A Successful Strategy With Autism: Focus on One Goal at a Time
With autism, the number of challenges to overcome can be overwhelming. I know this first hand. Over and over again, I faced so many deficits in my development that succeeding at anything seemed hopeless. Experts believed I was not capable of attending school and would need to be in a group home as an adult. At 30 years old, I have reached a level of independence that was once considered impossible.
Over the past few years, many parents, teachers and others have asked me what made the biggest difference in conquering significant challenges. In order to determine which factors made a difference, I began a historical review of my countless growth and development testing result. What a surprise I found!
First of all, I had no idea how significant my problems had been. My view of myself was not what the testing demonstrated. At four years old, I had been diagnosed with low functioning autism due to a low IQ and significant motor and learning challenges. For example, my score on testing labeled “Praxis on Verbal Command,” which measures the ability to motor plan body postures from verbal direction, was the lowest score possible on the test. I was below average and significantly below average on every test.
All types of testing results were so poor that I was refused admission to all schools dedicated to children with learning disabilities except for one small program that focused on both learning disabilities and behavioral problems. To help my motor skills and overall brain processing, my parents also found a karate program that was willing to allow me to attend. Although it was not obvious for many years, both these programs would have significant positive effects on my life.
So, what facilitated my progress? Focusing on one small goal at a time.
Each week, the school (Mills Springs Academy) I attended, set a personal goal for a student to focus on each week. Daily the goal was reinforced, reviewed and feedback provided. If the student did not meet the goal, it was carried forward for the next week. In first grade, these were my actual goals and the number of weeks it took me to accomplish the goal.
- I will stay on subject – 7 weeks
- I will complete my work – 6 weeks
- I will raise my hand before talking – 6 weeks
- I will follow directions – 3 weeks
- I will use eye contact with my teacher – 3 weeks
- I will get along with my peers – 1 week
- I will stay focused – 1 week
If I accomplished a goal, a new one was set. Sometimes, I needed to return to a previous goal for reinforcement. For example, the goal of staying on subject was one that required extra follow up. In retrospect, I did not see my actual behavior. For example, I was not aware that I just spoke out in class without raising my hand. When my teachers would say, “Michael, don’t forget your goal,” I finally understood my own behavior and positive reinforcement led to a change. Small goals help someone with autism understand what exact behavior needs to change.
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When I was in 7th grade, one of my goals was to say “hello” to my teacher when I walked into the room each morning. Again, I had no idea that I was not communicating with anyone. In one week, I accomplished this goal. However, another challenge became obvious. My next goal was to make sure the teacher was in the room before I said hello. Yes, I had to be told to make sure the teacher was in the room before saying hello. My brain needed to understand the importance of actually seeing the teacher in the room also. This was an example of me not reading social cues. With autism, specific information was essential, so behaviors changed and social skills developed. Specific information remains important to my daily life.
Improvement in my motor skills, coordination, muscle control and many other areas occurred through karate. When I started the program at six years old, I was unable to complete the simplest of movements. Moving my hands in a downward motion took me six months to accomplish. Other students were able to perfect this movement in the first class. My sensei (teacher) was willing to give me a chance, and it made a big difference in my life.
Once again, the same theme emerged. One goal at a time. Tackling something simple, like small hand movements, made the task easier for me to understand and attempt to accomplish. Again, it was not obvious to me that I struggled more than other students.
With karate, numerous small movements turned into complex ones. Similar to school, I was always behind, so progress was not obvious. Ten years of hard work, I was awarded my black belt. Other students accomplished this in four years. There were many students who were very good at karate but did not stick with it. Less than 10 percent of students who start the program actually achieved their black belt. Another great lesson, I did not have to be the best to succeed. Sticking with something was a winning strategy.
For 25 years, I have worked on my karate skills. Recently, I was awarded my third degree black belt. Less than one percent of those who start this karate program make it to this level. Just a great example of how one small goal at a time works. The positive change was hard to see on a daily basis, but over time it added up.
One other finding that emerged from the review of my childhood challenges. My abilities and development were so far behind other children that the hopeless outlook never subsided. Even if I was making progress, other children were continuing to progress at their normal speed which continued to make my situation look hopeless. In retrospect, one of the biggest lessons learned: positive changes were not always obvious. They were hidden behind continued deficits.
My advice is to target one goal at a time. I continue to do this in my everyday life. It makes a difference.
Book Website: https://outskirtspress.com/WhatAutismGaveMe
YouTube Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCU-uHQXULYJcXxRBVeLdhEw
This article was featured in Issue 80 – Conquering Challenges With ASD