When I ask people to describe a particular student with autism that may be on their caseload or in their classroom, I often hear about the student’s challenges. I might hear about the fact that the student isn’t motivated to learn or that they have significant behavior challenges.  While I recognize (and respect) that these challenges are very real, I long to hear about the student’s amazing sense of direction or about how they are really good at following the steps in a sequence.  Those who work in the school setting are faced with juggling students with diverse needs and abilities.  There never seems to be enough time or support to get things done.  It can be very easy to slip into the swamp of negativity.

I started a new job several years ago.  It was a completely new role for me and required me to move across the county to a new city where I didn’t know a single person.  I can definitely say that I was outside of my comfort zone.  I remember sitting at a coffee shop talking on the phone with the phone company trying to get my internet set up (You can’t start a new job without internet!!).  The stress must have been written all over my face.  I’m sure the woman sitting next to me overheard most of the conversation.  When she walked by to leave, she placed a Post-it note on my table.  It simply read, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.  This too shall pass.”  To quote Oprah, I had an “aha moment.”  From that moment on, I decided not to worry about all of the potential challenges I might face with the new job, I decided to focus on the positive and to use my strengths to get me through the challenges.  I jumped in and did what needed to be done and didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed by the things that didn’t really matter.  I am happy to report that the job experience was one of the best I’ve ever had and I learned to be a positive thinker.

By applying these same strategies when working with students on the ASD spectrum, we can begin to focus on their strengths instead of their challenges.  While skills and abilities vary from student to student, it is important to think about the fact that many students with autism understand concrete concepts, rules and sequences very well.  They also often think in a visual way and are able to recall visual images and memories easily.   In addition, they can typically understand context specific language (language that can be directly related to an experience) and be extremely focused during pleasurable tasks.  These students can also understand better when he sees something vs. hear it (Thank goodness for visual supports!).

If you really think about it, it is the strengths of our students that can lead us to a solution to the challenge.  For example, if the student is not motivated to participate in social interaction with others (challenge), but is really good with following a routine (strength) then we can potentially address the challenge by making the social interaction with others a part of the routine (solution).

You’ve probably heard the saying “it takes way more facial muscles to frown than it does to smile.”  Well I believe that it takes way more energy to “admire the problem” than to think positively and come up with solutions.  Try to follow every challenge statement with a strength statement.   By focusing on the strengths of the students we are promoting a positive communication and learning environment.  And don’t forget to repeatedly tell your students about their strengths (ex., “Wow, Jill.  You are really good at following directions!”).

For more information about the strengths and solutions for students with autism, watch the Behavioral Supports for Individuals with Autism video  on the DynaVox Implementation Toolkit.  This video will highlight some of the strengths and characteristics often demonstrated by students with autism.

Download FREE visual supports (and thousands of other communication/learning boards) at BoardmakerOnline.com.

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