Philosophy on Autism

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Here are Five Mantra Type Statements that I would say, is a big part of my Mission and Philosophy when supporting my two sons with Autism. Many- actually MOST have been learned over time. and often after “doing it wrong” first. However, they are now embedded in my soul, and I am so excited to share them with you.

Assume Brilliance and Teach the Next Right Thing– Boy, this is one I want to slap on a bumper sticker and place on every car. Teachers who think like this ooze high expectations based in reality. Some- amazingly start out with this mindset. Some- learn it after trial and error and clinical experience. Those moments when a student learns something incidentally so out of your expectations that your mind is blown and you learn- I must work to increase their potential, and never be the source that limits it. (No pressure- right?! It’s ok, this is an art, not a science, and growth comes from mistakes. Not perfection.) I’ve seen Teachers and Parents who don’t have this mindset and it’s heartbreaking- using a diagnosis or a class category type, ie “My students are in a Functional Skills trajectory, they can’t learn that.” It looks like a lot of cut and paste math and language goals, with all students being placed on the same trajectory regardless of baselines. It’s having only baby puzzles, toys and manipulatives regardless of the students age (preschool/kinder- sure. High School- no way). Assuming brilliance looks like SO many things, and since it is an art, there isn’t an exact prescription that can be followed. It’s one of the reasons I LOVE Sasha and the whole Team at The Autism Helper because everyone here has this mindset. So- my suggestions is to find mentors online and in person, and listen to them on how to apply this to mindset, to IEP Goal Writing, and to entire classroom expectations and guidelines. Listen to the way they talk about students capabilities and behavior. Is is positive and empowering?


Visual Supports for Life- I can’t hammer this one into the hole enough. They are not something that should automatically be faded. No Visuals does not equal Independence.

Visual supports are an Evidence Based Practice for autism and includes any visual display that supports the learner engaging in a desired behavior or skill. Examples of visual supports can include, objects within the environment, pictures, written words, arrangement of the environment or visual boundaries, schedules, maps, labels, organization systems, timelines and more. Most people don’t realize how often we all rely on visual supports to get through our day. Life would be a jangled mess without visuals like road signs and calendars and to do lists and shopping lists (ok- the last one I always forget.). Even the icons on our phones are visual supports.

Knowing what we know about individuals with autism needing visuals to an exponentially greater degree, there’s no reason to NOT use visuals. When individuals with ASD are given the opportunity to learn with visual supports or cues research shows they:

Complete more tasks by themselves, therefore increasing their independence
Learn more rapidly
Demonstrate decreased levels of frustration, anxiety, and aggression related to task completion
Adjust more readily to changes in their environments (Murdock & Hobbs, 2011; Savner & Myles, 2000).

Visuals can and must grow and change as our learners grow and change. You can add pictures to text, and systematically fade pictures, you can go from paper to digital, you can use task analysis for the teaching of new skills. Things can be added and removed and faded and more. But the goal of not referencing a visual schedule isn’t something I want to see across the board.

Goals and Life Can be Functional AND Long Term – Some people think they need to be one or the other. I used to think that way too. My son Greyson has autism and Childhood Apraxia of Speech. At three years of age, Greyson had severe expressive and receptive language delays, and when he did talk, it was difficult to understand him. Apraxia is a Motor Planning Disorder. Motor Planning allows us to know, remember and perform small steps that make a particular movement happen. Motor plans are needed for everything from brushing our teeth to speaking. In Childhood Apraxia of Speech, the Motor Plans needed to create intelligible speech are faulty. Your mouth muscles work fine, but your brain can’t tell your tongue, jaw and lips what they need to do to produce certain sounds. Children with this disorder have low speech intelligibility, which is understandably accompanied by high levels of frustration.In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), he was responding well to Choice Boards and Pictures, and this seemed to decrease some of his frustrations. Our ABA company suggested looking into another form of AAC- a Speech Generating Device.I wasn’t ready to give up on him speaking, so I didn’t pursue it.

