A lot of people have heard of Pavlov at some point throughout their life, and how he taught a dog to salivate at just the sound of a bell. This bell was paired with food until eventually, the dog salivated without the presence of the food and just the sound of the bell. With this experiment, he made popular the difference between respondent and operant conditioning, previously discussed by Watson. Although many people may remember learning about this, they didn’t learn about it any further and how respondent and operant behaviour are present every day in their children’s lives.
Respondent behaviour is an unlearned behaviour that is elicited by a stimulus in the environment, such as the pain that is felt after touching something hot. This behaviour is a reflex, something that doesn’t need to be taught - something hot just hurts! Operant behaviour on the other hand is learned behaviour, it is not reflexive but instead evoked by a known antecedent or consequence. For example, a child may think, “If I cry in the grocery store line, I will get the candy I want!” This behaviour has been learned, because in the past, when in line at the grocery store and told no to the request for candy, crying led to that answer changing. This is what we often refer to as simply “learned behaviour” and the more this behaviour is reinforced, the higher the likelihood will be of that same behaviour occurring whenever in the same situation. But in the same way a behaviour can be learned, it can also be unlearned!
Understanding your child’s learning history is a vital piece of information when deciding to modify their behaviour. A long learning history, with a behaviour that has been reinforced for months or even years, means it will take longer and require much more patience as you work to alter that behaviour. It is important that you as a family are ready to follow through with your plan to modify your child’s behaviour, knowing that it will require more time and patience with those longer learning histories. Once you are ready, you can work with your OBA team to tackle the changes you want to make! Together, we may start with the ABCs to define the behaviour and its learning history. For example:
When we break down the behaviour like this, we can determine the function of it, or why it is occurring. In this example, it was to gain access to his iPad. We also see that you are maintaining that behaviour by giving him 5 more minutes of iPad time. In behaviour analysis we call this positive reinforcement, and in this example it means by giving him more time you are increasing the likeness of the behaviour happening again. Now taking that learned history into account, if this has been the response across multiple people and for a long period of time, altering the behaviour of aggression and flopping will take consistency and patience! To change this learned behaviour, we need to change your response and instead reinforce an alternative behaviour - this means we might teach Billy to ask for five more minutes and when this happens we reinforce it by giving him five more minutes (as well as all the social praise for using his words!). This also means that when they engage in aggression and flopping, we are not going to give five more minutes and that’s where it can be tricky!
Consistency across all people involved in your child’s day-to-day life, and across all settings (e.g., school, grandparents homes, tutors, extracurricular curricular, other professionals etc.) is an integral part of altering the behaviour you decide to target. When the consequence of reinforcement is fully removed for every instance of the target behaviour, a notable decrease in those behaviours will occur over time. With the removal of reinforcement for interfering behaviours, it is very important to make sure that an appropriate behaviour (i.e., a replacement behaviour) is also taught. Your team at OBA will help to identify these replacement behaviours and begin teaching them at school. They will then provide you with the tools needed to practice at home. To ensure the success of replacement behaviours, it is important that they serve the same function or the same “why.”
For the purpose of altering learned behaviours with an extensive history of reinforcement, all events of reinforcement need to be completely removed for interfering behaviours. Follow through can be hard, but it is so so important! In the event that interfering behaviours occur, it is imperative to follow through with the removal of reinforcement for every occurrence of these behaviours. If these behaviours are reinforced at any point in time your child will continue to engage in them as they are aware the consequence of reinforcement will be accessed at some point in time. For example, if on every 3rd or 4th instance of aggression or flopping, you give in rather than follow through, you are teaching your child to continue their behaviour because eventually it will work and they will gain their iPad time. This is where that patience comes in, as you will need to be mindful of your response ensuring that you follow through. Your team at OBA is here to help you in altering these behaviours of your child, but we are also here to help with those mindful parent responses (this month’s parent workshop will target just that!).
