Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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School Work Problems in Children on the Autism Spectrum

“My 10-year-old son, TJ, is in the 5th grade and has high functioning autism. Every night we get into arguments over schoolwork that causes him to have huge temper tantrum. Two afternoons a week, he has other activities, and by the time we get home, doing his assignments is the last thing he feels like doing. The other three days, we argue about whether he should do his homework right after school or if he should have some time to relax and play first. When TJ finally sits down to study, he wants me there helping all the time. I do want to help him, but I know at some point he is going to need to be able to do it on his own, and I have other things I need to be doing. Also, most of the time he doesn’t even remember what assignments he’s supposed to be working on. I’m really confused about this issue and what my role is. Got any ideas?”

A major cause of anguish for children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) – and their parents – is the substandard completion of school work. These young people often have a negative reaction to the mere thought of completing assigned tasks. There are two explanations for this: (1) their degree of anxiety and mental fatigue during the school day, and (2) their cognitive profile.

1. Anxiety and Mental Fatigue—

Parents and teachers need to recognize the degree of anxiety experienced by HFA and AS kids as the signs can become evident in their behavior and mood. The indicators of anxiety may not be noticeable at school, but the youngster may behave very differently at home. He may be quiet and obedient in the classroom, but may become intolerant and hostile immediately after he returns home.

School refusal or walking out of school can be a sign of unbearable anxiety. Other kids on the autism spectrum may express the signs of stress at school through episodes of extreme anger and explosive behavior (e.g., meltdowns). Others may simply “shut down” and become somewhat depressed.

Kids with HFA and AS who are having problems learning the “social curriculum” and coping with the anxiety of school usually want a clear division between home and school. Their general view is "school is for work, and home is for fun." Thus, the prospect of interrupting their fun and relaxation at home with school work is unacceptable to them – and is a source of ongoing conflict.

2. Cognitive Profile—

Kids with HFA and AS have an uncommon profile of cognitive skills that must be recognized and accommodated when it comes to school work. One feature of the profile is impaired executive function. The profile is similar to that of kids with ADD, for example:
  • a need for supervision, guidance, and determining what is relevant and redundant
  • an unusual profile on standardized tests of intelligence, especially with regard to verbal and visual intelligence
  • difficulty generating new ideas
  • difficulty planning, organizing and prioritizing
  • poor time perception and time management
  • poor working memory
  • tendency to be impulsive and inflexible when problem solving

Some kids on the spectrum are “verbally-oriented” and have a relative strength in reading, vocabulary and verbal concepts, while others are “visually-oriented” (a picture is worth a thousand words).

Tips for Parents and Teachers—

The following strategies are designed to minimize the impaired executive function, accommodate the profile of cognitive skills, and help HFA and AS kids complete their school work assignments with less anxiety, both at home and school:

1. When it comes to school work, the HFA or AS youngster may have difficulty getting started or knowing what to do first. Procrastination can be an issue, and the child’s mother or father may have to supervise the start of the school work.

2. Once the youngster has started his work, this is not the end of the supervision. The parent will also need to be available if the youngster requires assistance when he is confused and to ensure that he has chosen the appropriate learning strategy.

3. There can be a tendency for kids on the autism spectrum to have a closed mind to alternative strategies. A technique to show that there is more than one line of thought is to provide the youngster with a list of alternative strategies to solve the particular problem. The youngster may need to know there is a plan ‘B’.

4. If the assignment takes several days to complete, it is important that the educator regularly reviews the youngster’s rough drafts and progress, which also increases the likelihood that it will be completed on time.

5. The area where the youngster performs her school work must be conducive to concentration and learning. It’s helpful to have appropriate seating, lighting and removal of any distractions. The distractions can be visual (e.g., the presence of toys or television), which are a constant reminder of what the youngster would rather be doing, or auditory distraction (e.g., the noise from electrical appliances or the chatter of siblings). Ensure that the desk only has equipment relevant to the task. The child’s working environment must also be safe from curious brothers and sisters.

