Owing to the communication, sensory and social difficulties discussed above, some children at PlayConnect may display challenging behaviours in the playgroup setting. How you respond to these behaviourswill depend on several factors: the specific behaviour; what caused the behaviour; the child’s emotional state; and your relationship with the child.
The first step to support children with ASD is to create an environment that reduces the likelihood of these behaviours occurring, and when this doesn’t work, supports those demonstrating these behaviours in appropriate ways.
Below we outline some general strategies that may be employed within the PlayConnect setting to support the behaviour of children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics. Many of these expand on strategies suggested above.
Set Structured Routines
While most playgroups will follow an established routine, it is important to recognise that children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics tend to have a preference for sameness and predictable routines. As such, it is particularly important for PlayConnect Playgroups to have a well-established routine and structure. This consistency is likely to allow participants to feel more comfortable and encourage their engagement, as well as supporting continued attendance. Additionally supporting the transition between activities is a particularly important factor to consider for children with ASD.
Most sessions of any playgroup will include indoor play, snack time, outdoor play and group time, or some combinations of these. An example of a routine that may be appropriate, though this will depend on the venue and specific needs of participants.
Sometimes it may be necessary to change the routine of the group. When introducing change, do so gradually. You can do this by using similar materials in slightly different ways.
Again, recognising that many people with ASD or ASD-like characteristics tend to have a preference for sameness and predictable routines, supporting transitions is an important practice within a PlayConnect Playgroup. A ‘transition’ refers to the change from one activity or focus to another. For those with ASD, these changes can prove particularly difficult and stressful. In supporting these transitions well, you provide an opportunity for the children to anticipate what is coming and to plan to make the change, and potentially alleviate some of their anxiety and reduce the possibility of triggering a distress response.
There are several ways to support transitions, and these often work best when used in combination. This may include the use of a visual schedule, and/ or a visual timer to provide a visual map of the coming transitions, and/or a finished box. It is likely to also include regular verbal prompting, both well in advance and immediately before the change.
You may also like to provide appropriate sensory support (such as a fidget toy) to children who particularly struggle with transitions.
Many children with ASD are often described as ‘visual learners’, in that they learn best when they can absorb and process information visually. For children who learn in this way, tools such as visuals (pictures, images and symbols), social stories,and gestures can support the use of other communication strategies and engage children in play and learning more effectively.
Strategies to use visual supports at PlayConnect
- Create a playgroup schedule. Use photos or pictures of activities to visually depict the routine for the session. This allows you to signpost transitions and provide warning of what is coming next.
- Develop song boards, with visual representations of favourite songs (Five Little Ducks, I’m a Little Teapot). Allow children to take turns to choose the songs they want to sing.
- Develop felt characters and interactive props to support songs and stories
- Use gestures to reinforce instructions. For example, verbally saying ‘come here’ with a hand gesture
- Mark boxes and shelves to clearly mark where toys and resources ‘live’.
- Develop a ‘belonging chart’, that is an attendance chart where children can place a picture of themselves ‘at playgroup’ when they arrive
Tips for making visual supports
- Determine your audience. This will inform the size, nature and materials you use. Is your visual support for one child or many? Does it need to be a real object, a photo (colour or black & white), coloured drawing or line drawing?
- Make obvious image choices. If you are not using a photograph, choose a realistic representation of that item. Drawings and graphics with clear, strong outlines are best.
- Laminate. Supports need to be strong to withstand regularuse.
- Make your interactive visuals (choice boards or song supports) sturdy and large enough for children to hold onto and engage with.
Visual Support Example:
Use Social Stories
Social stories can be used to help children with ASD process and understand an environment and the way one should respond in a given situation. This can include going to the hairdresser, doctor or shopping centre. They can also be used to help childrenprepare for an outing or something new that is about to take place like moving house.
Social stories usually involve a sequence of events, presented in a story, with short clear sentences and pictures of each step. They can be used to support children through many aspects of playgroup. This might include stories about:
- Attending playgroup and what to expect
- What to do at group time
- Sitting together for morning tea
- Helping and packing away
- How to react appropriately in specific situation (based on individual child)
Making social stories
Making a social story is easy and can be done either using a program like Word or simply taking some photos and sticking them on paper, coupled with short concise sentences. A social story should flow and present in a sequence of events.
For example, if making a social story to discuss the process of a playgroup session, you might include the following:
- We arrive at playgroup and sa yhello (picture of child waving hello)
- We play with toys inside (picture of the room and play stations with children playing)
- We help pack away (picture of children putting toys away)
- We wash our hands (picture of parents helping children wash hands)
- We have morning tea together (picture of children sitting having morning tea)
- We sit on the floor for group time (picture of children and parents sitting together)
- We sing songs together (picture of children singing)
- We read a book and listen quietly (picture of children looking at a person reading)
- We go outside together to play (picture of children playing outside)
- We play with the parachute together (picture of children holding the parachute)
- We say goodbye to everyone (picture of child waving to goodbye).