Tina and Stephanie
Your OBA BCBAs,
For as long as I can remember, I always knew my brain was different. Things didn't come as easy to me as I assumed they did for my peers. I thought I was lazy or not as bright as them. I always felt I needed to work harder and was terrified to ask for help. Flash forward a few decades and SURPRISE! It was because I have ADHD and my brain is different AND things can be more difficult for me. I have become pretty good at masking my needs, little rituals, and behaviours that are “different” or considered “weird” by my friends and family. Masking is something many neurodivergent people do to hide their true selves to assimilate into the neurotypical world. As you can imagine, it can be exhausting pretending to be someone you are not all day, which can lead to anxiety and depression. Masking can also take a physical toll resulting in frequent headaches, and an overall feeling of unwellness and dread. Masking, however, was not absolute and my true self would peak through at times which made me feel uncomfortable around others. People have always called me quirky or weird as an endearing sentiment, but as someone who truly does feel weirder than the rest, this can weigh on my mind and self-esteem. Now in my 40s and working at OBA, I can accept my true self and be valued for all those “weird” things I do. The little girl from my past would be so proud to see how far we have come!
Advocating for myself and my needs has never been easy and I would risk failure and missed opportunities simply because I was too embarrassed to ask for what I needed. During my days in school, I would often be filled with anxiety during tests and too embarrassed to ask for more time or clarification for questions. I would also (and still do) get very distracted by voices and sounds in the classroom, and in the 90’s accommodations were rare or unheard of. It would have centered me out from my peers, so hiding things was just easier. In my personal life, I often forget important dates which is frustrating for those in my life, this is not intentional. I just forget! Since I am very easily distracted, I often appear as though I am not listening, when in fact I am processing what the speaker is saying as well as the many sounds I am unable to filter out. This puts a strain on my personal and professional relationships which has weighed heavy on my heart all these years. I am still learning how to advocate for myself, however, at OBA I feel comfortable and supported to speak up and tell Kathie, and my coworkers what I need to be successful and content.
Things that are difficult for me and the things I simply need to get through the day have certainly changed over the years, but some remain the same. Loud noises, forgetting important dates, crowds, or the perception of rejection and disappointment can severely impact my success in professional and personal relationships. Our needs don't magically stop when we leave elementary school. So why do we stop accommodating people's needs as they get older? When we are small it is in people's nature to support and help, as we grow older the expectation is to know the rules and fall in line with the rest. With each passing stage in a child’s life, their needs change and we, as their support system, need to adapt and change as well. Being compassionate and believing our kiddos when they come to us and tell us what they need is key. In elementary school, kids may need visuals with pictures or close proximity to their teacher or parent when completing tasks. Headphones, quiet workspaces, deep-pressure activities and the ability to sit in a special chair are just a few of the accommodations a child may need. As they grow and enter high school, those visuals may change to a To-Do list, more space from teachers and parents BUT still having them close by for comfort. When they move on and are out in the world alone they will still need these things. Heck! I need at least four visual cues for events in several different formats so I don't forget! We don't stop needing access to these things because we get physically bigger. Our brains are still diverse. Don’t be afraid to ask your child, your coworker, or your friend if there is something you can help with if you notice them having a tough time. The worst thing they can say is no - we are trying to teach and raise empathic beings and that starts with us. Checking in can open the door to a bigger conversation and could potentially change the projection of a young person's life. Accommodating is inclusion and inclusion helps foster acceptance of our true selves and a better quality of life.
The revelation of intrinsic inclusion wasn't something that came naturally to me. It took a lot of years and experience working with children and their families to understand what children need. It took a lot of inner work to realize that I was one of those children who needed accommodations and with that opened the door to being truly accommodating in the work that I do. Accommodations are just a part of the day in the Living Skills program - visuals, timers, and transitional warnings are built into our program. Letting the students know we are here for them, and whatever they need is key to their success. We are preparing them for the world outside the OBA walls and that includes sticking up for themselves and advocating for what is fair. It is hard to speak up to your peers and teachers and tell them something isn't working for you or you need something extra. The importance of having automatic accommodations in the classroom and creating an environment for them to practice independence in accessing what they need is critical to these teens. In a few years, they will be out there amongst the sometimes cruel world, and we want them to leave with courage and confidence in themselves to speak up for what they need. Small changes that you can make may mean nothing to you, but they might mean the world to someone else. People with Autism, ADHD, etc. are not out there demanding unreasonable accommodations, just small adjustments that make their work/life easier at no cost to you.
