Slow and Steady Wins the Race
The Value of Shaping New Skills and Responses
Now that the weather is warming up, its almost time to think about swimming. Remember when you first entered that cold pool? Some people jumped right in, absorbed the cold all at once, then went on to enjoy the rest of their swim. Others did not want to absorb the shock of the cold all at once, so they slowly waded in the water until their body became used to the cold before fully immersing themselves. Both are reasonable approaches to entering the water, but if your try to get a wader to 'jump right in' they will become quite resistive and if they are thrown or pushed into the water it becomes a very unpleasant experience for them.
When it comes to learning new skills and taking in new experiences, most people with Autism Spectrum Disorders are waders. While a more impulsive 'jump right in' approach might be seen for familiar behaviors and experiences, people with ASD approach new experiences and learning with more caution. This is related to Sensory Integration and Executive Function differences. People with ASD tend to experience new sensations more strongly than neuro-typical peers and take longer to organize and make sense of the information once it is absorbed into the nervous system. Typically, making someone process information at a faster speed than they are capable of handling leads to a great deal of duress and less than optimal results. Resistance occurs when the pressure becomes overwhelming or when excessive stress becomes anticipated.
In order to avoid excess stress and pressure associated with new learning and events, educators and therapists specializing in Autism recommend shaping the experience. Shaping refers to the gradual exposure of a new experience or training response. For example to help a student who is resistant to completing homework, reward them for completing only a few problems (or even just one) through praise, a small snack, or short break. Over time the student will become comfortable completing that number of problems. When comfort is reached, then the number of problems to be completed can be increased by a small amount. Over time, the number of problems completed can be increased to the desired amount. When Speech Therapists teach children new words, they typically begin by rewarding close approximations to the word then gradually encourage the child to say the word more completely. An adolescent or adult who is learning to ride the bus independently, may need to ride several times with an assistant before being able to ride alone. At first the assistant may have to initiate the responses, but over time they should allow the person with ASD to initiate more and more of the procedure (e.g. selecting the correct bus, paying the driver, finding a seat, getting off at the correct stop etc.) until the person with ASD is comfortable enough to ride the bus independently.
This gradual approach allows the person with ASD to develop comfort, gain positive momentum, and experience success. With success comes increased confidence and the desire to learn more (even if it is just a little at a time). People with ASD are often like marathon runners. They typically start off very slowly, but can show show great determination and focus in achieving their pers. For most people with ASD, shaping is not just a behavior training technique, but a way of life. If this way of life is respected then helping someone with ASD to learn new skills and experience the world becomes easier.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D. Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a specialty in Autism Spectrum Disorders