My eyes were so focused on the long term goal (that I was DESPERATE to be short term) of speaking. When looking back I could and should have done BOTH. Given him a functional method of communicating TODAY with Assistive Technology, and continued working on Speech and Language with a Speech Language Pathologist and at home.

This mindset can be applied to many areas of life- Self help skills- like getting dressed, or brushing teeth. It can be applied to IEP Goals. It can be applied to social skills. You just need to ask- How can we help this student TODAY, and what is the long term plan to help them gain Independence in this area?

Ask- “What could I have done differently?” When things don’t go as expected. I know, I know, if you are like me, this might make you initially feel confused or even a little defensive. It’s perfectly normal, so let me explain. When a child engages in a non preferred behavior, one that was either predictable or not- I try and ask myself- what could I do differently to avoid this in the future? Sometimes it means manipulating the environment, sometimes it means adding supports, sometimes it means creating visuals.

I learned this amazing lesson from our Home Applied Behavior Analysis Team. Greyson was about f five years old, and our BCBA had years of clinical experience, knew the rules enough to know when to break them, and was very respectful of Neurodiversity (a MUST for me.) My husband Michael traveled overnight for work. Sometimes 2-3 nights a week. This gave Greyson so much anxiety. “Dad home” he would say whenever I picked him up from school or therapy. When he was home- I got to say yes. But when he wasn’t- I said-  “He’s at work” or “No, he won’t be home until Thursday.” (Imagine how confusing for a child who doesn’t know the days of the week.) As soon as we would pull up to our driveway and Greyson saw Dad’s empty spot he would start to scream and cry. I was confused (I JUST told him he wasn’t home. And I prepped him in the morning before we left the house too! Plus- we can’t help it- Dad has to travel for work. Clearly that upsets Grey, so hopefully he just gets used to it.) After a month he still wasn’t used to it so I brought it up in our monthly meeting. This is when our BCBA shared her this important philosophy with me- how she always puts the owness for change on herself- not the child.


We came up with a plan to help Greyson know when Dad would be home and when Dad would be gone.

I made an icon for “Dad Work” (Dad wearing a shirt and tie- in his car) and “Dad Home” Dad wearing casual clothes in front of our house. We referred to that specifically in the morning and at night and when he needed a reminder.

After a few weeks of teaching Greyson how it worked (because visuals must be taught and understood!) , MAGIC. One day the crying stopped. It was such an empowering realization- that there was almost always something I was capable of doing to help stop my child from engaging in harmful behavior, from having extra anxiety, from communicating functionally and MORE.

Expose Them to the World– Luckily this doesn’t have to always involve leaving the classroom or home. Especially since we are in a Worldwide Pandemic and many schools aren’t even in person now. And leisure travel is out of the question. This was a whisper I got from one of the worlds experts on Autism- Temple Grandin. Man, I love this woman and the knowledge she puts out into the world. Since she is autistic, her perspective is invaluable. Grandin says, “It’s critical that autistic children get plenty of exposure to the world. Autistic kids do think differently. We form concepts by putting things into specific categories.” But autistic people “need to have a lot of information to put into the database. If you let kids sit in the basement playing video games for hours and hours, they’re not going anywhere. You have to get them out doing things.”

This can look like so many things. You are only limited by your imagination. My son Parker is keen on trying new things. My rule for Grey is- he hates everything new the first three to six times he’s exposed to it, so keep at it. This means exploring new games, different ways to do art, trying out new sports and leisure skills and more. Even yesterday Greyson surprised me and reminded me to never give up. I love photography, and I’ve probably asked him a million times if he wanted to try taking pictures. He wasn’t interested in seeing how my camera worked either. But yesterday was the one million and one ask, and he was clicking away. It was such magic.

What mantras do you find guide your teachings? I would love to hear them.

Chrissy Kelly
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  1. I learn just as much from you!

  2. Hi Susan, happy to hear! Thanks for reading 🙂


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