Author Archives: Alanna Chermak

Safety First: A Parents Guide on Planning Your Child’s Safety Skills

Safety First: A Parents Guide on Planning for Your Child’s Safety Skills

Safety of your child is every parent’s first priority, and this is only truer when you have a child with a special need, like autism.  Why then are safety skills so frequently left out of your child’s daily learning routines?  Take a look below at our top five safety skills that you can start practicing with your child today!

  1. Knowing Essential Personal Information

In an emergency situation you want to make sure that your child is able to tell other individuals the most important information about themselves – their name, address, and a parent name.  A simple way to start teaching this skill is by having all of this information written on a card and having them practice handing the card to you when you ask “what’s your name?”  Depending on your child’s skill level, and as they make progress, you can teach them to say, write, or point to specific information on the card. 

  1. Avoiding Unsafe Household Items

No parent can keep their eyes on their child all day long and so teaching them what items in the household are unsafe for them is an important skill.  While your child is learning this skill it is recommended that all unsafe items (sharp objects, cleaning products, etc.) be kept secured and out of reach of your child.  You may start practicing this skill by finding a symbol that you will use in your house to help your child discriminate what is unsafe – a red circle with a line through it is a common symbol.  Your child should practice avoiding (or staying away from) items with this symbol on them.  Start by practicing together with just one item.

  1. Staying with a Parent in the Community

Decreasing any wandering or darting behavior when you take your child to the store, park or baseball game is a great way to increase their overall safety.  Depending on your child you may start this by always holding their hand or being within an arm’s reach when you’re out.  Give your child verbal praise (“I love how you’re staying with me!”), possibly along with something preferred that your child really likes (an M&M, a tickle, etc.) for every minute that they stay with you. 

  1. Water Safety

Every parent should be aware of the potential dangers of open water, however many kids with autism are particularly drawn to water and water play.   Children should always be monitoring when in/around water, no matter how deep or shallow.  Enrolling your child in swim lessons is a great way to establish water safety skills and help your child understand rules around water. 

  1. Potty Training

Being independent with self-care routines like potty-training is one of the best ways that an individual can keep themselves safe throughout their lives.  Talk with your team about bathroom independence for your child and ways that you can practice at home and at school.

So, now that you have an idea of where to begin, go ahead and started!  Start where you can with the resources that you have, but also talk with team members and professional about how to include these skills in other areas of programming, like on your child’s IEP.  And always remember, you’re never too early or too late to begin working on these skills – they will serve your child throughout the rest of their life.

Planning For Your Child To Transition Into School

Most parents feel a certain sense of wonder and trepidation when their child reaches the age when they begin school. The wonder comes from not understanding how fast time has flow and now watching as your child, who seems so small, start a new phase in their life. The trepidation comes from worry. We won’t be there, in school, making sure that our precious kiddos are happy and doing well and protecting them from anyone who would be mean to them. As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, transitioning into school bring even more to be concerned about.

Transitions are inherently difficult. Why? Because they are all about change and change brings on the fear of the unknown. As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, we have to make choices and often times we feel that we don’t know what the right or best choice is for our child. The fear of failure is real. All we want to do is make the right decision so that our kids on the spectrum get the services and education they need which will increase their skills. But we also don’t know what we don’t know and sometimes have to make a decision with very little information. It’s scary because there are no redo’s and that’s a lot of pressure.

When planning for your child to transition into a school, whether it is public or private, there are a number of things to consider and action that you can take to make the process easier and get the information you need to be able to make the most informed decision you can for your child and your family.

Questions to think about:

  1. What’s important to you and your family? Do you want your child in your home school so that they get to know the kids in the neighborhood? Or is it more important to have a more specialized setting and emphasis on evidenced based programming? Knowing what is important to you will help identify and eliminate some choices. Keep in mind that school is also about community and you want to find a school where you feel comfortable.
  2. What are your child’s strengths and needs? Do they need a more self contained program? Is it important to you for their teacher to be a special educator, who has a background in special education? Do they need a smaller classroom environment and can be included in the general education setting? Identifying strengths and needs will further hone your school search process because you will be looking for a place that will meet your child’s needs.
  3. What is important about the educational programming? Are you interested in a more traditional learning environment or do you want to make sure the school understands and implements evidence based therapies in the curriculum? Are you looking to stay on a diploma track or have you already made the decision to go the certificate track? Knowing what you want out of an educational setting before you start looking is important because you again will be able to ask the right questions and identify more quickly what will meet your child’s needs.

