A paraeducator asks: I work with a student with autism. Yesterday an incident came up that I didn’t know how to handle. The children were returning to the classroom from library time, and my student wanted to be lights-on monitor, although it wasn’t her turn. When another student began to do the job, my student went into meltdown. I showed her the job chart with her classmate’s name on it and told her that her turn would be on a different day. She perseverated on her disappointment—it was like grief—and could not move on. Should I have let her do the job to avoid the meltdown? Other students in the class can now see her meltdowns coming and give in to whatever she wants just to avoid a scene. My student works with a speech therapist and is making good progress, but the transition to first grade has been hard, with many bumpy days in spite of social stories, role-playing, etc. What else can we do?

Ellen answers: My son’s first grade teacher was nearing the end of a long career. She once mused that when she began teaching first grade, most kids didn’t come from preschool or even kindergarten backgrounds, and one of her biggest challenges was keeping the kids awake all day. I think sometimes we forget how huge a developmental step first grade still is today; more structure and outcome-based expectations, more movement throughout the larger school environment, more group social expectations, different physical set-up of the classroom. And with autism on top of it, the challenges your student faces are bound to be overwhelming on some days. You can help her cope with these kinds of anxieties by building as much predictability into her day as you possibly can. She will learn flexibility bit by bit, but patience with the process is essential

How could we have pre-empted the lights-monitor meltdown? Showing your student the jobs chart was a good idea. Next time, you can go that good idea one better by

  • Giving her heads-up at ten minutes, five minutes, and two minutes before returning to the classroom. “Today, Jamie will be turning on the lights and you will be a spelling helper.”
  • Telling your student exactly when her turn will be. Instead of “You will get to be lights monitor on a different day,” say, “It will be your turn on Wednesday,” and then show her on her calendar (she does have a visual schedule, doesn’t she?)
  • AND/OR give her a choice of another job while her classmate is doing lights-monitor duty. “Today is Jamie’s turn to be lights monitor, and you are a spelling helper. Or would you like to be the paper passer or the alphabet holder?”
  • OR if she is seriously enamored of the lights, let her be Commander Light-saver for a week, a month, or however long it takes to acclimate her to turn-taking with a social story, visual supports and reinforcers.
  • AND/OR as Commander Light-saver, allow her to make the schedule for who is light monitor each day (with the understanding that everyone who wants a turn gets one). This helps her feel that she has control over a small piece of her life, something at which she can feel she is best. Many children with autism get little opportunity to lead or feel best at something.

You want to prevent meltdowns, not give in to them when they’ve already begun. That only reinforces that melting down is the means to getting what she wants. Choose your battles thoughtfully, letting go of the ones that really don’t matter. It’s okay for her classmates to accommodate her wants if they truly don’t care about whether she commands the lights or not. She needs to learn to ask politely though. If she gets what she wants by asking politely, there will be no need for the meltdowns. But if other kids also enjoy the job, you have to step in with some kind of delayed gratification. Again, if it’s specific and concrete, she’ll learn to handle it. “Taylor wants to be lights monitor on Thursday. Let’s write that on your schedule, and you can do it again on Friday.”

Remember that your student is only a first-grader! I think sometimes we forget how huge a developmental step that is, and with autism on top of it, the challenges she faces are bound to be overwhelming on some days. Be mindful of keeping your praise ratio at least 4-to-1. Catch her being successful. Then don’t be surprised if she begins to return the favor.


© 2016 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com
Photo credit: ake1150/Dollar Photo Club


One Response to “Autism classroom conundrum: “Her classmates give in to her to avoid her meltdowns.””

  1. Julie says:

    Little things like that can trigger a meltdown so easily. My 8 year old got really angry coz she didn’t get hers show n tell turn and another girl got in before her. I did explain that she will get a turn but she has to let the teacher know. I think she expects him to read her mind? Giving autistic children schedules and visual aids is great. Sometimes she gets so frustrating and it’s hard for me to cope with it all. She really struggles at school and hates writing. She is so behind in her work already this year.

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