6. Teaching a youngster with HFA and AS requires special skills and the mother or father is not expected to have those skills. As a parent, you are also more emotionally involved than a teacher, and it can be difficult for you to be objective and emotionally detached. One option is to hire a tutor to provide the skilled guidance and supervision.

7. Special consideration should be given to the youngster’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. If the youngster’s relative strength is in visual reasoning, then flow diagrams, mind maps, and demonstrations will enhance his understanding. If the child’s strength is in verbal skills, then written instructions and discussion using metaphors (especially metaphors associated with his special interest) will be helpful.

8. The use of a computer is helpful, especially for those kids who have problems with handwriting. Sometimes the mother or father can act as a secretary, typing the material for the youngster and proof reading his answers. School work can be a collaborative rather than solitary activity. Note: parents are not being over-protective here, they just know that without their involvement, the work would not be done.

9. Consider allowing the HFA or AS youngster to complete her school work at school. It can be undertaken at lunchtime and before or after classes in their home class or the school library. However, the child will still require supervision and guidance from a teacher or assistant. In high school, some autistic teens have been able to graduate taking fewer subjects and the extra time available in the school day dedicated to school work.

10. One characteristic of kids on the spectrum is the difficulty explaining their reasoning using speech. For example, the youngster may provide the correct solution to a math problem, but not be able to use words to explain how she achieved the answer. Her cognitive strategies may be unconventional and intuitive rather than deductive. The parent or teacher may need to accept the child’s correct solution, even if the logic is somewhat unclear.

11. Kids with HFA and AS often enjoy having access to a computer and may be more able to understand the subject matter if it is presented on a computer screen. Material presented by a real person adds a social and linguistic dimension to the situation, which can increase the youngster’s confusion and anxiety. Educators should consider adapting the school work so that a considerable proportion of the work is conducted using a computer. Word processing facilities – especially graphics, grammar and spell check programs – are invaluable in improving the legibility and quality of the finished product.

12. Kids on the spectrum are notorious for their difficulty coping with frustration, criticism, and their emotions. They can become quite agitated when confused or when making a mistake. The parent or teacher will need to be available to model calmness and to help the youngster remain composed and logical.

13. A small digital recorder used for dictation can provide a record of the educator’s spoken instructions regarding what assignments are to be completed, and the youngster can add her own comments or personal memo to the recording to remind her of key information.

14. If regular breaks are necessary to promote concentration, the work can be divided into segments to indicate how much work the youngster has to complete before he can take a momentary break. The usual mistake made by parents and teachers is to expect too much prolonged concentration.

15. A timer can be used to remind the youngster how much time is remaining to complete each section of school work. It is also important to ensure that time scheduled for the work does not coincide with the youngster’s favorite television program, for example. If it does, she may be able to record the show and watch it later.

16. A school work diary or planner can help the youngster remember which books to take home and the specific school work for each evening. Also, a diary (perhaps with stickers and other decorations) may make homework less unappealing to the youngster.

17. A daily school work timetable can be made by the mother or father with guidance from the educator to define the expected duration and content of each assignment. This can be extremely helpful if there are problems with the youngster’s allocation of time to each school work component. Sometimes the work can take hours when the teacher intended only several minutes on a specified task.

18. Lastly, if all these techniques are unsuccessful, consider allowing the HFA or AS youngster to be exempted from doing school work. If the strategies outlined above are unsuccessful or unable to be implemented, then forget about school work. Sometimes this advice is a great relief to the youngster, his mother and father – and the educator!