The Shafer Center has developed a questionnaire to be used when looking at different schools and programs. Click here for the link.

Once you have answered these beginning questions, you are ready for the next step which is talking and visiting different schools. When you do go to different schools, here are a few suggestions:

  • Visit schools a few times during the school year – this can give you a sense of what they kids are doing in the beginning of the year and where they are skill wise at the end of the year
  • Ask the principal questions about the special education program and what their philosophy is – you are trying to see if they value the program. It has been my experience that if the principal is not on board with having a special education program in their school then the program will not be a good one.
  • Ask to meet with the team that would be working with your child

As you make your choice about the school you want your child to attend, it is important to remember that there is no perfect school. Keep your top priorities in mind and make the best decision with the information you have.


  • It’s a marathon not a sprint. Our kids are in school for somewhere between 12-15 years and there will be great times and there will be challenging times. And you will be able to manage both.
  • If it’s not working, you have options. You can call an IEP meeting at anytime and you can make a case to change schools. Do not feel like you are stuck.
  • Remember that your priorities for your child will change and shift as they grow and develop. Keep re-evaluating what your child’s needs are and making sure that your current school program can meet them.

The most important thing to remember is that you are doing great. Give yourself a break because you are making the right decisions for your child.

Nonverbal Communication Speaks Volumes

A smile. A laugh. A tear. A hit. A bite. A point. A hug. Despite no words being spoken, communication is being conveyed with each of those actions. We are always communicating through our actions, our gestures, our expressions, and in our touch. Think of how someone might say “I love you” with a hug, “great job” with a high five, “I’m so mad” by stomping his feet, or “that hurt” by crying. These are examples of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication is an essential part of how each person communicates in their daily lives with their peers, their friends, and their loved ones. This is especially true for our kiddos with autism. We often focus on giving kids expressive vocabulary to convey their thoughts and emotions but we cannot forget the importance of the subtleties and nuances of nonverbal communication which can make social communication a success or make it a difficulty.

There are a variety of types of nonverbal communication that help support a person’s spoken message. Here are a few that can a play an important role in social communication and social awareness:

  1. Facial Expressions: Consider the look on a person’s face; it’s one of the first things you notice before even speaking. You can detect the type of mood a person may be in based on their facial expression – happiness, frustration, anger, sadness. Many of these facial expressions are similar around the world so you can read a person’s emotion despite not being from the same country. We look not just at whether a person is smiling or frowning, but if their eyebrows are arched or furrowed, if they are sweaty or flushed, if they are grimacing or grinding their teeth. All of these can have different implications of emotions.
  2. Gestures: Common gestures include waving, pointing, or head nod/shake and these are often taught in early intervention as a way of responding and indicating. But what about in more subtle situations such as a person glancing at his watch to suggest that they are running out of time or someone holding their palm up to indicate “stop”. These may be commonplace in society but hard to acclimate to for a person with autism because they may have hidden meanings.
  3. Paralinguistics: We all know the parent tone of voice when we are in trouble. All a parent has to do is say our name in a certain tone of voice and we know to stop what we are doing “or else” (think Mom voice!). But for a person with autism that can be really hard to decipher. Varying the tone of voice, the loudness, the pitch, or the inflection can change the meaning of the message, even if that message is only one word. For example, if I am given the word “ball”, I can change my inflection to make if sound like I am asking a question about it, demanding it, or labeling it.
  4. Body Movement and Posture: Our perceptions of others can often be influenced by a person’s gait, how they stand, or how they sit. Think of a student sitting in class with his head down on the desk – he’s communicating a message pretty clearly. Or think of a person walking briskly to the bathroom – his message is being conveyed clearly as well.
  5. Proxemics: When a person decides how close or how far away to be from another, they are communicating their thoughts or feelings about that person. Maybe by getting closer to another person someone is trying to communicate feelings of interest. Or maybe by trying to standing further away a person is trying to avoid another’s bad breath.
  6. Haptics: Touch can be used to communicate a multitude of emotions such as affection and sympathy but is easily misunderstood for those on the autism spectrum. Touch can sometimes not be tolerated due to sensory sensitivities. For example, a person may want to give a hug to show affection but a person on the autism spectrum who cannot tolerate that type of touch may interpret a hug as a type of punishment. This may lead to miscommunication of different types of touch.