Accommodations are not isolated to the world of neurodiversity, everyone can use compassion and support. Be the hero you needed when you were young and check in on your people. Everyone deserves a seat at the table and to access the tools they need to get there!
It’s that time of year! The back-to-school season is in full swing, being only days away from the start of the 2023-2024 school year. This time often brings about various emotions, thoughts, and feelings from both students and parents/caregivers. These thoughts and feelings might include excitement, nervousness, anxiety, sadness, and many more emotions. Moving to a new classroom, with new friends and teachers can be challenging for any student, but for those with an exceptionality, regulating emotions while working through those thoughts of uncertainty can be even more challenging. Remember to validate your child’s feelings and use positive behaviour supports to provide encouragement and support in order to set them up for success. As parents or caregivers, it is normal to have big feelings yourself - Will they transition back ok? Will their teachers understand their challenges? Will they make friends? The list of thoughts goes on and on. But planning ahead is the best way to help ease those anxieties and prepare your child for what is to come. Here are a few strategies and supports that may aid in this transition.
Parents/caregivers can use priming as a strategy to inform their child of what is coming up. Talk to your child frequently about how going back to school comes with many changes and check in with how that makes them feel. Some strategies to help prepare them can include reading social stories about the changes (e.g., to their routine, to their classroom, etc.), providing verbal reminders (e.g., there are 3 more days until the first day of school), or a visual (e.g., a calendar with a countdown). This may be the easiest yet most effective way to help ease feelings of anxiety!
Setting up a consistent routine for your child will also support and ease the transition back into the school year. Establishing clear and consistent routines for the morning and evening will increase predictability, which supports the development of positive behaviours. A familiar morning routine increases the likelihood of your child transitioning into school with success; beginning this routine prior to the first week of school will help them in working through the remaining changes to their day. Implementing an earlier bedtime with the transition to school is also key as it prepares their growing brains and bodies to learn and regulate their emotions better. The use of a routine or schedule is considered a Positive Behaviour Support that aligns with the values of inclusion, choice, and participation. Include your child in the process when creating these routines to increase the likelihood of their follow-through and motivation. If needed, you can incorporate a reward system to increase the rate of the desired positive behaviour’s (i.e., adhering to the schedule).
It is ok for your child to have big feelings about their return to school. Let them know this! It might be helpful to include an emotion check-in within your daily routine. This can be a simple “how are you feeling right now?” or the use of a visual that they may be familiar with at school, such as an emotion wheel. By making this a part of your routine, it will help your child in not only identifying what they are feeling, but opening up and communicating when they are having trouble and need some help to get through those big feelings. Use familiar ACT language and strategies to help your child work through those feelings - validate how they feel while providing them with strategies that will allow them to defuse from difficult thoughts, and be present to all the exciting things around them! Remember, modeling what we want to see is the best way to encourage our children in using these strategies. Let them know you feel nervous too, then work through those feelings out loud with strategies they are familiar with.
To help your child’s team set them up for success, it is also important to communicate and collaborate! Let your child’s team know how their summer was - this can include the fun things they did, any behavioural changes you noticed, any changes to medication, or any changes within the home that might impact them. By keeping open communication with your child’s team, it allows them to prepare positive supports to work through any difficult feelings they may be experiencing with their transition back to the classroom. For our families that are new to OBA, this transition to a new school may be even more difficult or anxiety provoking. Just know that our staff are ready and waiting to support your family for that first transition through the doors of OBA. When we work together, we can take steps together to support your child in a way that is guided by what we value as a team! We are always here to help, and so excited to see the hallways filled with laughter and happiness again as we return to OBA next week!
Stephanie & Tina
Hey guys, listen up! Are you tired of sitting on the couch wondering how to fill in your empty hours into your free time away from school? Well, you’ve come to the right guy! Here are some ultra-cool ways to have fun during summer vacation!
Tip number three: Get creative! Try busting myths, build a volcano, do tiktoks, or even… (Look down at tip 4)
We made it! The end of another successful school year. The halls at Oak Bridge Academy are buzzing with stories of summer plans, vacations, and some well-deserved relaxation. However, as a Life Skills Instructor/Behaviour Therapist and a mother of 4 children, 2 of whom are now adults with ASD, I strongly encourage parents to continue practicing Life Skills throughout the summer at home and in the community. Life skills do not get a summer break!