In conclusion, here are some simple bullet points regarding schoolwork-related problems that parents and teachers will need to remember:
  • Be available for help (this doesn’t mean you must be there beside your child every moment).
  • Be consistent about what time of day the work will be done.
  • Be patient when your child makes the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe he needs to be taught using a different approach.
  • Be realistic in your expectations on how much time it will take. Remember, this is all new for a younger child, and she is just beginning to build her logic and knowledge base.
  • Don’t do problems or assignments FOR your child.
  • Have everything the youngster will need ready before he starts.
  • If the youngster has lots of work, ask her what she would like to start with. This small gesture helps the youngster gain some control over an activity she doesn't like.
  • If your child can’t do his homework at school, he might need to unwind and relax when he first comes home, instead of launching straight into work. 
  • If your child finds it difficult to do homework at home, check to see if he can do it at school instead.
  • If your child has more than one piece of homework, it may be useful to ask the teacher to either make sure your child has written down the homework in his diary – or write it in for him. 
  • Keep the homework-routine predictable and simple. 
  • Keep the work time as quiet as you can.
  • Remember that disorganization is a problem for most kids on the spectrum. Thus, the best assistance you can provide would be in the area of teaching organization skills.
  • Set a timer for 15 minutes, and when it dings, tell your youngster to take a quick break to stretch or get a drink of water.
  • Use a reward system (e.g., the completion of all assignments is rewarded with an extra 15 minutes of computer-game time later that evening).

