Learning at Home, Improving Sleep, Staying Active, and More: Quick Tips from Our Autism Research Team

In 2020, our team of scholars in the Supporting Transformative Autism Research (STAR) initiative provided extensive resources to families and individuals with autism as they navigated the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. They curated tips from experts, developed resources, and hosted a series of webinar conversations with the general public.

Below is a collection of tips the STAR team has shared to help families support learning at home, engage with teachers, build literacy, and more. The public is invited to subscribe to their newsletter. Visit the STAR Facebook page to view past webinars, and for more resources, visit the Autism DRIVE, STAR's online collection of autism research and resources for individuals, families and professionals.

Supporting Learning At Home

From Genevieve Bohac, research specialist

  1. Fancy new gadgets aren’t necessary. Many educational tasks can be accomplished with general household equipment, such as measuring cups, cooking supplies, tools, etc. Don’t go out and buy new materials until you have looked around your house!
  2. Keep it simple. Try integrating teachable moments into everyday life. Have your child practice fractions by helping you measure ingredients for dinner, develop writing skills by drawing pictures or authoring notes to family members, or work on reading comprehension by listening to their favorite books on an electronic device and talking with you about the stories.
  3. Let your child’s strengths guide you. If your child has a special interest, find ways to connect learning opportunities to that topic. Read or listen to books on the topic, watch educational videos together, have your child create a PowerPoint presentation or video explaining their interest, etc.
  4. Remember: it takes a village. Support your child’s growth and learning by connecting all of the professionals that work with them as a care team. Having everyone on the same page, working on the same goals, and using similar strategies will fast track your child’s growth. Only you can connect them and bring them all to the table!
  5. Keep an open mind. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone. When disagreements arise on your care team, be honest about your concerns but be willing to listen. Approaching the situation with an open mind and a willingness to discuss options will help build trust, create an effective team, and most importantly, create circumstances for a favorable outcome for your child’s development.

Engaging with Teachers

From Fay Painter, STAR family navigation manager

  1. Seek support. It is natural to grieve the change in your dreams for your child, and everybody grieves in their own way. HelpGuide.org suggests that having face-to-face support of other people is vital to healing from loss. Even if you're not accustomed to expressing your feelings, this can be essential in the grieving process. If you want to help a parent, understand and share their feelings by showing empathy.
  2. Learn behavior modification (ABA techniques) and do it in everyday life with your child so it becomes second nature to you.
  3. Create a vision for your child when they are very young, and keep it forefront with your physician, teachers, therapists and family members until your child is at the age when s/he can embrace their own vision. Hold a meeting with all teachers and aides before the school year begins, where you share your vision and build a team that will be accountable for their part in achieving success.
  4. Be proactive and creative all along the way. Do observations at school and talk with the teachers about challenging behaviors, instead of waiting for them to come to you. Identify your child's affinities and special strengths and find people to connect through that.
  5. Ask for directness and honesty regarding behavior. Encourage teachers and employers to be direct with you and your child and don’t just assume that people with autism cannot help themselves.

Encouraging Better Sleep

From Micah Mazurek, associate professor and director of STAR

  1. Things we do during the day can affect how well we sleep at night. Be sure your child gets plenty of natural light and physical activity during the day.
  2. Avoid caffeine. Even small amounts of caffeine during the day can interfere with children’s sleep many hours later. Caffeine can be found in many foods and drinks – including soda, candy, and ice cream. Check nutrition labels carefully and try to eliminate caffeine from your child’s diet.
  3. Avoid active and stimulating activities before bedtime, including screen-time (such as TV, computer activities, and video games). Instead, make sure your child does things that are restful and relaxing.
  4. Create a bedtime routine. Going to sleep at the same time and following the same bedtime routine each night can help your child’s body recognize when it is time to sleep. Using a visual schedule can help make this easier for children with autism.
  5. Children with autism can be especially sensitive to the sleep environment. Make sure the room is as dark and quiet as possible, and that the sleep environment stays the same throughout the night. Keeping the bedroom cool at night and making sure your child’s pajamas and bedding are comfortable will also help. 

