Autism Homework

Homework Issues In Autism

Should children with an Autistic Spectrum
Disorder be exempted from doing homework?
Dr. Tony Attwood

April 2000

A major cause of anguish for children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, their families and teachers is the satisfactory completion of homework. Why should this group of children have such an emotional reaction to the mere thought of having to start their homework and such difficulty completing assigned tasks? There may be two explanations. The first is based on their degree of stress and mental exhaustion during their day at school and the second is due to their profile of cognitive skills.

The stress of being at school

As with their classroom peers, a child with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder has to learn the traditional educational curriculum but they encounter additional learning experiences and sources of stress than do other children in their class. They have an additional curriculum, namely the social curriculum. They have to use their intellectual reasoning to determine the social rules of the classroom and the playground. Other children do not have to consciously learn social integration skills but these children have to decipher the social cues and codes and cognitively determine what to do and say in social situations. Often their primary feedback is criticism for an error with little recognition from others when they make the correct response. Learning only from your mistakes is not the most efficient way to learn. Thus these children have to concentrate on an extra curriculum that leaves them intellectually and emotionally exhausted at the end of the school day. They also have difficulty reading and responding to the emotional signals of the teacher and other children, coping with the complex socialising, noise and chaos of the playground, the unexpected changes in the school routine and the intense sensory experiences of a noisy classroom. Throughout the school day they rarely have an opportunity to relax.

It is essential that we recognise the degree of stress experienced by such children, as the signs can become evident in their behaviour and mood. The signs include the child who is described as a Dr.Jekyl and Mr.Hyde in that the indicators of stress are not conspicuous at school but the child is a very different character at home. They may be quiet and compliant in the classroom but intolerant and aggressive immediately they return home. Some children become extremely anxious in the morning before going to school and school refusal or walking out of school can be a sign of unbearable stress. Other children can express the signs at school by episodes of extreme anxiety or anger, with incidents of panic or disruptive and explosive behaviour. Others suffer chronic stress, which contributes to a clinical depression. When I talk to children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome who are having difficulty learning the social curriculum and coping with the stress of school, they often explain that they want a clear division between home and school. Their comment is “School is for learning, home is for fun or relaxation” Thus the prospect of interrupting their much needed and deserved fun and relaxation with homework is more than they can cope with.

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Profile of Cognitive Skills

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder have an unusual profile of Cognitive skills that must be recognised and accommodated when they are undertaking academic work at school and home. One aspect of the profile is impaired Executive Function. The profile is similar to that of children with Attention Deficit Disorder in that they can have difficulty planning, organising and prioritising, a tendency to be impulsive and inflexible when problem solving and poor working memory. Other features include a difficulty generating new ideas, a need for supervision and guidance and determining what is relevant and redundant as well as poor time perception and time management. There is also the likelihood of an unusual profile on standardised tests of intelligence especially with regard to verbal and visual (or Performance Scale) intelligence. Some children are verbalisers and have a relative strength in reading, vocabulary and verbal concepts while others are visualisers and ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. The child’s cognitive and learning profile is usually recognised by school authorities and special provision made for the child in terms of an assistant in the classroom to facilitate their academic progress. The teacher knows how to adapt the curriculum for a child with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder but this knowledge and service are not usually available at home.

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The following range of strategies are designed to minimise the impaired Executive Function, accommodate their profile of cognitive skills and help the child complete their homework assignments with less stress for the child and family.

  • Create a learning environment.
The area where the child works must be conducive to concentration and learning. A useful model is the child’s classroom with appropriate seating, lighting and removal of any distractions. The distractions can be visual such as the presence of toys or television, which are a constant reminder of what the child would rather be doing or auditory distraction such as the noise from electrical appliances and the chatter of siblings. Ensure the working surface only has equipment relevant to the task. Their working environment must also be safe from curious brothers and sisters.

A daily homework timetable can be made by a parent with guidance from the teacher to define the expected duration and content of each homework activity or assignment. This can be extremely helpful if there are problems with the child’s allocation of time to each homework component. Sometimes the homework can take hours when the teacher intended only several minutes on a specified task.

A timer can be used to remind the child how much time is remaining to complete each section of homework. It is also important to ensure that time scheduled for homework does not coincide with the child’s favourite television program. If it does, they may have priority use of the video recorder and can watch the program after their homework.

If regular breaks are necessary to promote concentration, the work can be divided into segments to indicate how much work the child has to complete before they can take a momentary break. The usual mistake is to expect too much prolonged concentration.

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  • Teacher’s preparation of the homework.
The teacher can highlight key aspects of the homework sheet, written material and questions so that the child knows which aspects are relevant to their preparation of the assignment. They can ask the child to formulate their plan before commencing the assignment to ensure their work is coherent and logical, especially if the homework is an essay. If the assignment takes several days to complete, it is important that the teacher regularly reviews the child’s rough drafts and progress, which also increases the likelihood that it will be completed on time.If the child has difficulty remembering exactly what was set for homework and remembering relevant information during homework, a characteristic of impaired executive function, a solution is to buy an executive toy. A small cassette recorder used for dictation can provide a record of the teacher’s spoken instructions and the child can add his or her own comments or personal memo to the recording to remind them of key information. The child and their parent will then know exactly what was said and what is relevant to the task. Another strategy is to have the telephone number of another child in the class to ask them for the relevant information.