For those on the autism spectrum who have difficulties with the nuances of communication, this can lead to many communication breakdowns and a real struggle with social relationships. This is why it is so important to emphasize teaching nonverbal communication but also to individualize the teaching in accordance to the needs of and tolerance of the child. Not every person will like hugs or high fives or want to be closer to another person but it is still important to teach awareness of these skills in order to provide our kiddos with opportunities to flourish in social situations.

Before we can start teaching nonverbal communication, there are a few foundational skills we must make sure that our kiddos have or have an emergence of in order to benefit from direct teaching. Those skills include:

  • Joint attention: the shared focus of two individuals through eye-gaze, pointing, or other verbal or non-verbal indications. This is an important in developing perspective taking.
  • Comprehension of factual information: understanding of the concrete information such as labels, actions, and colors which is necessary prior to diving into teaching more abstract information
  • Theory of Mind: the ability to think about mental states including emotions, desires, and beliefs, both their own and others.

Once it’s determined that a child has developed these skills or has an appropriate emergence of these skills, the team should begin focusing on teaching nonverbal communication in a direct manner. A great place to start is with teaching items discretely and then moving into a more naturalistic environment. For example, we can teach a child to decipher a facial expression through picture cards in an isolated setting, then move to picture books and work on deciphering emotions of characters. Once the child shows mastery with those situations, the child can work on interpreting emotions of adults during contrived situations and then finally move on to his peers during less structured situations such as lunch or recess. This sequence can be applied for many of the nonverbal skills and can move at any pace in accordance with the child’s rate of acquisition.

There is no real hierarchy of skills that can or should be taught; it should be according to whatever is most meaningful to the child at that moment and according to what his or her present levels show. However, in younger years we often see emotions, gestures, and proxemics being taught while in older years haptics, body movements, and paralinguistics are taught. Again, these skills should be based on the needs of the individual and should be discussed with the child’s caregivers and team to determine what is most impactful and relevant to the child’s entire day.

It’s extremely important to practice generalization with these skills and move into a more naturalistic environment, when appropriate, so that the child is getting as much real-life practice and feedback as possible. This will only allow for more opportunities to develop more successful interactions in the school, in the home, and in the community where all of the natural opportunities are taking place.

Understanding and teaching nonverbal communication will increase the ability of children on the autism spectrum to understand the world around them in a more meaningful way. It will allow them, and you, to enjoy the benefits of a hug, a smile and a laugh.

For more information on The Shafer Center contact [email protected]m or call 410-517-1113.

Promoting Independence

Teaching a child to live and function independently in society – this is a common goal for parents and professionals in the field of special education. Although this is a common goal, most people have a different definition for independence. Is independence accomplished when someone lives by themselves? Does it mean maintaining a job? Can independence mean being able to tie your shoe or make yourself breakfast? In reality, independence is difficult to define because it is different for every individual.  

In the field of special education, parents hear a lot of different terms when professionals talk about independence (e.g. activities of daily living, independent living skills, adaptive living skills, functional life skills, etc.). All of these terms mean activities that everyone regularly engages in; some activities you engage in every day. In other words, they are skills that are important to teach to promote independence. A profession in the field of special education that has a large focus on independence is behavior analysis. Behavior analysts study behavior and environmental variables in order to decrease non-preferred behavior and teach appropriate alternative behavior. When identifying skills to teach, behavior analysts ask themselves, “how will teaching this skill benefit this child in the future?” or “will this help promote independence in the child’s life?” Behavior analysts ensure that the behaviors that are taught have social significance and are beneficial to the child. The question remains, how do we go about teaching these skills?

Where do I start?

