Thursday, 25 August 2011

Social Skill Building the MM Way

Social skills classes are great in theory, but in practice I have seen some that are... less than stellar. 

According to my research, which comes from a number of peer reviewed sources including but not limited to several text books from my post graduate degree, articles written in academic journals, and too many years of teacher preachers to cite; the main reason social skills groups fail is because of a failure to plan for social skill generalization.

It almost seems obvious doesn't it? Autism is itself associated with an often times great aptitude for skill acquisition, but with a deficit in the ability to transfer that skill to novel environments. Kids with ASD are often incredibly bright, but struggle to conceptualize the use of skills in environments in which they have not been explicitly taught. Many people never even think about how naturally skill generalization happens for typically developing children; it is something I certainly took for granted. 

Knowing what I know...How do I actively plan for generalization in MM social skills program?

Where do I begin?! By scheduling the group to float between classrooms (sensory, sensory motor, class, office) outdoor locations (playground, park), and by constantly changing the teaching materials (stimulus) and the structure of our physical  teaching environment. We are constantly exposing our students to novel environments as an active pursuit of generalization.

Having our students work with several instructors and educational assistants allows us to ensure that skills generalize across people; as a class, we interact with each other and become comfortable in a controlled social dynamic! The more positive interactions with people we have on a daily basis, and therein practice the elementary social skills (relative eye contact, pitch, greetings, answering basic questions, etc.), the more we are able to call upon these skills at another time; eventually, they join our repertoire. The more we practice, the more fluent we become.

Most of our kids thrive in a 1:1 setting, but working in a group we automatically tackle the other major concern when it comes to generalization; that is, will the skill taught in 1:1 generalize into group environment? Usually, it does take time but when instructors are skilled at eliciting these skill sets, students are able to stay on-task and motivated. The ALLSR includes this skill as a target, which at least to me, says it's worth considering.

When planning for maximum engagement there are themes....and there are themes.

Themes are a great way to keep social skills classes focused and age-appropriate. When working with themes it is important to do your research, not every idea on the internet works out and it is best to test it out before hand. I also like to have a few "in case of flop" ideas hanging around to; sometimes, you just can't plan for a lack of interest or a failure to launch. Some ideas just don't work, and it's best to let it go and move on. 

When planning themes, and all the while planning for generalization, I try to make themes functional, but also subjects of interest; anytime I can toss some life-skills into the mix, I do that too. I recommend you take your themes to the "next level"; include vocabulary, theme based games and of course arts and crafts should reflect a clear theme (from fish to french fries, topics and themes come in all shapes and sizes).

I always try to simulate real life scenarios; in a french fry unit I might host a mock restaurant, or in a shapes unit we might try cooking with only things that are round. This year I plan to simulate a buffet; a particular area of concern for some of my little ones.  Keeping it hands on, theme based, and outside the box helps our kids stay engages with the activity and with each other.

As always, thank you to

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Increasing Play the Professional Way

DISCLAIMER: This blog post ended up full of jargon; I didn't mean to, but it just happened. If you make it through to the end, there is a great anecdote in it for you :)

As I sit at my desk, waiting for my printer to cooperate, I have some time to think about what exactly I am trying to achieve in what I call the "revamp" of the office play space. When I work with kids in my ABA office, I think it's really important to systematically target those play skills, in a way that is natural and child-centered. One of the ways I have decided to foster this, is by creating a Structured Play Area. Discrete trials are an incredibly important part of my ABA programs, but they do not take the place of child-centered play skill building. The at the table learning is only one of many components of a successful ABA program.

As I was saying, the first thing I do to ensure that it is child-centered, is provide tons and tons of choice. I do this by providing choice boards, but more so, by teaching my kids how to  make choices, how to engage with options and how to plan their play. Using a dry erase marker and a laminated schedule, we check off one box after each activity is complete and tidy; in this way, my kids are able to anticipate the beginning, middle and end of their play.

I always plan for momentum. I structure my activities as such: a highly preferred activity, then a a less preferred activity, then a highly preferred one, and then a less preferred one. This helps with momentum, but also helps with engagement. At the start of a play intervention, guided play is the only way! Lots of modeling and imitation with objects leads into following plat activity schedules; first simple 2 step schedules, and eventually more complex 3-step schedules.

My main goal in working with kids on the autism spectrum (and other language deficits), is to increase the appropriate and functional language that stems from appropriate play. This kind of language is easily generalizable into the home, since most often kids do the most playing at their homes. Play is one of the primary ways children expand functional language, and it gives your child a way to interact with various toys and objects, through the use of speech. The more speech we use, the more fluent we become in it.

