Working with children, whether as a parent, teacher, or caregiver, is an inherently social process. This is no different when we are talking about children on the autism spectrum. In order to impact children with ASD, the adults in their lives need to employ a set of activities, strategies, and skills that form a strong adult-child bond as the basis of any intervention. This requires that we see autism not through the lens of social skills deficits, but rather with the understanding that children with autism seek comfort from and desire interaction with adults. In fact, the stress and anxiety that social situations trigger for the child with ASD actually heightens his or her need for meaningful relationships with caring adults.
Personal relationships are frequently the catalyst for motivating behavioral change and, therefore, are a key component of good teaching. Once rapport is developed, a budding relationship between an adult and child becomes as reinforcing as any tangible reward used to manage behaviors and teach new skills. When this relationship is mutually enjoyable for the child and the adult, the child wants to exhibit behaviors that receive positive recognition from the adult and the adult is able to intervene effectively when maladaptive behaviors are exhibited.
All children with ASD want to learn social skills in a fun and relaxed way, but they need a facilitator to help navigate social situations. Unlike many typically developing children who learn to socialize though imitation or trial and error, children with ASD lack a road map for navigating social situations and need clear and deliberate models. Models are comforting and offer support, helping to dissipate stress and anxiety associated with such interactions and allowing the process of true social learning to begin. Regular caregivers can be very effective instructors for modeling behavior because they are uniquely positioned to promote social learning and generalizing skills in a natural environment.
The value of building relationships with children on the autism spectrum goes beyond instruction. It also forms the basis for better communication and significantly impacts how effectively adults manage difficult behaviors. Though relationship building may seem like an imprecise art, there are specific, concrete, and actionable steps that caregivers can take immediately to improve relationships. Here are a few tools that Ramapo for Children uses and teaches to facilitate relationship building, and examples of those tools in action:
Take the Time to Understand a Child’s Uniqueness and Special Interests. Recognizing what interests the child and integrating engaging topics in other activities is critical to nurturing a relationship and, ultimately, to building valuable skills.
At Camp Ramapo, Ramapo’s summer camp for over 550 children with social, emotional, or learning challenges, including children with ASD, counselors become experts at helping campers transition from an isolated interest to integrated play. When Camille, a 12-year-old girl with a special interest in fairies, first came to camp, she isolated herself with her fairy dolls and would refuse to engage in social activities. She had difficulty taking a break from stressful or escalating situations, and she would resist reviewing her daily schedule by covering her ears and screaming.
To address these issues, the team of staff that worked with Camille reframed activities to include a splash of magic, such as giving Camille her daily schedule by “fairy mail” or asking her to go on a “fairy hunt” when she clearly needed a break from the current activity. Additionally, they gave her short, pre-arranged times to play with her dolls during the day and provided the opportunity for her to earn more time by meeting behavioral expectations, as long as she included another person in her play.
Once Camille had gained some success with the plan, the staff began to gradually fade out the fairy references and increase the expectations for earning playtime with the dolls. By the end of the session, Camille significantly decreased the amount of time she spent playing alone with her dolls, participated more often in her group’s activities, reviewed her schedule without resistance, and made a friend who motivated her to behave more appropriately.
Build a Positive Self-Image. Recognize the unique skills of a child and connect these to tasks. This will allow them to use their strengths and talents to add value to the community. As a result, they’re more likely to feel confident and take initiative.
Ramapo’s Staff Assistant Experience (SAE), a residential transition-to-independence program for young adults with social, emotional, or learning challenges, including ASD, is designed to take into account the skills and struggles of each individual participant. By blending social, work, and home life with the typically developing peers who serve as roommates, mentors, and job coaches, SAE not only enables participants to see positive behaviors in action, but also allows Ramapo staff to get to know the abilities and passions of these young adults and therefore increase opportunities for them to do what they love.
When a young man named Seth came to Ramapo, he had experience working with animals, but working with people proved to be challenging. He had been unable to hold down a steady job because of his difficulty interacting positively with others, and his issues with depression sometimes made it a challenge to go to work at all.
To help him build his interpersonal skills, SAE first placed Seth in Ramapo’s on-campus corral, where he began by keeping the horses healthy and then slowly learned to help young campers pet and groom the horses. Because he felt secure in his ability to work with horses, he was more open to receiving the constructive feedback on his social and emotional development that both recognized his strengths and provided steps to improve his weaknesses.
Soon, his mentor saw Seth gain an increased ability to communicate with colleagues and greater confidence in his work with campers. He even took the initiative to enroll in nearby college courses on equine studies, a prospect that previously would have been daunting for the young man. With Seth’s new skills in evidence, his mentor was able to find a position for him at a nearby horse farm, where he could utilize his natural affinities while gaining job skills that he could transfer to future work in any environment.
Create an Atmosphere of Belonging. Develop routines and traditions that acknowledge children and help them feel like an important and unique part of your world. Help children feel that they are in a safe, nonjudgmental space.
Ramapo Retreats welcomes over 8,000 participants every year to share new adventures, discover new strengths, form new bonds, and be inspired to grow as individuals and as a team through short-term stays on campus. When a new group steps off the bus, facilitators make them feel welcome from the start by greeting them and showing enthusiasm for their arrival. During meals in the dining hall, facilitators always announce and recognize every group to make them feel like a part of the community.
For a returning group consisting of children with ASD and their families, however, feeling a sense of belonging is a greater challenge that requires more than just being recognized. These parents are all too familiar with feeling outside their community, used to receiving stares when their children throw tantrums or act out in public. To them, a trip to a new place can be especially intimidating.
To help these families feel like a part of the Ramapo community, facilitators address children’s negative behaviors without judgment and with the competence they’ve gained from experience. They provide a structure for the day so parents and children alike know what to expect, and they include family favorites like call-and-response songs and boating on the lake to help the retreat feel like a tradition. At night, they round out the day with a campfire, where families can share their experiences with each other in a safe space.
Spending a weekend in an environment that supported and included the whole family was a fun time for the kids and a relief for the parents. Their trip became a respite instead of a strain, and the families returned home more relaxed than when they had left.
Over the past 90 years, Ramapo for Children has developed a unique ability to create environments that help children of all abilities align their behaviors with their aspirations, and in recent years has exported that approach to over 300 schools and youth agencies throughout the New York metropolitan area via training programs. Those experiences on- and off-campus have made evident the fact that relationships are the cornerstone of behavioral change; without that connection, children have no motivation to increase their social and emotional skills. Though building a positive, mutual relationship with a child with ASD may seem daunting, the process consists of a set of skills and activities that can be taught. When the adults in a child’s life stop acting as passive or reluctant receptors of autistic behaviors, and instead feel comfortable intervening and shaping interactions, the adult-child bond becomes richer for both parties.
Lisa Tazartes is Director of Ramapo Training, Mike Kunin, MA, is Director of Camp Ramapo, Jennifer Buri da Cunha, MA, is Director of the Staff Assistant Experience, and Kyle Avery is Director of Communications for Ramapo for Children. For more information, please visit www.ramapoforchildren.org or contact Kyle Avery at (646) 588-2308 or firstname.lastname@example.org.