No More Meltdowns: Handling Challenging Behaviors and Teaching Social Skills | Organization for Autism Research

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Jed Baker, Ph.D. will provide the opening keynote address for OAR’s 2009 Applied Autism Research and Intervention Conference. His presentation will take place at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, October 23. In the article below, he discusses the topic of his presentation. You can also read more about him at the end of the article.

During my training as a behavioral psychologist, I was taught that consistency in rules was a key to good behavior management. Beware of attending and giving in to tantrums, I was told, as this may just reinforce that behavior. Later I heard from a variety of sources that students with autism sometimes failed to learn from consequences when overly frustrated, and that trying to distract or soothe them might be best during these agitated moments. This led to some confusion as to how to deal with these challenging moments: hold firm to rules and consequences or soothe and distract?

That dilemma, along with trying to raise my own kids, led me to sketch out how to deal with these problems in a book called No More Meltdowns. In the book, I tried to answer that question of when to be firm and when to bend, but also the more important question: How do parents and other caregivers prevent these problems? If we know the triggers to meltdowns and challenging moments, we can avoid those triggers and teach crucial skills to prepare students for how to handle those difficult situations.

When it comes to teaching skills, whether coping skills for challenging situations or just skills to relate better to others, there are certain key components we must consider in order to be effective. In 2007, Scott Bellini reviewed published outcome studies for social skill training in schools for children with autism and came to the conclusion that skills training has not been very effective. He and others have pointed to some of the reasons for this lack of positive results. Sometimes students know the skills, but do not perform them when necessary because of a lack of motivation, poor fluency with the skill, or inability to recall the skill in the moment.

Based on his and others’ recommendations, I have suggested five crucial elements to make skills training more effective:

  1. Target relevant skills.
  2. Ensure individuals are motivated to learn and perform skills.
  3. Teach skills explicitly.
  4. Create ways to generalize skills.
  5. Teach peers to be more sensitive to the needs of autistic learners.

The last element, peer training, has been a focus of my work ever since I first saw Peter Gerhardt, Ed.D. [OAR’s president] give a presentation many years ago in which he explained that socializing is always a two-way street; we must teach both our clients and their peers. Now we are making efforts to create peer buddy programs across the country, starting in some of our local New Jersey schools and spreading the word. Initial research suggests that not only do students with autism benefit, but their typically developing peers also show greater confidence and increases in academic performance as a result of their participation.


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