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My 11 year old high-functioning autistic son is halfway through his fifth grade year. He’s been on an IEP since he got his official diagnosis at 6, and part of his accommodation has included the support of para-professionals in the classroom. Recently, he’s been responding to their attempts to redirect him to his classwork with hostility, stubbornness and even shouting.

My challenge: to figure out how to give him some time to get himself on track without an adult prompting him repeatedly.

Problems we encountered in the three areas mentioned in the title above are these:

  1. At home. We got in the bad habit of finishing his sentences and anticipating his needs, so he didn’t have the pain of trying to articulate them himself. We have to let him express himself, even if it stops dinner while he processes.
  2. At school. A lot of the above, trying not to bog down the rest of the class. This grew into the learned helplessness he’s bridling against now, and rightly so! It’s his learning experience, too.
  3. In his own mind (all Chris). He knows he should pay attention, ask questions, finish his work. He feels stupid sometimes when people remind him anyway. Of course, he’s not stupid. It’s exhausting until you get used to it.

If you want to try to encourage self-regulation with your child, here are the ingredients you will need:

  1. Complete immunity to temper tantrums and other forms of manipulation
  2. Cooperation from the school teachers and staff
  3. Patience (with the child, teachers, staff . . . and yourself)
  4. Willingness to let your child fail on his own
  5. Objectivity to assess whether he’s actually ready to do this on his own (this is probably the hardest part because it’s hard to watch your child fail repeatedly, but you don’t want him not to try, either).

Getting Ready for School
The solution I’m using is to give my son incremental opportunities to exercise autonomy and be successful. We started small. I stopped reminding him of the things he has to do in the morning to get to school on time. He knows what he has to do; it’s not rocket surgery. I wake him up and let him get ready at his pace. I’ve set an alarm on his iPod to sound at 5 minutes before he has to leave. Yes, it drives me crazy when he lies in bed, gazing out the window like it’s a Saturday. But so far, he hasn’t hopped to school in one shoe with half a bagel hanging out of his mouth.

Completing Homework
The next step was homework. He’s writes down what he’s responsible for in his school log, and it’s up to him to complete it. We have some time management built around homework, so he can keep his place in the process. This structure includes time for an after school snack, decompressing from the day, and then tackling the homework assignments, hopefully finishing before dinner.

Initially, he got sideways of this concept because he was used to having another person sitting with him, validating every pencil stroke. For those keeping score at home: this is a bad expectation. It was a little like suddenly riding his bike without training wheels (another accomplishment that we just had to push him into). Yes, we had a couple of nights when he didn’t finish his homework and had the ensuing tantrum because he knew he’d miss recess the next day. Them’s the breaks, kid (I’m no good as a tantrum audience). That was your decision, and this is the result of that decision. Tomorrow, finish your work on time. It took patience and consistent expectations, but he now finishes his work before 8:30 most nights.

Handling the Classroom
The next steps at school are to bring that same level of personal responsibility to his classroom behavior and output. And this is a tricky one. We’ve been trying to get Special Education to loosen its grip on support for a while. He’s usually such a nice guy, paras adore him. And he’s really, REALLY good at looking helpless long enough that people finish his stuff for him. Again: this is a bad expectation. Taking responsibility for his own work is part of growing up, and the sooner he starts, the better.

I know the next independent steps at home are going to be weird ones for me. Phone? House key? Time at home, in charge? Is he going to be OK? What if something unexpected happens? Well, something unexpected will happen. I can’t anticipate everything: that’s irrational. My job, the school’s job, now, is to prepare him to meet the unexpected on its terms as an independent individual and be OK with it, with us and with himself.


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Kate Dran is a user experience analyst, professional writer, autism advocate and parent of 2 beautiful and perfect sons, one with autism, one developing typically. She founded Adaptive Solutions Analysis, LLC , a private consulting firm that provides usability assessments and user experience analysis for adaptive technologies that support the cognitive, sensory and motor development needs of K-12 students with autism. She believes that autism-friendly user experience is human-friendly user experience.