debilitating and other methods are not working, Dr. Baker said neurofeedback and medication can be useful options.

Waiting, Accepting No, Stopping Fun

Dr. Baker offered several strategies for individuals who have meltdowns because they are unable to wait, accept no for an answer, or transition away from preferred activities. A visual timer can help them understand how long they will have to wait or when they must start a new activity. A visual schedule also helps with transitions. “Prime ahead” by discussing what they will gain by waiting or accepting no, and talk about disappointments that might occur during an upcoming period.

Help them accept no by providing what they want or something else that they want at a later time. Use a reward system such as a “disappointment poster” and give them points for waiting, accepting no, and stopping fun.

Self-esteem: Mistakes, Losing, Teasing

For individuals who are upset by losing or mistakes, again the 80/20 rule is useful, Dr. Baker said. Let individuals win or succeed 80 percent of the time to build up goodwill. You also can talk ahead of time about mistakes that might occur but remind them that mistakes help us learn and grow; if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying new things or learning.

For teasing, first protect the individual as much as possible by surrounding them with supportive peers. Peer buddy programs have been shown to be a very effective method of building children up and preventing teasing. When teasing does occur, help them to check it out first to make sure they understood correctly. Perhaps it was not meant to be teasing. Teach them that when they are teased, they should calmly ask the person to stop, showing that the teaser did not get to them and does not control them. If the person does not stop, they should report the behavior.

Unmet Needs for Attention

Some individuals act out to gain attention. To change this trigger, you can schedule attention or special time for the individual so they know they will get it. In the classroom, for example, you could use a timer to count down to when they may speak with the teacher rather than calling out in class. Dr. Baker also recommended looking for appropriate outlets for the individual, such as theater or standup comedy.

Also, teach the individual about positive ways to get attention, stressing that they want to be liked, not just gain attention. Teach them about public vs. private topics, and if in a classroom or other group setting, try to get peers in on it — if the peers laugh when the student says something inappropriate, that is a reinforcement of the negative behavior. Teach the individual the “rules of comedy”: Don’t make fun of vulnerable people. Use slapstick, random thoughts, and self-deprecation.

Sensory Needs

For individuals who engage in self-stimulation such as drumming, flapping, or chewing for sensory needs, you can try to change the triggers by avoiding boredom such as waits or group activities in which they are not engaged, or by modifying frustrating work.

Skills you can teach them include alternative ways and times to self-stimulate and how to be a self-advocate for a better environment, Dr. Baker said. Individuals need to know to ask for what they need, such as less noise or more interaction. On the other hand, they need to know they have a right to the environment that works for them but can’t impose it on everyone else. If they need it quieter, they can ask people nicely, and if they don’t get it, the individual should ask to leave and take a break.


Dr. Baker also discussed ways to prepare for unexpected triggers. Collaborate with the individual on ways to distract and soothe themselves in the case of upsets. Have them compile a folder of relaxation techniques. Establish safe people whom they can turn to when they need support. Teach them this self-talk: “All problems can be solved if you can wait and talk to the right person.”

Jed Baker, Ph.D. is the director of the Social Skills Training Project, an organization serving individuals with autism and social communication problems. He is on the professional advisory board of Autism Today, ASPEN, ANSWER, YAI, the Kelberman Center and several other autism organizations. In addition, Dr. Baker writes, lectures, and provides training internationally on the topic of social skills training and managing challenging behaviors; he was the keynote speaker at ASNC’s 2015 annual conference.


Structure – an Important Teaching Tool

Editor’s Note – This article was written by Amy Hobbs, Training Coordinator for the Autism Society of North Carolina. To read Amy’s bio click here.

It was Sunday and a new group of campers had arrived in the afternoon. I was called to the old dining hall to assist a counselor who was having trouble getting a young camper back to the group lodge to take a shower and get ready for bed. The four-year old camper who I’ll call Alex was at Mountain Adventure Camp for the first time. It was Alex’s, first time ever spending the night away from his home. Alex did not speak and to communicate his needs he typically cried, flopped to the floor and banged his head. Lucky for Alex, he was attending a camp that was specifically designed for individuals with autism.

Alex was wandering aimlessly around the dining hall, but every time his counselor tried to direct him towards the door, he flopped to the floor. Alex did not understand the pictures that the counselor was showing him that represented the Group Lodge nor did he understand the words used to explain that it was time to take a shower.

The old dining hall had lots of tables and chairs and also lots of doors leading to the outside. When Alex flopped to the floor the next time, we opened the nearest door and simply pulled chairs in around him making a corral with the only opening being a door to the outside. It took Alex about 30 seconds to stand up, look around and then walk straight out the open door.

I remember the look of amazement on that counselor’s face as he watched Alex walk out the door. He never forgot that example of using physical structure and how it helped Alex to understand what we wanted him to do.

Sometimes when students with autism are in inclusion settings, they have trouble attending to their work because of all the distractions in the room such as other students talking or moving around or people coming in and out of the door. Planning seating arrangements for these students to optimize their success in the mainstreamed setting is crucial. It might be that sitting on the front row or away from the main door will be enough to reduce the distractions. Another student might benefit from having a desk that faces the wall to help them concentrate on the work in front of them.

The simplicity of using the physical structure in the environment to address behavioral challenges is sometimes overlooked. However, the first step to addressing a behavior problem or instructional challenge is to make sure that the individual with autism understands the expectations. Often when the demands are clarified through moving the furniture or adding visual supports, then the behavior challenge dissipates.

The training department offers training on using a structured approach to teaching individuals with autism. For more information on this and other available trainings, click here.

Amy Hobbs can be contacted via email at ahobbs@autismsociety-nc.org or by telephone at 828-236-1547 or 800-442-2762, ext. 1501.