As we develop this hybrid of therapy work for us to do at home in between J-Man’s work with his therapists and his time at school, we have been drawing a big blank on one critically important piece of the puzzle. I call it ‘reward pellets’.
The concept comes basically from how they train animals. They do something right, they get some sort of reward. Often, it’s a food pellet.
This may sound completely silly in a conversation about autistic kids, but it’s an important part of the structure and motivational processes needed to keep moving forward. The more you talk about this stuff, the more it sounds like training a schnauzer. But, it is what it is, and you get over it eventually.
If you have an autistic child, this probably isn’t news to you. In certain instances, if your child completes a new task, responds to your question, names an object for the first time, or something along those lines, you’ll give them a special treat or reward of some kind. We tend not to do this quite as often as some therapies lean toward, but we do have “you’ve worked hard, you’ve earned X” as part of the equation.
As part of the home classroom work we’re devising, we’re coming up with a system of ‘picture scheduling’, a way of using visual cues of some sort to illustrate how we’re going to sequence something, whether it be daily activities or the classroom tasks we’ll be doing for that ‘session’.
For example, on his desk, we now have three (or four for lengthier sessions) colored shapes (red heart, green square, blue circle, plus yellow star for the fourth) in a row across the top of the desk. Next to him (on his left) is a bookshelf with three (or four) open-top plastic bins with those same shapes in the same order.
Our goal will be to get him to remove the first shape from his desk (red heart) and match it with (stick it on) the red heart on the bin (it’ll stick on with the velcro), do the activity in the bin, put it back in the bin, put the whole thing in the ‘done basket’ (a large clothes basket on the floor), then move on to the next shape and activity, and so on until we’re done.
[I’ll get around to posting a picture of this soon.]
Here’s the missing link. At the end of the row of shapes is (or should be in our case) a picture of the ‘reward’ (also known as a ‘reinforcer’ or ‘reinforcing object’ I think). For some kids it might be a picture of an M&M or a favorite toy or something. The idea is that it should be something special and not otherwise part of the classroom routine.
Our main problem? J-Man isn’t really attached to any toy, food, or anything else for that matter. He’s really attached to us, but it’s not like we’re going to reserve hugs for rewards or something.
Our partial solution is to use pictures of his favorite TV shows. When he completes all the tasks, he gets five minutes of a show. This means we have to cue up the DVR to the right place beforehand so that it will just show five minutes and not abruptly end mid-show. Easy enough, though. The hope is that this whole cycle will take about 15 minutes – 10 for the activities and 5 for the ‘reward’ – with the goal of completing four cycles in a row (or an hour total, however that works out). I’m not real jazzed about using TV for this purpose, but we’ve been low on options.
If the end of those activities mean the end of the classroom time for a while (i.e., we’re off for a couple of hours), the picture could be of his swing set, which is NOT something we could do for five minutes without inciting a riot. Plus it’s getting so hot that our ability to use it will get limited soon.
That brings us to our latest discovery, which may very well be the reward we were looking for.
Going on the “keyboards are the best things since cheese toast” revelation, we discovered the LeapFrog ClickStart My First Computer. It’s a regular QWERTY keyboard like ours (he would have noticed if it wasn’t) and the games included on the console can be simplified enough that all he really has to do is sit there and type. Letters appear, it names letters out loud, and generally fun things happen. We think it’s cute.
He thinks it’s so great he’s almost beside himself.
To make sure he doesn’t just use it to zone out, we sit there and ask him to type a particular letter (he may or may not), encourage him to try various parts of the keyboard (he’s pretty fixated on ‘K’ because he recognizes it and he can say it), and generally be there to be interactive. He also was getting very excited, which results in lots of hand flapping and general overload, so we’re there to do the normal stuff we do to help him stay centered (deep pressure, massage, singing, etc.)
The obvious question is, if it makes him do that and you have to center him, why do it? Mostly because his best learning takes place in a certain zone (we call it the ‘sweet spot’) where he’s not too over or under-stimulated. Under-stimulation is just as stifling to his ability to do anything as the overload is. He can zone out or get overloaded in just about any activity. The ones he’s really excited about do make it hard for him to settle down, but that’s part of the process of things he needs to learn. By being there and being interactive (and not letting him drop out or go into his own world with it), we turn it into a quality activity.
Anyway, looks like Leap Frog has provided our ‘reward pellet’ for now.
Question for the masses, particularly those whose kids are attached to very few things – how do you handle the reward thing?