Life Skills such as doing laundry, washing dishes, knowing how to cook, etc., are all essential skills for our children to learn to have independence. Independence is important because it promotes pride and feeling good about oneself. In my home, we started to teach these skills at a very young age and as a result, my oldest daughter lives with a couple of roommates, works a full-time job, and has dreams of returning to college someday. ASD does not hinder these things, however, we must present our children with the tools to navigate through life.
My true passion, and the reason I came back to the field of behaviour analysis after being in sales and recruitment for 17 years, is to encourage my students to advocate for themselves and to teach them the skills that will protect them from being vulnerable in the world. Why this vulnerability? Well, I have learned that many people with ASD are trusting and predictable, they feel safe in the world and what you see is what you get. The world, on the other hand, is filled with social challenges, threats, unpredictability, and can be very obscure. Enter vulnerability. A real eye-opener for me was when my two eldest started working part-time jobs. They were earning and saving their own money as they were taught, and having a sense of independence because they had their own debit card. Then, as my husband and I were doing our weekly bank account cheques we noticed the money was slowly starting to disappear from their accounts. They had fallen victim to peers and social media requesting money for empty promises, and because they were so trusting, they handed the money over and were emotionally distraught when they realized they had been taken advantage of. This also continued into adulthood when they started full-time jobs. My daughter rewarded a couple of ex-boyfriends with over $5000, and my son lost $13,000 to an internet scammer that told him he was selling him a successful YouTube channel. These losses lead to depression, anxiety, anger, and outbursts, and in a couple of these situations, the police had to get involved. I know they will continue to do this again and again, to fit in, to be accepted, and to be valued.
So, how can we support our children and protect them from this vulnerability? Unfortunately, we cannot keep them in a bubble and they will have to go out in the world and make the same mistakes my children did, but we can give them some tools to protect themselves.
BASIC MONEY SKILLS:
If you are going to focus on any Life Skills this summer, Stranger Danger and Basic Money Skills are the ones to target. These skills will take lots of repetition at home and when they return to school in September. But I can assure you these are the true skills our children need to face our society, and I will continue to dedicate my passion to teaching them these skills.
Have a relaxing and safe summer!
As the end of the school year quickly approaches, we begin to see the inevitable burnout. So often, it is thought that this only applies to our teachers, behaviour therapists, and support staff, when in fact our children feel it as well. This is especially true for children who learn in different ways. For example, children who have difficulty attending, have to work hard to maintain their focus in addition to the work itself. Burnout in children is so prominent both at school and at home, and will present itself in a variety of ways. You may notice your child is more tired and irritable, you may notice an increase in stereotypy or problem behaviour, or you may just notice that overall they are easily upset and not responding in the same ways they usually do. As with any other change in behaviour, it is important to notice these changes and adjust your own behaviour to help support them through this tricky time of year.
Burnout is defined as a state of mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion. Anyone can experience burnout - adults can experience burnout at work or home, athletes can experience burnout in sports, and students can experience academic burnout, just to name a few. But as I said, students who think and learn differently are more susceptible to academic burnout for several reasons. These factors include academic, social, and emotional factors that make it more likely for their bodies and brains to feel exhausted. Academically, our students often have to work harder than their peers to achieve the same results, in addition to any extra support they may receive on top of their already strenuous day (i.e., speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc.). Emotionally, our students are constantly working hard, sometimes in addition to the anxiety that accompanies their school day (whether this anxiety is about the work itself, failure, or just being in a social environment). And socially, our students have great relationships with those who support them, but they often have to work hard to initiate and maintain meaningful friendships. Add these factors together, for a duration of the 10 month school year, and it is not surprising that our students begin to feel the mental, physical, and emotional effects of burnout as the school year comes to an end.