  • Set realistic goals. Before you start teaching these independent skills, you want to think about what reasonable goals you have for the child. For instance, identifying the future goal as completing their morning routine by themselves but setting a short term goal as independently brushing their teeth.
  • Teaching independence takes patience. Each skill will take a lot of practice. It is extremely challenging to be completely independent the first time you try something new. Be patient and enjoy even the smallest improvements in independence!
  • Start small. Break down a task. For example, instead of targeting the whole task of brushing teeth, target each part. There are many skills that are associated with brushing teeth (e.g. turning on the water, opening the cap to the toothpaste, putting toothpaste on the toothbrush). You can more easily determine progress with independence if you view each step as a separate skill. Perhaps, you can take data on the amount of steps completed independently. Say there are 15 steps to brushing teeth and last week the child completed 2 steps independently and 5 steps independently this week, you can determine that the child is making progress towards independence in learning to brush their teeth.
  • Give multiple opportunities to practice. The more opportunities to practice, the faster the child will acquire a skill.
  • Set the child up for success. Have the child be successful with doing something on their own by starting with small steps that are already in their repertoire of skills. The child will have more success with acquiring a new skill if they start out successful. Think about doing really challenging math problems: if you start with difficult problems you are more likely to give up sooner. If you start with basic math problems first, the more difficult math problems will seem easier. Behavior analysts call this behavioral momentum.  
  • Look at every situation as an opportunity to practice independence. Everything a child does in their day can be a time to teach independence. Opening the door, pouring milk in their cereal, and using utensils are all small steps to independence that can be easily incorporated and encouraged each day.
  • Reinforce the behavior! Reinforcement can be many different things depending on the child’s preferences: praise, getting to play with their favorite toy following the activity, or even eating that sandwich after making it. Whichever way works for the child, let them know they are doing a great job!

When should I start?

  • Start ASAP. It is never too early to teach independence. It may not be developmentally appropriate to teach your child to do their laundry at their current age but you can start by teaching them how to put their dirty clothes in the hamper.

How do I teach independence?

One of the most important things to think about, when promoting independence, is prompting and prompt fading.  A prompt is designed to help or cue another individual to perform a desired behavior. Prompts include, but are not limited to, physically assisting someone to perform the task (full-physical or partial physical prompts), using a visual cue (e.g. a written sequence of steps), verbal instructions, or using a gesture (e.g. pointing to the soap while washing hands).

  • Before you prompt anything, you want to think about the following:
    • What can they already do by themselves? To answer this question, we take baseline data. Baseline data is a way to measure their current level of independence before we implement a teaching procedure. First, ask them to do a task and see what parts of the task they can already do themselves. We do not want to prompt or teach skills that they already do independently.
    • Pick prompts that can be easily faded. We want to make sure that we are actually teaching the skill and not just doing the desired behavior for the child. For example, if you are always vocally telling your child what the next steps are, they may start waiting for you to tell them the next steps. Instead have them focus on the things that will naturally cue them to do the next step. Behavior analysts like to use the phrase, “prompting to the relevant stimuli.” Let’s say, a child is in the process of washing their hands. The fact that their hands are wet and the sight of the paper towels should be their natural cue to dry their hands, instead of the verbal command, “dry your hands” or if you were to take a paper towel and wiping their hands for them.
  • How to use prompting to teach:
    • Prompt fading. When initially teaching a skill, you may need to use a more intrusive prompt (e.g. full-physical prompting) to have the child successfully complete the skill. Eventually, you want to slowly and systematically fade out the prompts for the child to do the skill independently. For example, the first time the child made a sandwich, you had to use full-physical (“hand-over-hand”) prompting for the entire task to be completed. Next time, you can see if the child can complete opening the jelly jar by just gesturing to the jar. The less intrusive the prompt, the more independently they are completing the skill.
    • Utilizing wait time. Waiting for them to try to do something independently before you jump in and help can be the most effective, least intrusive way to promote independence. I know it is sometimes hard to wait – it could be their 5th time trying to tie their shoe and they are already running late for school. Before you rush in to help and try to speed up the process, just know that you are providing them with an opportunity to practice independence.
    • Practice, practice, practice! As it was mentioned above, the more practice the better!

When they have a skill, what should I do next?

  • Check for generalization. Can your child demonstrate the skill with different people and in different environments? For example, after teaching washing hands in the child’s home bathroom, can your child wash their hands in a public bathroom as well? If the skill does not generalize to other people, environments or stimuli, you may need to teach the skill in those settings.
  • Using the skill to learn other skills. Building upon generalization, many skills can be used in different situations. Using similar, previously taught skills can help teach new skills. For example, if the child learns to zip their jacket, check to see if they have generalized this skill to the zipper on their lunchbox or backpack.
  • Continue to practice the skill. The child may have demonstrated this skill independently a couple of times, but that does not determine if the child will maintain that skill over time. Learned skills should be probed for maintenance following the child demonstrating the skill independently. This means, the child should continue to practice the skill. Luckily, opportunities to practice these independent skills frequently and naturally occur in the child’s daily life.