Building Literacy

From Matt Zajic and Alyssa Henry, post-doctoral research fellows

  1. Choose books that match your child’s interests. If your child has an interest in a particular topic, person, or historical event, try to find books that are centered around this topic or idea. This will help keep them engaged and support reading comprehension.
  2. Build background knowledge first. Before reading a book, help your child brainstorm what they already know about the topic. YouTube videos, personal stories, and online sources can help add to their existing knowledge.
  3. Model the strategies of a “good” reader or writer. When reading with your child, stop periodically to share thoughts on what the characters in a book are thinking and feeling, or make a prediction about what will happen next. When writing, spend time modeling how writers think about and navigate the writing process, which includes planning, writing, editing, and revising.
  4. Design authentic writing activities. Parents can embed direct instruction, modeling, and opportunities for self-correction and feedback into writing activities using a wide array of different genres! Have your child create their own fairy tale, mystery, or a funny poem to demonstrate how writers construct text for different purposes.
  5. Focus on writing motivation. Emphasize the importance of writing and spending time on improving your writing skills. Create a positive, supportive writing environment that encourages your child to share their ideas through written text for a variety of purposes.

Supporting Executive Functioning Skills

From Rose Nevill, research assistant professor

  1. Start easy, and then work up. Before starting to work on building executive skills, observe your loved one to figure out where they are. You can then build upon foundational skills they already have, which can foster feelings of success early on and motivate future efforts to acquire more advanced skills.
  2. Break it down. Since executive functioning skills require a lot of abstract thought, they can be uncomfortable or difficult for someone on the spectrum. Help your loved one by simplifying tasks and making them as concrete as possible - use visuals, draw and color-coding scenarios, or use physical objects as models to practice problem solving.
  3. Is there a problem with skills or motivation? Sometimes it can be difficult to decide if your loved one doesn’t have the core executive skills or if they are unmotivated (“My son isn’t tidying his room – is it because he has a tough time getting organized or is unmotivated to clean up?”). Do a little detective work by observing other areas of their life where this skill is consistently weak. Talk with your loved one to devise a mutual solution before assuming they are unmotivated.
  4. Reward positive executive skills. Build behavioral goals into your loved one’s day to highlight when they are displaying their executive skills, such as keeping homework organized. Continue to reward those skills until they internalize that motivation for themselves.
  5. Be patient! Since executive skills touch on so many different parts of autism, it may be easy at times to lose patience. Remember that executive functioning is at the core of many difficulties individuals with autism have when interacting with the outside world. Your loved one will thank you for being patient and supporting them through their growth in this area.

Getting Physical Activity

From Martin Block, professor

  1. Make it playful – Going for a walk or doing an exercise routine with music (child's choice) is often more fun and engaging than walking or doing exercise in silence. Alternatively, actively playing with the dog in the house or backyard is a great way to be physically active.
  2. Schedule it - If you use a visual or other schedule, add 10-15 minutes of physical activity multiple times during the day. If physical activity is not motivating for your child, then add a specific reinforcement at the end. (“If you complete the physical activity, then you can have a choice of a banana or an apple for a snack.”)
  3. Provide choices – Give your child multiple activities to choose from. For example, if your child would benefit from calming activities, offer choices of different yoga or meditation videos or other restorative activities you have used at home. For cardiovascular exercise, choices could be watching and participating with an active video, going for a walk, or just dancing/moving to music.
  4. Participate with your child – Your presence and participation will model the joy of physical activity for your child. Having a sibling participate is also a good motivator. 
  5. Set goals with targets and a clear ending – Goals such as walking the dog for 15 minutes or completing two active videos helps the child see a target and know when he or she has achieved the goal. Here are some specific activities with targets, that you could complete as a circuit, three times through with a minute rest in between:
  • 10 jumping jacks
  • 10 modified push-ups (on knees or wall push-ups)
  • Lie on back and do bicycle movements with legs for 30 seconds
  • Jump 10 times over a paper towel placed on the ground