Being aware of this, and having preventative measures in place is of course the best way to help your child. Encouraging consistent body and brain breaks, healthy eating and sleep habits, and mindfulness are a few of the strategies that can help to prevent burnout. As our students learn these things while at school through the AIM and Connect curriculum, these strategies are already taught and embedded into their days. It is important for families to continue to encourage these strategies at home as well. But regardless of the many preventative measures you have in place, burnout can still happen. By being aware of the signs and responding in a supportive way, you can help your child from feeling overwhelmed and shutting down. Common signs of burnout in children to watch for include:
⁃ Changes to emotional regulation - your child may seem easily upset or frustrated by things they typically do not have difficulty with.
⁃ Loss of motivation or interest - your child may not feel motivated to engage in everyday tasks, this can include school work, extra curricular activities, or situations within your family routine. They may have difficulty concentrating and engage in more procrastination for these everyday situations. Research indicates that burnout leads to changes in cognition, including impairments in memory and executive functioning.
⁃ Avoidance - your child may want to avoid situations that they previously enjoyed, such as school or social outings.
⁃ Increase in anxiety - you may notice an increase in anxiety, which can present itself differently among children. This may include an increase in stereotypy, negative statements, physical illness, fatigue, or fight/flight responses (aggression/shutting down).
⁃ Changes to sleep - your child may experience changes to their sleep patterns, whether that be more fatigue or having difficult falling asleep.
Recognizing these changes to behaviour will allow you to support your child through it, using the many strategies of ABA and ACT that they are already familiar with. This is a time of year to decrease expectations, provide additional support, and focus on spending quality time together. When a child is feeling the effects of burnout, this is not an ideal time to introduce new expectations without also providing extra support. Examples of support you can provide include:
⁃ Maintaining daily routines
⁃ Increasing access to breaks
⁃ Incorporate easier tasks and interests - when working through a non preferred activity with your child, try to incorporate their interests and easier tasks. Incorporating their interests will make the task more meaningful, while incorporating easier tasks will make the more difficult ones easier to tolerate.
⁃ Setting expectations, but providing more support when needed or decreasing those expectations - For example, when your child has come home after a busy school day and is noticeably tired or irritable, when completing their home schedule, perhaps they can choose the order, or they can select 3 activities instead of 5 for that day. This is also a time to increase reinforcement for those desired behaviours!
⁃ Schedule in down time - this may look different for each family, it may include setting up a quiet area, free time, or structured time with the family (such as a game or movie night). Add this down time to a visual schedule so that your child knows what to expect!
⁃ Increase visual supports - increase visual supports such as schedules, choice boards, timers, emotion wheels, and written expectations. This will help your child in knowing what to expect, in identifying what they are feeling and what they need, while decreasing the effort needed to do so.
⁃ Set goals - goal setting is an important component of ACT and something our students are familiar with. Help your child to recognize how they are feeling, and set values based goals together to help mitigate those feelings. For example, if your child values learning but is feeling exhausted, their goals may include asking for breaks when needed to engage in mindfulness or sensory breaks.
It is important to notify your child’s support team of behaviour changes you notice as well, as this will allow you to work together to help mitigate this time of year in a way that is consistent and meaningful to your child. It is also important, to demonstrate compassion both to your child and yourself! While the key to managing burnout effectively includes the support and coping strategies mentioned above, research also shows that relationships with caregivers serve as a protective factor in avoiding the negative effects of burnout in children. Take a step back when needed, and engage in self care. This will allow you to be the best version of yourself, overcoming burnout for yourself and your child, and returning to a positive mindset!
I recently read an article that resonated with me in so many different ways as a Behaviour Analyst and mom of two. It started by stating that, “parental accommodation is when parents change their behaviour to prevent their child from experiencing temporary distress or discomfort.” This is something all parents, including myself, are often guilty of. No parent wants to see their child upset or hurting, but while we accommodate our child out of love, it is not helpful long term. Parental accommodation can present itself in many ways throughout your day, from the ways you prompt a response to the ways you avoid “triggering” or anxiety provoking situations. However, research shows that avoiding anxiety creates more anxiety, inflexibility creates more severe inflexibility, consistent prompting creates prompt dependence, and so on. So while our intentions are to help, it is important to notice how you may be hindering your child’s growth and their ability to live autonomously through your accommodations.