What if problem behavior occurs? 

  • Trying new, difficult tasks can sometimes be related to an increase in problem behavior that functions as a way to escape (get away from) the demand. This is a great opportunity to teach advocating for themselves by practicing asking for help or using appropriate language to say something is difficult. We encourage our kids to be independent but we also want to reinforce appropriate communication. If a child engages in problem behavior, the activity/demand should remain in place until the activity is completed or until the child asks to finish the activity without engaging in problem behavior. We want to make sure that escape from the demand is not granted by engaging in problem behavior. If the demand is removed because they are engaging in problem behavior, they will most likely engage in problem behavior in the future to escape a demand.

To summarize, every activity a child does throughout their day can be a time to teach independence. The earlier a child starts on practicing independent skills, the more opportunities they will receive to practice the skill. Even if the task may not be developmentally appropriate for the child at their current age, we can still work on parts of the task. Start by setting realistic goals and breaking down big tasks into steps. An effective way to teach these skills is by using prompting and systematically fading the prompts to less intrusive prompts. It is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes – that is how we learn. Lastly, patience in essential; be supportive and always reinforce their appropriate behavior!  


Taurozzi, S. (2015, July 22). Promoting Independence in a Child with Autism. Retrieved from

Cooper, John O., Heron, Timothy E.Heward, William L. (2007) Applied behavior analysis /Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson/Merrill-Prentice Hall

Diploma or Certificate?

Diploma or Certificate?

This question seems to be a hot button issue and bring up a lot of feelings. Is your child getting a diploma or are they on a certificate track? It is not a question that many parents of neuro-typical kids have to ask themselves. But it is absolutely a question that parents, with kids on the autism spectrum, are asked.

The question gets right into a quagmire of emotions because there are so many stereotypes around it. A diploma means smart and accomplished. It has a higher status. If my child who is on the autism spectrum receives a diploma then they are doing better then those kids who don’t receive one. A certificate is subpar and means not intelligent or capable. If my child gets a certificate they will not be as successful. All of these stereotypes are complete bullshit.

Let me tell you about my experience. And this is my experience and I am sure that other parents may feel differently and that’s ok. My son, Hayden, is 16 years old and is autistic. When Hayden was younger it was never a question in my mind that he wouldn’t or couldn’t get a diploma. In elementary school, Hayden was included in a mainstream environment for most of the day and he did well. He excelled at math and, while language arts was a more challenging class, we worked with our school to modify that work. In middle school, we decided that Hayden needed a more self contained special education classroom. That worked well because it kept him in smaller classes and Hayden still did well with his grades even making honor roll a few times.

It is important to note that even though Hayden did ok in school he really didn’t enjoy it. School has always been challenging because there is so much to process; directions from the teachers, information in class, what the other students are doing. It has always been hard for him to try and keep everything together in school. As he went into high school, my husband and I knew that things were going to get more challenging. His grades counted as did state testing scores. It was when Hayden started high school that we started asking whether he should move to a certificate track. My husband was more in favor of making the change because he wanted Hayden to do more things that would prepare him for when he did graduate. I felt that we had worked so hard to get Hayden to this point that I didn’t want to give up on it. I also felt that having a diploma would give Hayden more options when it came to employment. We were divided and just kept things the same.

As Hayden started his junior year of high school, we needed to reevaluate. Here are the questions we asked ourselves as we tried to evaluate what was right for Hayden and for us:

  1. Does Hayden want to go to college? Is that an option for him? Knowing whether higher education was something he wanted was important as part of this process. We needed to understand if there was some area of study that he wanted to further that would give him a purpose or an employment path.
  2. What does Hayden’s life look like after school? This is a very difficult question to answer because so much is unknown. But spending some time to think about what his day looks like and what he would be doing helped us in making this decision.
  3. Is what he’s learning in school valuable to his future? There are many parts of the educational process that are important. Learning is also important. What we looked at was what parts of Hayden’s learning and educational setting mattered to him and us. We looked at this through the lens of what we think his life will be like after school.
  4. Is a diploma important? It was this question that was the most difficult emotionally. We want the best for our kids and if we said no, was that a defeat?

