Taking a nonverbal young adult with severe autism on a trip to Wyoming turned out to be a wonderful experience, and a learning opportunity for me. One thing I learned about (unexpectedly) was the benefit of doing “pro-active tagging.”
The Problem — Don’t Spook the Horses!
During the horseback rides I wanted to be sure my son could maintain Quiet Mouth behavior for two reasons: so that the other riders would have an enjoyable outing and so that he would not spook the horses by a sudden loud outburst. I could not tag and reinforce this behavior since I riding behind him and he was out of reach.
The Accidental Solution — Pro-active Tagging
What to do? I mulled this over the first morning as I took my son for a long walk before breakfast. During this walk I decided to tag intensively for what I call the “calming tag points”: Quiet Mouth, Appropriate Vocalization, Hands Down, Smiles, and Cute Glances. Intensive tagging and reinforcing had worked well on our airplane trip to keep him calm and happy, so it seemed reasonable to do this again.
In Wyoming this past summer we had the opportunity to climb Mt. Washburn (elevation 10,219 feet), a mountain renowned for the winds whipping around its slopes, often at speeds of 20-30 miles per hour; at the summit, the gusts blow even harder.
It’s one thing to read about strong winds; it’s another thing to experience them on your way up a high mountain. The wind and powerful gusts posed new sensory challenges to my son as we climbed, not only the sensation of blowing air, but the noise and roaring.
To get my son Douglas up and down the mountain I saw right away that he would need extra supports, especially since his reaction to the buffeting wind was to stand stock still, scrunch up his face and shoulders, and not move! Clearly he was enjoying the wind, but we also had to move along.
The tag point to address this situation was obvious: Take Next Step.
Going too slowly
Although I knew how to address the problem, I hadn’t expected the lengthy “stand still” reactions to the wind. My concern was that it would take so long to do the hike that we would be late with his food schedule and that he would become hungry and upset. This concern only worsened when we were well up the trail and I realized that he had already eaten the snacks in the back pack while we were in the car!
We kept going. As we dawdled along, I tagged and reinforced him every time he took the next step, until finally our pace picked up and we made slow, steady progress along the trail. We enjoyed the spectacular views and had pleasant chats with the many families and groups who power-walked past us. Everyone marveled at the wind.
Reaching the peak and the kindness of strangers
After being almost knocked off our feet by the howling winds of the final ascent, we scrambled our way into the shelter at the top. There we were, windblown, hungry, and foodless. Luckily, a number of people who had passed us along the way spotted us and very kindly offered Douglas snacks and drinks from their backpacks. I was very grateful.
It all worked out
Thanks to positive behavioral supports and the kindness of fellow hikers, we had the wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience of climbing the highest peak in Yellowstone – a dream come true.
TAGteach is a great tool for dealing with unexpected sensory issues: look at the sensory challenge, set a tag point for a desired behavior that the child can do (or is already doing), and tag and reinforce intensively. Naturally, if a situation is too difficult, re-assess and make appropriate changes.
It would have been so easy to bail out of this hike from frustration because we spent a lot of time standing still and going nowhere; yet with patience, persistence, and positive reinforcement we made it to the top.
What is TAGteach?
TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.
With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely, quickly, and intensively. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children (and adults) can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.
When my children were little, I dreamed of taking them out West to see the Rocky Mountains and national parks. My younger son’s autism diagnosis and challenging behaviors put that dream out of mind for years.
This summer an opportunity popped up to go to Wyoming, and off we went, just the two of us. So …
Over the summer I took my 20 year old nonverbal son with severe autism on a trip to Wyoming. This involved a 3 ½ hour flight from the East Coast to Denver and a 1 ½ hour flight from Denver to Wyoming; it was about six hours of plane travel, not counting time waiting in the airports.
Since my son has lots of experience with 7-hour car trips, I wasn’t overly worried, but an airplane is a different environment, and you can’t just pull over and take a break. I took pains to be prepared and had a plan of positive behavioral supports in place for the flights.
We’ve all seen children with autism who engage in toe-walking: the child walks on his or her toes or the ball of foot without putting much weight on the heel or any other part of the foot. Toe walking is so common that it has become one of the early indicators for a potential autism diagnosis.
When we first see it, we may feel amused. However, when we see it go on and on, we may feel concerned. Should we be concerned?
Prolonged toe walking through childhood can lead to physical problems:
Tightening of the heel chords
Incorrect foot position
Abnormal stress on the bones and ligaments in the knees, hips, and lower back (Yoell, 2001).
Toe walking can lead to social problems:
Toe walking can make walking long distances very tiring
Children may have trouble keeping up with family and friends
It can create problems with shoes; they get worn down quickly in odd places or may be difficult to fit (Unity Therapy, 2016)
A few weeks ago, a behavior popped up after a long absence: finger licking and face rubbing. Having already dealt with this once before, I was ready to tackle it again.
This time, my son (nonverbal, severe autism) added a new twist – a much more complex presentation of this behavior: he licked his fingers and rubbed vigorously around his mouth with one hand, then the other hand, and finished up by frantically rubbing his fingers together. The skin around his mouth was red and rubbed raw, with tiny white blisters popping up on his cheeks.
It took three long walks over three days to address this issue (often I use long walks as a time to work on behaviors). My plan was to tag and reinforce Hands Down behavior, also described in the previous post.
From a child’s point of view (whether that child has special needs or not), he or she needs to feel successful and happy when learning. A trusting, supportive relationship allows a child to thrive. Behavioral science gives us the tools to make this possible.
Dr. Susan Friedman, Professor of Psychology at Utah State University, explains how ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) offers a scientifically sound teaching technology and ethical standard that can improve the lives of all learners.
Enjoy the 1 ½ minute video or read the transcript below!
Recently my son with autism had a bad flu that lasted for ten days. As his illness unfolded, he developed a deep cough.
Initially, a sick child coughs because of the irritation. However, as many autism families have experienced, a deep cough can turn into an unpleasant self-stimulatory behavior.
Problems of the coughing stim
If this problem develops, you have a situation where the child may walk up to people and cough loudly into their faces or ears, or may cough over someone’s dinner or the produce aisle at the grocery store. It’s unsanitary and stressful for all concerned.
When my son’s cough developed I decided to take action to prevent the possibility of it turning into a stim. With TAGteach I had success in one day.
“Behavior” is a huge concern in the autism community. Yet, when we talk about “behavior,” we’re actually using a technical term that has a specific meaning. Since so many issues in the autism community relate to “behavior,” it’s important that we all talk about the same thing!
The Mirriam-Webster on-line dictionary states that behavior is:
the manner of conducting oneself
anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation
the response of an individual, group, or species to its environment (1)
The Iris Center for the study of disabilities says:
“Behavior is something that a person does that can be observed, measured, and repeated.” (2)
Check out the latest in our Interview with a TAGteacher series. This time we talked to Mary Handley, a school-based occupational therapist who is working with a 3rd grader to improve his handwriting. Noah’s handwriting skills were not functional and this was affecting his grades and his attitude at school. Mary explains with several video examples how she helped Noah to improve significantly in just four sessions using TAGteach applied with her usual method of teaching.