The Easily Discouraged Student on the Autism Spectrum: Tips for Parents and Teachers

"I need some ideas on how to build some confidence in one of my students who has been diagnosed with autism recently (high functioning). Now that he knows he has this condition, his self esteem has taken a turn for the worse. He won't even hand-in assignments because he's sure (in his mind) he will get an 'F' (which he does for not handing it in), which just reinforces his negative view of himself."

If you have a youngster with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), you’ve likely experienced some aggravation over the numerous outbursts and unexpected meltdowns brought on by an unexpected trigger.

However, many of the triggers that result in behavioral issues may be directly related to the child’s frustration over not being able to complete a certain task or perform to his or her self-imposed expectations. This can, in turn, contribute to feelings of discouragement that result in the child “giving-up” (i.e., refusing to give things a second try).

The easily discouraged AS or HFA child may exhibit any or all of the following:
  • a general pervasive mood of unhappiness
  • a tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems
  • aggressive and even violent behavior
  • difficulty building or maintain interpersonal relationships
  • discipline problems at home and/or school
  • inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
  • lack of social-interaction skills
  • low self-esteem
  • mild to severe defiance issues toward parents, teachers, and other authority figures
  • severe academic and/or social frustration
  • trouble bringing emotions under control

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the education of the easily discouraged child. Some educators believe the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is in the “mainstream” classroom, while others believe the LRE should be in an environment that gives the correct amount of structure for that individual youngster. No matter where the youngster is placed, the right techniques can help in the right kind of environment. Research has shown that AS and HFA kids do best in an environment that is predictable, stable, and structured. These kids need help in frustration-management and self-control through coaching, modeling, and teaching.

Assessing social skills is very important for understanding emotional problems.  Observations of the AS or HFA youngster’s behavior with friends, classmates, and grown-ups in natural settings (e.g., special education classroom, lunch room, recess, etc.) can provide information about social skills and relationships that is crucial when reporting on a potential emotional disturbance case. Observing behaviors during social skills instruction or role-playing situations provides a more direct method for measuring specific social areas (e.g., social problem solving, social reasoning, etc.).

==> Resource for Teachers: Teaching Students with Asperger's and HFA

The following strategies can be highly effective with children exhibiting frustration and other emotional problems in the classroom:

1. Ask – don’t tell: If the child has a positive relationship with the educator, it may be effective just to “ask” that the unwanted behavior stop due to the problems that it’s creating in the classroom. In this way, no consequence or reward is intended or implied; rather, it’s just a simple, straightforward request from teacher to student.

2. Teach problem solving skills: Help the AS or HFA child to solve his own problems, and reinforce responsibility. By doing this, you imply that the child is not a helpless victim, that he is powerful and can take control of many aspects of his lives. Ask leading question, such as: What is the problem? What have you done so far? What else can you do? What is your next step?

3. Change of environment: Remove the AS or HFA child from a stressful situation before inappropriate behaviors occur; however, be careful not to inadvertently reward the other child (or children) who may be instigating the problem.

4. Impromptu change of activities: If an activity is not successful, change it as quickly as possible. Try to always have a backup plan (e.g., moving from an interactive game to something like Bingo that requires no interaction). This can be done smoothly when a group is becoming over-stimulated. At other times, offering a choice may be more effective (e.g., the children can choose to cover information orally through discussion, or copy notes from an overhead projector).

5. Bonding: Connect with the “special needs” student at a very personal level by discovering as much as possible about him. Find out more than just his challenges – discover his strengths and interests, too.

6. Intentional ignoring: Behaviors that are exhibited for the purpose of attention-seeking and don’t spread or interfere with safety or group functioning may be effectively terminated through intentional ignoring; however, this strategy should never be used with aggressive behaviors. The classmates of the AS or HFA student may need to be taught to do this as well, because peer-attention can be even more powerful than adult-attention for some kids.

7. Forget about “attitude”: Do not criticize the “easily discouraged” child for having a bad attitude. Of course he has a bad attitude! His attitude reflects his experience. For a child that has experienced a lot of frustration and discouragement in the classroom, to have a “positive attitude” about school would be unreasonable. Nonetheless, the “special needs” child is often scolded for his poor attitude. Change his experience from frustration to success, and his attitude will follow – and so will his behavior.

8. Kick start: When it appears that the child is beginning to feel frustrated, assist him with the difficult section(s) of a task or assignment.

==> Resource for Parents: Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

9. Do a success review: When the child does experience success, talk about what effort made that success happen, specifically, and insist on pride in that effort and the increasing level of skills that follow.

10. Nonverbal signals: If the child is calm enough to respond, has a positive relationship with the educator, and is free from uncontrollable impulses, a nonverbal cue (e.g., softly snapping the fingers) might be all that is needed to assist the child in regaining focus.

11. Learning from mistakes: Teach the child to learn from – rather than feeling defeated by – mistakes. Reaffirm that “learning from making mistakes” is often the best form of learning.

12. Rearranging: Change the seating arrangement or the small-group assignments of children to avoid specific behavioral problems; however, try to do this in a non-punitive and undetectable way.

13. Restriction of tools and space: Rather than taking away certain items that distract after the child is already engaged with them, keep them out of sight from the start. This is crucial when meltdowns escalate to unnecessarily dangerous or reinforcing proportions due to a lot of extra items being available for breaking and/or throwing.

14. Use of distraction: Change the activity or tempo, comment on the child’s work, or ask about a known interest related to the assignment if the child shows signs of frustration or restlessness. Be sure to do this BEFORE off-task behavior occurs.

15. Use of humor: Humor can often stop unwanted behavior if it’s used in a timely and constructive manner. (Note: sarcasm, even of a friendly nature, is not an appropriate use of humor for AS and HFA students).

16. Use of proximity and touch: Move closer to the child experiencing frustration, or place your hand on his shoulder. In this way, you are showing support in a nonthreatening way; however, when using this strategy, avoid using it as an opportunity to point out inappropriate behavior. Also, comment positively on any move toward compliance.

17. Use of routine and structure: Schedules and routines are often overlooked by teachers when considering behavior-management interventions. Knowing what to do – and when to do it – provides a sense of safety, structure, and predictability for children who may not experience such structure in other areas of their lives.

In a nutshell, here’s how can you break the cycle of frustration and resultant discouragement. The “special needs” child must: 
  • Never feel anonymous
  • Learn the satisfaction of hard work done well
  • Learn the pleasure of mental involvement
  • Have clear evidence of accomplishment attributable to skill and effort rather than luck or easy work
  • Feel valued and cared about
  • Experience a classroom that is free of negative competition and peer-pressure
  • Be with grown-ups who like him – and demonstrate it
  • Be taught to take himself seriously as a learner

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