As a parent, the goal is to prepare your child for their future. I encourage you to take a step back, and think about your values and what is important to both you and your child as they grow. If independence and psychological flexibility is of importance, then at times during your child’s growth you will need to make the decision between the path that is easier versus the path that will lead you and your child to those values. Choosing to lessen your parental accommodations is not an easy choice, and one that will take a lot of effort, planning, and patience. However, our students have been exposed to a variety of tools at OBA that will help to increase their acceptance of the process.
Parental accommodation often starts the moment a child wakes up. More often than not, a parent will make their morning smoother by picking out clothing and helping their child get ready for the school day. Instead, maybe try having your child pick their clothes the night before - not only teaching this skill directly, but also teaching them how to pick clothing according to the weather. Next, you might try a visual schedule to help them dress themselves, brush their teeth and hair, and meet you at the door when they are ready. For some, these steps may need to be broken down into smaller steps and for others you may be able to add steps such as packing their lunch. But either way, however you prompt them, it is important to plan to fade that prompt with the end goal being independence.
A much bigger piece of parental accommodation is the way we avoid or give in to anxiety. Watching your child experience distress is hard, and this makes it easy to engage in avoidance or give in to their wants to temporarily stop the distress. However, these acts of love hinder our child’s ability to tolerate discomfort and utilize the strategies they have learned at school. For some children, something as small as putting an iPad away can lead to extreme distress, as well as anxiety for both the child and parent. But this is also a learning opportunity, a time to support your child in noticing how they are feeling and the steps they can take to change that feeling. In these moments, you can support them in dropping anchor, using their Advisor to determine if the thoughts they might be having are helpful or not, and defusing from them if they are not. In these moments, you can teach them how to be comfortable, when they are feeling uncomfortable. This is a skill that will help your child and family in all aspects of life.
For other children, the “triggers” may include haircuts, bedtime, or community outings. There is a wide array of factors that may lead to these triggers, whether it be sensory related or the activity itself being something that is unpreferred. This often leads to unwanted behaviour, hence the parental anxiety that may accompany it. Recently, my son developed a fear of fires after experiencing his first fire alarm at school. This led to weeks of tears, stalled bedtimes, and nightmares. He would cry for hours not wanting to sleep alone, and then would wake distressed after a nightmare. During this time I allowed him to sleep with me, and it quickly became a new routine. As I reflected on those weeks, I realized I was enabling the fear and his inability to work through this anxiety, while also decreasing my own discomfort when seeing him so upset. So together, we came up with a plan to work through it by educating him on fires - we practiced our emergency plan and demonstrated how our alarms work. Once he felt safe, we tackled bed time. We came up with a reinforcement system, where three nights in his own bed meant a trip to the dollar store. It took a couple weeks to get there, but during that time when he awoke in the night, we used some known strategies and went back to his own bed to fall asleep.
Whatever the reason, parental accommodation is always happening, because being a parent is hard sometimes. But these moments of anxiety are all teaching opportunities and ones that shouldn’t be avoided. Instead, I encourage you to reflect on your values and the parental accommodations that are not helpful, or hindering your child’s growth. And make a goal to work through some of them in a way that is guided by your family values. There will be different ways to approach it, and at OBA there is always a team of staff available to help you!
For as long as I can recall, I dreamt of becoming a Nurse Practitioner. I always loved science while in school, and I wanted to find a career where I could help others, so nursing felt like the perfect option for me. However, I faced a life-changing day when I started my first year of college. My son, Andrew, who was three years old, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). At this point in my life, Autism was something that I had very little knowledge about or experience with, but that was all about to change. First, I knew it was time to put my career dreams on hold so I could best support my family, as we entered a new world filled with various therapies, centers, appointments, and a new community.
