To kick off Autism Awareness Month, we look to autism and behavioral coach Rebecca McKee, who started The 13th Child Autism & Behavioral Coaching, Inc. McKee has worked with both children and adults and provides tips on detecting autism in your child, what to do if your child has autism, and the support and resources available.
TNF: How long have you been a child autism and behavioral coach?
Rebecca: I started my company, The 13th Child Autism & Behavioral Coaching, Inc., three years ago; although, I have been working in the field of Special Education/Behavior Analysis for approximately fifteen years. I started my career as a Special Education teacher working in public schools with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as well as a behavioral therapist in home programs.
TNF: What inspired you to go into this line of work?
Rebecca: Hmm…I believe it was fate. In my undergrad program, Communicative Disorders, a professor had us watch videos on discreet trials run with children with ASD. She made a point to tell us that we should pay attention because we would definitely be working with this population of children. Like many people with ASD, the children in the videos were quite physically aggressive. I remember making a mental note that “I will never choose to work with those children…” Lo and behold, I am applying to graduate schools, and a school in New York was persistent and recruited me to join their very new autism program. They conveyed how I would always have job security (as sad as that is) with a degree specializing in autism. I agreed…one of the professors in one of my classes was an elderly man – probably around 80 years old. He knew autism like the back of his hand – he had us read a book that completely created a desire in me to begin to understand the mystery of people with ASD, and help them navigate our world.
TNF: I’m sure you may hear this one a lot: what are some signs of ASD that parents might look for in their children?
Rebecca: Most families hear about the lack of language, lack of eye contact, and poor social skills. That can be vague…some specific signs are the following:
1. Your toddler does not point – they hand lead. This appears as when a toddler wants something out of reach, they will not point. Instead they will place their hand on top of an adult’s hand, pick up the adult’s hand and place it directly on top of the object that they want.
2. Your child does not smile upon command – for example, you are taking a picture and you say “smile” – it is difficult for them to follow that command (maybe they smile during other times but not under command).
3. Your child speaks/attempts social interaction with others, but only about very highly preferred interests – for example, everyone is sitting at a table talking about something exciting for all – an upcoming birthday for Grandmom. Your child appears completely disinterested and unaware of the conversation. But all of a sudden someone mentions the phrase “take the train to Grandmom’s” and your child takes that opportunity to “lecture” to the group about trains. Trains are a huge interest of this individual. “Lecturing” appears as not having a give and take conversation – the person may stand up to talk and begin verbalizing about a certain topic without taking a breath and then they sit down.
4. An excellent memory – especially visual memory – they remember such details about certain events that make others say, “that is so amazing” – they may even memorize routines and phrases people use – and they expect the exact same things to occur during a future event.
5. They mimic language from videos; it is difficult for them to naturally pick up language. These individuals may watch a show or commercial – hear a character say something – the person with ASD generalizes that verbal utterance to real life.
TNF: Do you specialize in only children?
Rebecca: I am certified to work with infants to adults.
TNF: What are some tips you have for parents with a child with ASD?
1. Be consistent with social rules – if the rule is that screaming during teeth brushing means no TV before bed and calmness during teeth brushing means TV before bed then make a visual rule about that in the bathroom and stick to it.
2. Learn how to work with your child with ASD at home on socio-behavioral weaknesses – just as you work with your other children on homework or how to dribble a basketball, these individuals need to practice controlling their behaviors and building up their social skills – choose a day and time that is stress-free for you at home (maybe Sunday morning) and contrive (make up) a social situation that you know your child struggles with and positively practice the right way to act (for example, your child cries everytime the doorbell rings – have them take turns with you practicing to ring the doorbell – make a game of it – have the cat sit outside the front door and then ring the doorbell – work on them opening the door and then you are standing on the other side holding up a small present for them – reward them for dealing with with doorbell in a pro-social manner).
3. Reinforce, Reinforce, Reinforce your child when they are behaving in a pro-social manner – make it a point to use your words to reinforce more than to critique or correct.
TNF: What are some of the common misconceptions about ASD?
Rebecca: Some people feel that people with ASD don’t experience feelings the way we do, such as embarrassment or depression or sadness or love. They do. How they express it or their lack of expression is what is different. They may not cry or express themselves if they fall into a depression, but they may lose interest in their favorite activities, begin to make noises more, become compulsive about certain objects or actions. Also, people with ASD are hysterically funny!
TNF: Would you advise a child with ASD be put in a public school?
Rebecca: The term free and appropriate public education is what we always have to keep in mind here, particularly that word “appropriate”. Each case must be analyzed on an individual basis. There are pros and cons to public schools for children with ASD, as well as pros and cons to center-based schools. The pros in public schools may be: having access to other children who talk, learning how to act during an assembly or fire drill, walking down the hallway in a line, knowing how to use a water fountain..etc. etc. (too many to count). The cons would be: lack of time to spend fine-tuning much needed skills, and possibly staff not understanding how to work with someone with ASD. The pros of a center-based school is that your child will learn and master the skills they need to learn for life: shoe tying, toileting, using a fork, etc. etc. – the cons would be lack of exposure to the “real world” and lack of typically developing peers.
TNF: How could you help a family who has a child with ASD?
Rebecca: My company offers Friendship Clubs for teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1 (formerly Asperger’s Syndrome). The goal of these is to make friends with others who have similar interests and personalities. My company can help a family learn how to replace unwanted behaviors into pro-social ones. I can teach a person with ASD how to develop hobbies in order to build upon leisure skills. Academic support is available to people with ASD, as well. Trainings, workshops, and lectures are available to schools, homes, and vocational sites. It is also important for me to teach others how to have the person with ASD enjoy a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating right, exercising, meditating – and other proactive ways of building a positive outlook for life.
TNF: Do you have any special stories from coaching children with autism?
Rebecca: There are so many! People with ASD are so funny and fun to be around! I am going to pick this one…it was with a boy in 5th grade who had gotten suspended from his public school. He was suspended because he started to become frustrated in PE class and threw balls at the teachers’ heads and the other children. When I saw him after the incident, we made a sequence of events on paper using drawings and simple sentences under each. I made my story and he made his – then we compared. He didn’t understand that when the teacher said “everyone help put the balls away” that it didn’t just mean him. (This is an example of how someone with ASD takes in information in an ego-centric manner.) To this boy it was a private conversation between the teacher and him. He lost his temper when everyone else joined in on the cleaning up. When I showed him my version of the event through my story book – he said “No way! I didn’t even see that! Wow, I messed up that one…” It was like a lightbulb went off – his reaction just showed me how cloudy the social world can appear to people with ASD.
Thank you, Rebecca, for kicking off Autism Awareness Month with The Next Family. To find out more about her Rebecca McKee’s coaching, please reference her website and contact information.This article has been sponsored by The 13th Child Autism & Behavioral Coaching Inc.
Photo Credit: Melissa Flickr images