How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with HFA and AS


•    Anonymous said…  I go through the exact same with my 14 year old daughter, only problem is now, she is the same size as me and very aggressive , you feel you can't win.
•    Anonymous said…  Part of our sons IEP is that whatever homework gets done is what gets done
•    Anonymous said… Do not do the homework. There are more important things like rest, socialization, letting your child just be. Do not buy into this. Sometimes the school doesn't know best. Think bigger picture.
•    Anonymous said… Does he have an IEP? If he does you could have them put a modified workload in there so he's only doing the evens or the odds. If he's got A's and B's then a modified work load shouldn't be an issue. Sometimes the issue isn't the actual work but the fact that the task is daunting to start with. It may be overwhelming which may be the trigger for the melt downs. Another thing I used to do (my guy is a teen now) is to sit with him for 10 minutes and then have a 1 minute dance party! Fun for me too  =D I would also tell him that if he could work for 10 minutes on his own he could get a 5 minute break to himself. If he worked for longer he could get a longer break like 20 and 10. It breaks up the work load and makes it a little easier but I didn't give longer than a 10 minute break and in the beginning I did stick right with him so I could give him lots of positive feedback on how good he was doing! If there are concepts that he's struggling with try looking on pinterest for some ideas on how to help. I still have posters hung on my walls in the office to remind him how to write an outline! We're learning APA style right now. Helping him may never stop and don't worry about whether or not he will have help in school because if he has an IEP he can carry that to college and they will help him! Good luck, I hope some of this is helpful!
•    Anonymous said… Get the teacher to always write down what is expected to be done with regard to the homework. If there isn't an agenda book that is brought home every night make up your own send it with him and have him or her write in it when needed. Communication goes a long way and saves arguments in the end.
•    Anonymous said… Good read. I've had similar experiences
•    Anonymous said… Great article. I've been dealing with this with my aspie son since kindergarten. We have managed to get homework done without anger and tears. I give him breaks and specific things he should do toward getting it finished. (Example-read the first two pages and tell me about it, then you can have a 5 min break. Etc). Works wonders for both of us. Gives me a moment to breathe and clear my mind, while also letting him do the same.
•    Anonymous said… I also had it in my son's IEP in grade school that homework was significantly modified or excused. For high school, I got him a tutor 10 hours a week.
•    Anonymous said… I had a the same problem with my son at that age. the fights were ruining any quality of life we had. He would turn a 10 minute assignment in to two hour because he didn't want to do it. I had it put in his IEP that I had the right to excuse him from homework. or the teachers would modify it so that it wasn't as much. thankfully now that he is in middle school they have an elective class with helps him with staying organized with his assignments and he does all of his homework at school. He has all b's or above and has done very little work at home. it is a god send.
•    Anonymous said… I had similar issues with my now 17 year old and homework in Elementary and middle school. We wrote into the IEP that he had additional time to get assignments and homework done but unfortunately, that extra time was never defined and his teachers had a different interpretation of this than I did. I tried to keep it to a day for homework but there were honestly times where it just wasn't worth happening. I fought with the school about this and ultimately because of this and other things, I pulled him and homeschooled for a couple years. He even had one teacher who used my son as an example for not having homework done. Completely against his IEP and when my son had a meltdown over the incident, completely threw all of the responsiblity to my son instead of understanding her role in the meltdown. That was an awful year for my child (5th grade).
•    Anonymous said… I homeschool my HF daughter and this has some excellent points to help me with her. Excellent article.
•    Anonymous said… I told the school, you're the educators, I'm the parent. You can educate him at school but homework is ruining my relationship with my son and destroying the quality of our family life. You educate him at school, I'll parent him at home.
•    Anonymous said… If anything like my aspie son 12. He separated school and home so getting homework done was a nightmare. We spoke to school and advised that due to this and the onset if meltdowns who h impact on the following day. They would have to incorporate homework into his school day.
•    Anonymous said… It's too much on them I don't force my son to do homework he studies at school 5 days a wk 6 hrs a day I think that enough stress and anxiety for him
•    Anonymous said… My 11 year old son has the same problem! He holds it together and does great at school getting all A's except math which he really struggles with but once he gets home, he's done and getting him to do homework turns into a huge fight that leaves everyone in the house in tears. We are in the process of having him tested through the school and are hoping for an iep. For now, he's allowed to do even or odds in math and I was told if it turns into a huge battle then just to write a note to his teacher.
•    Anonymous said… My advice as a parent who went through this: Let him rest a certain amount of time after school. Have a monitored assignment book as an accommodation that teachers sign. You sit with him as he does his homework (but he does the work) and you sign off on each thing he completes and check his packed bag to ensure the work is ready for turn in. Help him to organize his folders. Give him check lists or other supports if he finds them helpful. Once he is doing well with this pattern, you sit with him only for a period of time and allow him to come ask questions. You check his work at the end and his packed bag. Then, after that is working, he does it on his own with a final question period with help from you. You check his bag. Then, after that is working, he does it on his own with a final question period with help from you. He checks his bag. Next stage once that is working, he writes down his homework at school but teachers don't have to sign off. Same thing as before at home. You find a way to check with teachers regularly to make sure his work is actually being completed. Well -- you get the idea. Gradual steps like this over time. Eventually, he does it all on his own. That will take years, but you will see the growth and it will be worth it in the end. This is how we worked with our son from elementary school through high school. He is now an honors student and able to track and complete his own work.
•    Anonymous said… My son is 14, and we've dealt with this for years. We have had a notebook go back and forth between the house and the school since Kindergarten. Communication with the teachers and faculty is key. I have a friend with a special needs daughter. When they work on homework for an hour, she draws a line and writes, this is how far we got. Accomodations need to be made. Having homework and school only is too much. My son is a Boy Scout too. We work on his homework together because he is not "genius" level high functioning autism and struggles with handwriting, remembering and math. It's a chore, but we struggle through it. It just doesn't overwhelm us like it did in 4th grade. We had 1-3 hours of homework a night and one of his teachers did little to no accomodations. Work with the school. All the best to you!
•    Anonymous said… My son is now in high school- has not had homework since 5th grade and has straight A's.
•    Anonymous said… Pay him $1 for doing his homework independently he needs to bring it to you for marking and then keep a ledger of how much you owe him, he can then spend this on things that mean something to him. He can also buy time on the computer or whatever he loves doing. Also NO tv until all homework is done otherwise he has nothing to work for, needs to earn tv and relax time - this is real life teaching. Have a job you get paid, do your work then you get time off  😊
•    Anonymous said… Same exact! 10 yo boy 4th grade two activities a week.. We say homework with snack( food always helps) before he can go to events. So now every day after school he is now into routine to do his homework... everyday!
•    Anonymous said… Soooo familiar...  😔 😔
•    Anonymous said… Write in his IEP- no homework.
•    Anonymous said… Yes agreed. No homework in IEP  👍

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Please let me know what you find out my son does this every night to and just don't know what else to do

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