A homework diary and planner can help the child remember which books to take home and the specific homework for each evening. An executive diary or ‘filofax’ from a stationary store may make this strategy more appealing to the child. The techniques are explained as being appropriate for adult executives rather than for children with learning problems.

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The child may have difficulty getting started or knowing what to do first. Procrastination can be an issue and a parent may have to supervise the start of the homework. Once the child has started, this is not the end of the supervision. A parent will also need to be available if the child requires assistance when they are confused and to ensure that they have chosen the appropriate strategy. There can be a tendency for such children to have a closed mind to alternative strategies and a determination to pursue an approach when other children would have recognised the signs that it would be wise to consider another approach. A technique to show that there is more than one line of thought is to provide the child with a list of alternative strategies to solve the particular problem. The child may need to know there is a plan ‘B’.

Parents and teachers soon become aware of the degree of supervision required which can be a major problem for a parent with other family commitments when the child is doing their homework. Supervision is also necessary to help the child prioritise, plan, assist with word retrieval problems and maintain motivation. Motivation can be enhanced by specific rewards for concentration and effort

Children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder are notorious for their difficulty coping with frustration and criticism, and their inability to manage their emotions. They can become quite agitated when confused or having made a mistake. An adult will need to be available to help the child remain calm and logical. The adult will also need to model calmness, which can be difficult when both child and adult are confused as to what to do. It can end in tears for both parties.

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By: Kelly Namanja
The school year is now in full swing. The once-new backpacks may already be showing signs of distress from their daily haul …and perhaps your kids are too. Homework is a task that few (if any!) kids enjoy, and children with autism can especially have trouble with such assignments. Some children, for example, can appear to understand what they’re doing while in the classroom but might not grasp what’s expected from home assignments. And many students on the spectrum don’t ask their teachers for help. Fortunately there are several strategies to help your child stay focused.

NEGOTIATE APPROPRIATE ASSIGNMENTS
Regular communication with teachers is important when it comes to homework: it helps clarify the level and amount the child can handle. Keep in touch so teachers can create individually appropriate assignments.  Also, make sure you know which assignments are due when and that your child is turning in their completed assignments.  Children with autism may have difficulty organizing and tracking homework assignments and due dates.

KEEP IT CONSISTENT
If homework always occurs at the same time and becomes routine, your child will eventually accept it. Initially it may be hard to hold the line, but persistence pays off. This works for almost all chores children prefer to avoid, from taking baths to brushing teeth.  You may also want to use a visual schedule and even a timer so that your child knows what to expect when.

SET YOUR CHILD UP FOR SUCCESS
Set a tone that homework time is important and a priority. Give your child an important place to sit, and ask siblings to stay quiet or have them work on their homework too! Ask how it’s going, and be sure to offer praise to help build your child’s confidence. Show that you care and want them to be successful.

MOTIVATE AND ENCOURAGE
Be firm but encouraging, being careful not to nag too much. This can be difficult when you’re frustrated so be conscious of your tone. Set solid standards for what the homework routine looks like, but be encouraging and motivating. Remind your child that you are proud of their efforts and that they are learning. Consider giving a reward for good effort (or even just sitting and attending initially) even if not everything is correct. As improvement is made over time, you can shift rewards to more academic goals. Rewards don’t have to be candy or toys, just ask the child what they might like to do with you once homework is done—it’s an opportunity for positive quality time you can both enjoy.  If your child has difficulty waiting until the end of homework to receive the reward, give them tokens (stickers, stars, etc.) throughout the homework routine, and when they reach a certain number of tokens, give them the reward.

OFFER CHOICES
Giving choices has been proven to increase motivation. You want homework time to become routine, but you can still offer choices such as where to sit, what writing materials to use, which task to start with and definitely the type of reward given for successful completion. Empower them by offering at least three options; they’ll like the (limited) control!

PICK YOUR BATTLES
Your child’s homework does not have to be perfect.  Maybe they misspelled a word.  Will the teacher be able to figure it out? Then let it slide.  Perhaps their handwriting is a little sloppy.  If it’s still legible, don’t spend a lot of time making them re-write something they already did.  The less you correct your child (and make them re-do their work), the less frustrating homework will be for both of you! Try to praise twice as much as you critique!

BREAK UP DIFFICULT TASKS
Seeing a full worksheet of 30+ math problems can be overwhelming for any child! Try covering the bottom of the page with a blank sheet of paper and working on one row at a time.  You can even switch to other assignments between rows if necessary. Ask your child to help you come up with a pattern (e.g., 5 math problems, 2 spelling words, 5 math problems, 2 spelling words, etc.).  If there’s a longer assignment due at the end of the week, work on a little bit each day to make it less overwhelming.

Kelly Namanja, MA, BCBA is AST’s Clinical Director for Chicagoland. Learn more about our team and ABA services in Chicago, as well as autism resources in Illinois here.

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