Like all of our teaching, we use most to least prompting to motivate performance and increase the likelihood of reinforcement; we use transfer trials in a skillful and systematic way to ensure skill acquisition and prevent prompt-dependency. Fading prompts like we would in a discrete trial, or in a language or math lesson, we go backwards down the prompting hierarchy (starting with full physical prompting and ending at independence). I have been doing all kinds of research about evidence based methods for increasing play skills, I will post a few great links that I feel all educators should have on hand; parents, if you want me to decode the jargon for you I would be delighted, just send me an email.

As promised, your reinforcement: Today we took our kiddies to the grocery store, it was the field trip of all field trips! We chose our own snacks and then shared our choices with our friends. As we were walking into the store an elderly gentlemen extended his arm to choose his shopping cart; well one of my little monkeys thought this was a personal invitation and proceeded to hold the elderly gentleman's hand in delight. "Oh my!" exclaimed the gentleman, "isn't he friendly!". We laughed, and promptly made a note to write a social story about touching strangers. Eek. At least it was a nice old guy; if you are out there in cyberspace somewhere, thank you for accepting my monkeys the way they are, and having a sense of humour!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Pretty in Purple

And the verdict is...................................we LOVE the new purple walls and so do our campers!

We have had a very busy summer of moving into our new space, getting set up, getting set back by some flooding, and finishing with a fresh coat of purple paint on the walls. Yes, you heard it here first, MM has gone purple. In addition to setting-up the center for September classes, we are gearing into the first year of Social Skills Sundays and we could not be more excited. We are looking for peer volunteers to take part in the Sunday fun (free of charge) and support the development of play and social skills in our little (and not so little) ones. There are still a few spots open for Social Skill Sundays, so I encourage you to tell your friends; the more the merrier. It costs 17 per hour, we are able to accept most funding for recreational services, 1:1 support, and ABA based therapy programs.

We are also very excited to be offering parents the opportunity to observe a social skills class, to take part in our lessons and develop a better understanding of his or her child's abilities at MM. One parent will be permitted to attend each week; this will be determined on a first come first serve basis.

This week is the last week of camp, and it is all about field trips and increasing overall exposure to new environments. We are headed to a whole new camp for the day, yes we will be fully integrated! We are heading on a shopping trip and to a fun house! We will be meeting friends, introducing ourselves and taking turns...and we cannot wait to show off the skills we have been practicing all summer long at Social Skills Camp.

Program Availability

There is some availability left for September start ABA program; AM sessions are still available, but PM sessions are mostly booked up. E-mail or call us ASAP regarding either AM or PM sessions for Fall.

There is some availability left in our school-age (6+) class. Full or half days available.

There is some availability left in our pre school (5 and under) class. Full or half days available.

There are tutors ready to start in your place or ours, call before School starts to secure your spot.

There are Fitness & Coordination sessions available (1, 2 and 3 hours) in both AM and PM.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Gluten Free is good for me! By: me

I am feeling extra itchy this morning, so I decided to post this rhyme I wrote to help explain allergies to one of my students. If you are feeling creative and want to add another line or two, feel free to post in the comments! 

Gluten-Free is Good for Me

Some foods make me sick, make me sleepy, make me silly, and make me itch.

I don’t know why, but I sure know how; I can’t have gluten or milk from a cow.

If I do by mistake, or because I didn’t know, my face gets hot and hives start to show.

I itch and itch but I just can’t catch the source of that itchy, itchy scratch.

My tummy might hurt, or I’ll get a foggy head; the light will hurt my eyes and I might just go to bed.  It makes me mad because I like to eat bread, so the gluten-free version is what I’ll have instead!

I can’t eat some chips, most pasta it’s true; but I did adapt and so will you.  I love to eat rice, pizza, chicken and stew; I love to eat rice-pasta, quinoa and beans too!

At first it was different, but now it’s sort of cool; I even bring a gluten-free lunch with me to school.

By: Alley Dezenhouse

P.S. Please note: this post is about allergies, and not meant to support the theory that the removal of gluten and/or casein from a child's diet will alleviate symptoms associated with Autism. That being said, if an Autistic child has never been tested for allergies, you may want to consider the various ways that an allergy could manifest (hives, digestion issues, loose BMs, rashes, grumpiness and tiredness, foggy head, stomach ache, bloat, nausea, headache, joint issues, and on and on and on). 

It's your job as a parent to be extra aware of these symptoms when your child is non verbal; even if your child is verbal, he or she may not be able to properly articulate the source of the problem (or even worse might just think that's how everyone feels all the time, it's all relative, right?). 

