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Teaching Concepts Rather Than Individual Skills

A look at how using an interest-based approach can effectively aid your child’s learning.

Teaching Concepts Rather Than Individual Skills

I was trained in Verbal Behavior when I started out in the field of autism and related disorders. I loved working with Sue* who was two years old when I met her and “echolalic”. She was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at a young age. Sue is the reason I am in this field and she is one of my best friends. Sue is now 18 years old and a beautiful woman who cares about others more than most people I know. 

Interest-based intervention

The way I started working with her was to use her interests (at that time it was music) and engage with her through these interests. I spent hours finding new songs that might help Sue connect with me authentically and trust the process of learning. 

From there, I started a weekly social group, combining neurotypical children with children diagnosed with ASD. At that time, there were no other groups that were similar to this that I knew of. To me and to Sue’s mom, this felt like one of the main reasons why Sue made so much progress in such a short period of time. Sue felt accepted and loved by typical and atypical kids. 

Conquering the stigma

Contrary to popular belief about individuals on the autism spectrum, Sue loved interacting with children and adults. She had, and, to some extent, still has a different way of interacting, but it’s authentic, raw and absolutely beautiful. 

She can speak about her interests for days, yet will not care too much about topics that she finds mundane. Sue will tell you how much she loves you and won’t wait for your response at times. She is honest and pure and will only tell little white lies if she absolutely has to get out of trouble. The sparkle in her eye will tell you that the only reason she lied was to not be a disappointment in your eyes. 

The impact of AIMS Global

Fast forward to the present and along with Nanette Botha, I’ve created a great support system. Even though we have been working in this field since 2004, we are proud to admit that we are still learning every single day.

I usually tell parents two things during our initial meeting: firstly, you know your child best, more than any professional you may meet. Secondly,  if any professional tells you that he or she knows exactly what autism is or what you should do with your child, be very careful of the advice given.

I still stand by those statements as I honestly believe that the field of autism is ever changing. There is still a lot of learning and evolving that we, as professionals, need to do to truly enable the support our children require, crave and deserve. 

The mechanics of AIMS Global

One of the philosophies of the AIMS support system is to teach children concepts, rather than individual skills.

Here’s an example:

Imagine if  we, as adults, didn’t know why we had to wear a mask during the pandemic. Do you think that we would wear it happily? What if I forced you step-by-step or hand-over-hand to put a mask on first thing in the morning, struggling to breathe and unable to understand the reasoning behind it? Do you think your mood would be positive and do you think you will be motivated to listen to me again?

But we understand the reason for wearing a mask because we received information on why it is absolutely crucial to wear the masks. We still might not like wearing masks, but we know it is in our best interest to do so. We understand the concept of wearing a mask and protecting ourselves. 

Why can’t we teach our kids the same way? If your child is motivated to bake cookies or plant trees, you can teach various “academic” targets within these activities and your child will understand why they are learning each step. 

Make learning practical 

I remember a day where I was told by a behavioral therapist that I should write down a 50-step task analysis to tie shoelaces. This meant that I had to not only write it out, but the poor child I was working with had to do each step individually to ensure that he is able to “copy me” or imitate actions. 

Why not ask your child why he needs to wear shoes or show him a picture of his favorite character wearing similar shoes? 

I know—easier said than done! But one thing is for sure—we all want to learn about things that we understand the reason for or enjoy. I don’t want to learn French when I live in Portugal. Let’s keep it practical, functional and, as much as we can, concept-based.

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Things to consider about your child’s interests

As I mentioned earlier, you know your child best. Think of his or her favorite toys, activities or characters and have a look at the following concepts that we include in our programs: 

  1. Academics 
  2. Asking for a break (movement and sensory breaks included) 
  3. Collaboration 
  4. Communication 
  5. Creativity 
  6. Critical thinking 
  7. Emotional control 
  8. Fine motor skills 
  9. Gross motor skills 
  10. Impulse control 
  11. Information, media and technology 
  12. Mental flexibility 
  13. Mindfulness 
  14. Oral motor skills 
  15. Organizing 
  16. Planning and prioritizing 
  17. Self-help skills 
  18. Self-monitoring 
  19. Spatial awareness 
  20. Task analysis 

It seems overwhelming  (of course we do have a curriculum for each concept), but the important goal for you as a parent is to choose concepts that your child struggles with, and then combine his or her interests to help teach this to him or her.

It is definitely easier to do this when you have a therapist available for support, but we advocate parent training workshops to help with generalizing these goals to the home environment – for times when therapists can not reach the homes of families, for whatever reason.

When in doubt, initiate an interest-based game or activity and combine one or two concepts with the game. I have no doubt that learning will turn into fun, interactive time spent with your child and his or her sibling. 

How to incorporate interests into a learning session

I will provide a practical example to consider when combining concepts into games. Imagine my child enjoys learning about birds, but he is struggling with impulse control (waiting his turn or waiting in general for an upcoming activity or snack). I want to teach him why it is important to wait, while using his interest. The activity that I would choose is to go into the wild to do some “bird watching”. It will be a good idea to prepare my child by including a visual schedule of the events that will follow—we will: 

  1. Go through our social story about “Why waiting quietly is important” (this will be explained later)
  2. Find our binoculars 
  3. Dress in camouflage 
  4. Go outside and find birds to take photos of 
  5. Print the photos of the birds we saw when we are done 
  6. Do some research online to discover the names of the birds that we saw 
  7. Find some interesting facts on the birds, create a poster and share this with family and friends

Then we will start the activity and have a “first-then” schedule handy to show my child when this activity will end and when he can have a well-deserved break or snack. 

How are we working on impulse control? We have to be quiet and wait patiently for the birds to sit if we want to look at them or take photos! This can all be explained before we start our activity by including a social story about why it is important to wait quietly. Your social story can include reasons that make sense (and that are true), such as “birds will get scared and fly away if we make a noise”. 

We have now included quite a few concepts from the list above, as well as combined my child’s interests with a concept that he particularly struggles with. It is always important to let your child know what he did well. You can also go over the activities you completed the following day to support the retention of the skills learned. 

As always, remember to intersperse activities with movement and sensory breaks. Although we aim to teach concepts through interest-based activities and keep our children motivated, these are difficult concepts to work on and will tire not only you, but your child, too. 

Good luck and enjoy exploring with your child!

This article was featured in Issue 121 – Autism Awareness Month

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