As Andrew and I attended speech therapy sessions together, we learned how to communicate in a new way. He began signing his wants and needs, and after that, he soon started using words with those signs. By this point, my son was almost four years old, and for the first time, he had a way of communicating to me that he wanted a drink, was hungry, or was tired. This was such a fantastic moment for our family. We would spend our days in a child development center and Andrew, who had typically become overwhelmed around other children, was learning coping strategies. He learned that when he became stressed in a group of children, he could go to a quiet space, and I too, was learning so many new ways to support him. These therapies were changing our lives most incredibly. Andrew, who I had once been told may never speak, was beginning to make small sentences to share his feelings. He was learning to play with other children and preparing to go to kindergarten. When he transitioned to school, it was time to start thinking about my career again. I decided to take the Personal Support Worker program, and in the fall of 2019, I graduated with honours. While in this program, I spent a lot of time volunteering at my son's school as a Strong Start To Reading volunteer and classroom helper. During this experience of volunteering with children and supporting them in the classroom, I discovered my passion for working with children. I began working as a Personal Support Worker at Oak Bridge Academy in 2019.
Within my new role, I worked closely with Registered Behaviour Technicians (RBT) and became more interested in their role and the services they provided in our school. I was fascinated by the science of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and how it was used to support children. I decided to once again return to school, and in 2021 I completed the Autism Studies program with Algonquin College and became an RBT. I am now pursuing my Bachelor's Degree in Behavioural Psychology. I use the skills I learned through my years as a mother and my education to support my students in the Ready 2 Learn classroom, but also to support my own son at home. I’ve learned how important it is to just pause. To notice how you are feeling, and to defuse from hard thoughts. These are skills that I wish I had when my son was younger. I learned how crucial a routine is, as a consistent routine provides comfort in knowing what is coming next. Most importantly, I learned to celebrate all the wins. Providing praise and reinforcement increases the occurrences. When my students are getting their winter clothes on independently they know praise is coming! They’re excited to try new things and work on hard skills because the positive reinforcement makes it worth it. Working with children in this age group is truly so special to me as I know how much growth occurred in my own child at this age through the use of ABA. I understand how important it is for children of this age to gain independence and emotional regulation skills, and for them to learn to communicate their needs and express their feelings in an appropriate way.
Being the parent of a now ten year old child with ASD, I feel I can really relate to the families in my class, I can understand their concerns, and I can truly feel their excitement when they receive updates about the amazing goals their child is achieving at Oak Bridge.
Looking back, my husband and I often reflect on all the progress Andrew has made; he is now ten years old and has achieved so much already. I am so grateful for my son and the journey we continue to experience together; without him, I may have never discovered my true passion for a career in ABA.
Parents often ask us, “what is the best strategy to help my child practice ACT at home?” My first answer is always to educate yourself on what it is. Attend parent workshops, do some reading, or listen to a podcast. And learn the strategies that help us defuse from a difficult thought, allowing us to move forward in a direction that we value. In order to teach our kids something, we need to understand it and embrace it ourselves.
Although there are many great strategies to teach your child, it is much more important how you teach them. How can you set up their environment so that they can naturally practice these skills they already know? How can you provide opportunities that encourage them to use the language and strategies they’ve been taught at school and by you? How can you go beyond just teaching a skill, and instead teach present moment awareness as a whole? And there are so many ways to answer these questions.
You can start by setting up opportunities to practice during routine activities, and then model it. I can never say this enough. Children are always learning from their environment, and you are the most important piece of that environment. When you are having a difficult time regulating your own emotions, or are feeling nervous, model the use of strategies and communicate it. Use ACT language to help them better understand what you are feeling, and why you are responding the way you are. For example, when I am feeling nervous about public speaking, I am noticeably anxious. I might tell my children, “I’m super nervous about my presentation tomorrow, and I’m sorry if you can notice that in my mood. Talking in front of people makes me nervous, and I feel it in my tummy, and my hands, and sometimes I talk too fast. But that’s because I’m worried about making mistakes and what people might think of me. I know this is a story I am telling myself, and I’m working on strategies to calm my nerves and defuse from these thoughts because this is important to me.” After giving an explanation of what I am feeling and why, I will suggest some known strategies, “I don’t want to miss out on things that are important to me, so I’m going to put that thought on a leaf and let it float down the stream, then I’m going to practice deep breathing so that I am present and I don’t miss out on what’s important. Do you want to help me practice?” In moments like this, it is not a sign of weakness to have big feelings, it is a learning opportunity for both you and your child. Normalize these feelings, and work through them using the strategies you want to see your child use.
