By Fumi Horner, PHD, BCBA-D and Ashley Bennett, PHD, BCBA-D, LBA
As clinicians who work with children with autism, it is our job to make learning fun. We are trained to look at each child and see what they like vs dislike and what’s easy vs difficult for them. We conduct assessments to find out those answers and create systematic teaching strategies around them. We know it’s impossible to stick to what a child likes all the time and get giggles or a cute smile from them. We need them to learn how to be independent and okay if they don’t get what they want all the time. The question is, how do we balance them out? Can we (as clinicians and/or parents) create an environment where kids are motivated to learn and enjoy being independent without over-emphasizing obedience?
Creating a happy learner and what that means. During therapy, it is extremely important to honor the children’s withdrawal of assent. Assent means the expression of approval and agreement. How a child expresses this can vary. Examples can be the child saying, “I don’t want to,” asking for a break, ignoring directions, walking away, tossing materials off the table, or responding to questions slowly. We want to pay close attention to children – whether they are willing to learn or not. We should also teach self-advocacy skills, so that they can communicate appropriately and clearly. And we as clinicians should take their communications and start new activities where the child is more engaged and happy. When a child is happy and follows directions, he or she will make much more progress than a child who does not comply and is unhappy.
So, what do you do when a child stops showing their desire to learn and is actively demonstrating the opposite?
Assent withdrawal is one way for the child to tell us that he or she is unhappy or that something is not right. This is demonstrating that the learning environment is somehow aversive to the child. As clinicians or even parents, it is important that we observe these actions and adjust our own actions. We need to analyze why the child is unhappy or does not want to follow directions, learn from the moment and adjust our approach. We never want a child to feel helpless.
When you notice that a child is exhibiting assent withdrawal, it is important to stop the activity and redirect to something equally as engaging and reflect on what we can do differently next time. This strategy does not mean that we are teaching the children that they can walk away from everything they don’t want. It is teaching them that they always have options. As clinicians or even parents, we should always highly value self-advocacy skills, especially for children with autism who might not have adequate language skills to communicate.
Assent withdrawal might initially look like just the child is simply walking away, but we can teach them to communicate appropriately so that everyone understands that they child is no longer interested or has some other concern. The importance here is not to coerce a child into an activity. At the same time, we want to ensure that we are setting them up for success by providing an appropriate amount of support to build their foundational skills before targeting more advanced ones. In environments where there are a lot of distractions, we want them to develop skills where they can learn and succeed.
In addition to teaching self-advocacy techniques, we at Bierman ABA, focus on creating an environment where the children can thrive and be happy during their sessions. We do so by celebrating success, no matter how big or small. When the child completes the small step of a learning activity for the very first time, even with some support, we want to take time to recognize the accomplishment. That way, he or she can see the value in learning or completing activities. This will create an environment where children will find learning fun when the expectations are appropriate to their skill levels with an appropriate amount of support and exciting “pay-offs.”
When it’s appropriate the children will also be able to communicate to us that they do not want to engage in certain activities. An important part of treatment is ensuring that the individual agrees to the treatment. Adults and parents can agree or disagree to treatment and understand the risks and benefits and so should children. This is why we at Bierman ABA Autism Center use assent withdrawal to teach appropriate self-advocacy tools.
Ashley Bennett PHD, BCBA-D, LBA and Fumi Horner, PHD, BCBA-D of Bierman ABA Autism Center