A student or individual with autism who refuses to do a task is not a brat. Instead, he or she is telling us that something is not right and WE need to fix it. According to Dr. Aspy and Dr. Grossman, it is wise to ask three questions BEFORE assigning a task to a student with autism:
1. Are you asking for performance of a skill that is too hard?
2. Are you asking for performance of a skill that has not been taught?
3. Are you asking for a task to be completed without the necessary supports?
Before you answer these with a simple “No, I am not,” consider that every skill is made up of sub- skills and prerequisite skills. For example, the simple task of writing a sentence requires a person to come up with an idea, decide whether it is ‘good,’ remember it while manipulating a writing tool, organize the sentence grammatically, use the expected mechanical and spelling rules properly and do so quickly. This is a lot of thinking happening all at once. Considering that individuals with autism probably have deficits in abstract cognition, planning, fine motor skills and rigid ideas about what might be ‘good’ or not good, it is no wonder that a work refusal might occur! Add a noisy room, a sense of being rushed and/or a frustrated adult and the atmosphere is ripe for a storm!
It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that an individual who is bright, articulate and capable should be able to do what same gave peers can do. I cannot stress enough how untrue this is! Uneven skills are a hallmark of autism. A student who can recite a periodic table may not be able to work collaboratively in a group or write a coherent paragraph.
The first step is to take a good, hard look at which skills comprise a task. What skills are a prerequisite for completing a task? If you are not sure, literally ‘do’ the task yourself. Put yourself in the individual’s place and notice how many smaller sub-skills make it possible to complete a broader skill.
Now it’s important to look at each skill with the individual with autism in mind. Are there any sub skills which are areas of deficit? Any sub-skills lacking? Keep in mind, that there are skills that do not come innately or naturally for persons with autism. Asking an interview question, initiating a discussion, using a different set of rules and so on may need to be directly taught before we can expect successful task completion.
The last question we need to address is whether we need to add supports to the task or parts of it that are too hard. In order to be able to show what they know, a student or individual with autism sometimes needs us to put visuals in place that bridge the gap of deficit areas caused by autism. Perhaps, we need to give concrete examples, organization charts, software, a tape recording device, a list of questions and so on.
When you find yourself at wits end because a very capable individual is refusing to complete (or even attempt) a task at home, at school or at work, remember to ask yourself the three questions above. Another person’s dignity and your sanity depend on it!
© 2014 Jennifer Krumins
Reference: Aspy, R. and Grossman, B. (2008) The Ziggurat Model. Kansas: AAPC, pg. 209.