Throughout your everyday activities, there are many ways to model ACT yourself, and have your child practice. Set goals as a family, and committed actions to help move you closer to those goals, and then post them somewhere so that you can check in as a family. Validate your child’s feelings, and use acceptance and diffusion phrases when your child is having a hard thought, or a hard time moving away from a preferred activity. You might say, “I know you are feeling upset and that’s ok. But what strategy can we use right now?” Additionally, set up opportunities outside of these situations to practice present moment awareness. Mindfulness activities can be worked into many parts of your day, such as on the way to school, when energy levels are high, or as part of a bed time routine.
It is also so important to remind your child of their strategies before they face something difficult and you know they’ll be needed. As a family, we recently had the opportunity to do this together. My 11 year old daughter is fearless on a race track, but that’s because she is confident there, and according to her, having a helmet where people can’t see her face also helps immensely. But she also plays the piano, and getting up to play in front of an audience is not an environment she feels comfortable in. On the way to her recent concert, we talked about strategies she could use before getting on stage. As I suggested she take a deep breath and focus on her music sheets, her five year old brother also suggested she count to 10 before starting, or do a “5 finger breath.” Prior to getting on stage she was noticeably nervous, but she got up there, and I watched her take a few seconds to focus on her breath before starting. She then played beautifully, and I was overwhelmed with emotion and pride, knowing that once again my children are learning to face their fears through the use of ACT strategies. Practicing these strategies outside of the big events where they are needed, allows our children to encompass acceptance and commitment training in a way that will generalize to so many other aspects of their lives as they grow.
sFrom an ABA perspective, we know we need to reinforce the behaviour we want to see continue. So do not forget to validate feelings and reinforce your child when you see them using ACT language and strategies. As a community at OBA, we are all working together to create the best versions of ourselves and our children. A version that is psychologically flexible and able to navigate the world in a way that is mindful and values based. It takes a village, and as staff, we are always here to help you and your family!
This months guest contributor is Holly Kane. Holly is one of our invaluable RBT's here at OBA and is currently working on a program to support siblings of children with autism and other exceptionalities.
Navigating the world as a sibling of a neurodiverse person is a unique and enlightening experience, and it is one that is accompanied by many profound emotions and thoughts. When I entered adolescence, I searched for sibling support; hoping to connect and relate to others going through a similar experience. However, I never did find that support. This lit a spark in me to bring awareness to a group that has been overlooked. I dedicated my Bachelor of Social Work to researching the impact of ASD on families and siblings, and I continue to incorporate it into my current studies as a Master of ADS student. Although many of my own experiences have helped me to develop some of my favourite qualities and have influenced this career path, I have also chosen this career path to bring light to the complex reality that siblings can face.
What I’ve learned through my personal and academic experience is that not one sibling’s experience will be the same, but we are all connected by playing the roles of protector, mentor, interpreter, mediator, teacher, etc., for our sibling. We begin filling these roles from a young age, whether we are incorporated into behaviour programming, attempting to educate our friends on ASD, training our family members on how to use our sibling’s communication system, or navigating the inevitable bullying. My role as a mentor and teacher began at four years old, as I was incorporated into my sister's play and social skills programs. These roles have now transpired into riding around on the city bus, learning her route to and from her work. I distinctly remember the day she got hired, as the first thing we did was research the route. However, we first got familiar with the bus by taking a celebratory dinner trip to McDonalds!
Although we often take on these roles naturally, it is important to remember that we are our own person, not just a sibling. We have our own relationships, challenges, likes, dislikes, feelings, thoughts, and goals. As I said, being a sibling to a neurodiverse person is so beautifully complex and we are a group of individuals that would also benefit from support. If you are a parent reading this that has a child who has a neurodiverse sibling, I hope this has provided some perspective. If you are a sibling to someone who is neurodiverse, I hope you find solace in this message – you are not alone. Parents, while you and your child(ren) navigate this together, remember they are their own person, and their feelings, thoughts, and perspectives are valid. You can support their sibling journey by offering them emotional support and information about their siblings’ diagnoses, but the best way you can support them is to ask them what they need. At the end of the day, this is a unique challenge that life has presented to us, but please remember, you are not alone in this journey.