It takes time for neurotypical kids and kids with Autism, to develop a sense of what a headache feels like, what a stomach ache feels like, what a rash looks/feels like, how to articulate feelings of nauseousness verses a bruise. One of my staff recalls being 3 years old, and telling her parents "my knee hurts" and proceeding to throw up all over the back of the car.

In short, be a detective because it's your job to make sure your kid is functioning as his or her best possible self.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

You will find me under the desk.

Today I spent the afternoon on all fours under my desk; no I was not preparing for an Earthquake drill.

In afternoon ABA, it all of the sudden struck me that my little monkey was getting a little edgy. Taking a break was out of the question at that moment, he had not earned all his tokens and I wasn't about to falter there; how was I going to regain the focus I had lost, and what exactly was I competing with anyway? How could I simultaneously meet what I perceive to be sensory needs, while not inadvertently reinforcing a behaviour which could be misused as an escape at a later point. What a puzzle.

In a moment of genius I remembered a note I had read on increasing focus and self regulations by using heavy activities in lesson plan. I instructed the little monkey to "first go under the table, then get on your knees, next look at me"; I repeated it twice, because even I knew it was a bit random, for lack of a better word.

We continued with the same activity we had been doing table-top, only now it was on the ground, on all fours. I drew a square, passed the pen over to the little monkey, and said "your turn". We went back and forth until the page was full of squares and triangles (those are the two current targets); each time in addition to practicing copying shapes, we also practiced saying "your turn" "my turn". Such beautiful concentration, such fantastic precision and hand-eye coordination; not only that, a smile from ear to ear as if to say "you get it!"

After 20 minutes of copying shapes under the table, we came back up for air and decided it was time for a snack break (by this point, all of the tokens had been earned from the hard work done). After a crunchy snack of carrots and a quick trip to the gym to roll on a yoga ball (and sing the preferred "Rolly Polly" as we roll), we were ready to get back into it.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Allowing for Mood

As an ABA Therapist and proponent of a very systematic curriculum, it is important to me that my therapists and myself engage in daily analysis of the variables involved in teaching our students. If we get too rigid about how things are supposed to go, we miss the signs that help us indicate how to best meet our kids needs. Though we rely heavily on predetermined programming, we make plenty of choices day to day, accounting for anything that may impact the acquisition of skills in that moment (from interests to mood). The choices we make provide momentum to our sessions and quite often mean the difference between a good therapist, and a great therapist. All children, including those with Autism, display various emotions from elated to upset, from anxious to overtired; as therapists and arguably as parents, we should become skilled at recognizing each state in our kids.

The ability to tap into the child, and "pull him out" as it was once described to me, is something I require of my therapists daily, especially in working with children on the spectrum. Of course, a successful rapport between student and therapist propels learning, but equally as important is the ability to assess your client's most preferred domain, in any given moment. Being able to pull upon the right task at the right time, and in the right order to ensure focused completion, is something which provides behavioural momentum to learning. In a moment where the therapist really nails it, the completion of the task itself serves as the reinforcer. By structuring sessions this way or that, a therapist can ensure that sensory and sensory motor needs are met, among other variables impacting skill acquisition.

It's like how math, when you get it right, is really satisfying in itself; or that feeling that comes after completing the last piece of a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. That is called intrinsic reinforcement; reinforcement built-in to the actual activity.

A successful therapist or teacher is able to appreciate each of the child's moods, and understands how it impacts skill acquisition; this takes practice, and getting to know each client individually. Flexibility is something many ABA programs lack; flexibility is something many children on the Autism spectrum desperately need in order to thrive.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Sensory Aquarium

The overhead lights are off, the mood is mellow; the room is lit up with desk lamps shinning rays of blue and purple light (i.e. grown ups call it a blacklight). Everything around us seems to glow as it moves; videos of dolphins jumping through waves keeps our attention, while bubbles fill the air. Watch them pop, one by one. The kids are lounging on a big blue crash pad; it is the ocean, of course. The foam inside replicates the waves of the ocean moving beneath you; feel them crash into your legs! Take a big deep breath before you go underwater; ready, set go!

Just another morning at Magnificent Minds Summer Camp, this week our theme is Under the Sea.

Images from

Thursday, 4 August 2011


Progress is really a measure of appreciation; without appreciation of true ability, there is no way to account for or track progress. Tracking your child's progress requires you to appreciate his or her strengths and weaknesses, in a way that is way beyond what you ever expected you could do. Doing what is best for your child means looking at him or her with unconditional acceptance and appreciation; anything but unconditional acceptance is a roadblock to success.