Model Appropriate Behaviour
Modelling appropriate behaviour can be a particularly useful strategy to support the behaviour of children with ASD or ASD-like characteristics. Specifically, modelling refers to the demonstration or performance of an activity using deliberate motions and chained actions.
Essentially, modelling works on a visual representation of how to engage and interact with other people in a positive way and animate actions to support non-verbal communication such as waving hello and goodbye.
Modelling can be used to support appropriate communication, social and inter-personal interactions and play, and provides a great vehicle to teach children new skills. This is often very useful for children with ASD, who often demonstrate a preference for visual learning styles.
Use Key Word Signing
Key word signing can be a great way to support children with communication difficulties, or children who struggle to maintain focus and attention. Specifically, a key word sign refers to simple signs that communicate a key message. Key words can be coupled with basic signs and gestures to increase comprehension. Below are some basic key words sign that may be useful.
Offer Sensory Support
Recognising that children with ASD or ASD- like characteristics often struggle with sensory issues, offering appropriate sensory support can be a great way to support behaviour. This support can be built into the activities, or can be more specifically targeted towards supporting a particular child. This sensory support can be used to engage the child, or to offer a means of regulating their behaviour.
Activities can be developed to meet a variety of sensory needs, across the whole of the PlayConnect program. For example, a sensory seeking child with a preference for auditory input may be offered musical instruments to play with. A child with a seeking tactile preference can be offered a tray of textured rice or grain.
Break Tasks Down
To make new tasks more approachable, break it down into parts. Initially focus only on one part of the activity, so the child is able to process specifically what is required. As the child becomes more comfortable with the task, increase your focus until eventually the child is working on the whole of the activity. This reduces the demands on the child which will increase their chance of success and increase their motivation and confidence.
For example, remove two pieces of an otherwise complete puzzle. Encourage the child to complete the puzzle, working only on the two pieces you have removed. Over time remove more pieces until the child can complete the whole puzzle independently. Don’t expect instant results, this may take some time.
Get Down to the Child’s Level
Getting down to a child’s level is a basic principle used to engage and interact with all children. Crouching, kneeling or sitting on the floor so that your face is at a similar level to the child offers opportunity to make eye contact and gain attention. It shows the child you are engaging with them. It gives them the opportunity to see lips and facial expressions, and to become more familiar with other non- verbal forms of expression.
It is important to note that from a child’s perspective, adults are significantly larger which can be intimidating and even frightening, especially if they are unfamiliar with a person and have sensory vulnerabilities. Getting down to their level can help them feel more comfortable and allow better opportunity to build a positive relationship and connection with the child.
Use Positive Reinforcement
The use of positive reinforcement and praise can be both motivating and rewarding. When you use positive reinforcement, you communicate your approval of an action. This allows children to understand when they are responding appropriately, and encourages the repetition of desired behaviours and actions. When using positive reinforcement, ensure you are specific about the behaviour you are praising. This helps children understand what exactly they did that was appropriate.
Conversely, in an instance when the child demonstrates negative behaviour be sure to remove attention, rather than reprimanding. Particularly for children with ASD, who may struggletoprocessnuancesoftoneandlanguage, attention is sometimes just attention, whether negative orpositive.
This is a complex one. We have discussed the importance of limiting choices for children in the PlayConnect setting, to buffer against over stimulation. However, choice remains important for children, as it helps them learn about themselves and their identity. It allows a child to exercise some control and autonomy over their environment. Ensure that children within the group are offered a limited number of choices across the session.
For example, during morning tea time a child can be offered a choice of where they would like to sit ‘which chair would you like to sit on?’, or on which bowls they use: ‘would you like to use the red bowl or the green bowl today?’ Another example from a group activity, a child may be offered a choice of two or three books to read, or songs to sing.
As with all children, boundaries are an important vehicle to teach skills like patience, limits, and appropriate ways of responding to these constraints.
They are also often necessary to ensure the health and safety of the children. When setting boundaries, always ensure it is realistic, that you have strategies in place to enforce the boundary and that it is in the best interest and safety of the child.
In the PlayConnect setting an example of a relevant boundary may be making a kitchen area ‘out of bounds’ to ensure the safety of the children. To enforce this boundary, try a safety gate or closed door.Reinforce this boundary by putting a visual on the door, discuss it with the children, and ensure parents support and reiterate the message.