Hayden was the one who helped us decide what was right for him. He told us that he didn’t want to go to college. It wasn’t a proactive conversation on his part at all. It just came up naturally because his sister is applying to colleges now and I was able to ask Hayden if he wanted to go. He said no. I have to respect that. Hayden has also expressed a lot of anxiety about school; the volume of work, the pace, and being able to process it all. He kept asking for us to make things easier.

How could I not listen to him? This is all about him. So we have started the process of moving from a diploma track to a certificate. And none of stereotypes matter anymore. I know that a diploma doesn’t make someone smart. Hayden is smart and bright and will have many opportunities in his future; doing it in a way that makes him feel good about himself and giving him a purpose. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.

The Marriage of Special Education and Applied Behavior Analysis

Prior to working as a special educator at The Shafer Center, the term BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) was foreign to me.  I took behavior courses in college and those were always my favorite because behavior is fascinating, but the fact that some people study and work with behavior full-time never crossed my mind.  After my first week working with students at The Shafer Center, behavior became something with which I started to fall in love.  I felt passionately that I somehow had to pursue studying this amazing science.

Most people have no idea what a BCBA is and those who do have an understanding of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) might imagine that I’m sitting face-to-face with a kid delivering tokens for 6 hours while they do things like touch their nose or clap their hands.  ABA is much more complex than that. ABA is a type of therapy that focuses on improving or changing specific behaviors in a socially significant way.  When a BCBA talks about behavior change we don’t just mean changing “bad” or “problem” behavior; we also use ABA to increase appropriate behavior (e.g., communication, academic skills, and self help skills, to name a few).  A BCBA studies and applies the principles of ABA to systematically and appropriately make changes in behavior, based on the needs of the client.  These changes are done using visual analysis of data.  If you’re not collecting and analyzing data regularly, you’re not doing ABA!

ABA for Behavior Reduction

The first thing that we want to do when a child is engaging in inappropriate behavior is identify the function of that behavior. All behavior happens for a reason and by identifying the function of the behavior we can figure out a more appropriate way to access that same function. For example, one of my students rips his papers because he does not want to complete his work. As a result we have been working on him asking for a break, asking for help with difficult work, and finding reinforcers to motivate him to complete his work. Most of our students have individualized Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) that encompass everything you need to know about the student and their specific behaviors: the definition for each behavior, skills that we are working on to replace the inappropriate behavior, the schedule of reinforcement the child receives for appropriate behavior, consequences for when the child does engage in the behavior we are trying to reduce, and how we are taking data on each aspect of the plan. We use the data that we are taking to make sure that the BIP we have is effective for the student and make changes to the plan when necessary.

As a special educator, I often work with the BCBA to make sure that the BIP can be consistently followed in the classroom setting because consistency is a key component to the BIP being effective for that student. Following the BIP is not the only way we embed ABA into the classroom.  I also take advantage of naturally-occurring events to reinforce, and we teach and assess academic and behavior targets through Discrete Trial Training (DTT).

ABA for Skill Acquisition

Discrete Trial Training is a teaching program that falls under the umbrella of Applied Behavior Analysis.  It is made up of 3 parts: 1) the teacher’s instruction, 2) the child’s response (or lack of response) to the instruction, and 3) the consequence, which is the teacher’s reaction in the form of reinforcement, “Yes, great!” when the response is correct, or teaching the target response is incorrect.

DTT is a great way to teach and assess skills that may not be in a child’s repertoire, but are necessary to lead a successful life.  For example, one of my students is learning their name, address, phone number, and parents’ names via DTT.    We do this by first giving an instruction.  Let’s use learning their address, for this example.  After the student receives the instruction, they are to respond correctly.  If they do not respond or respond incorrectly, we go into teaching.  We give the instruction again, “What’s your address?”, and then before the child can respond we give them the answer.  Then, we ask the question again and if the child gets it right we praise them and give them a reinforcer, if applicable to their specific program and reinforcement schedule.  If they do not get it right, we move on to the next question and re-try that question later in the session.

I also use DTT to teach new concepts in the natural teaching environment, like when asking reading comprehension questions or answering math facts.  While DTT is not going to be used in every environment the child encounters, it is important that they gain the knowledge while they are here and learn to maintain and generalize these skills across settings.

In the classroom it is hard to reinforce each correct response that every child gives so we look at ways to delay reinforcement and systematically decrease the level of reinforcement the child needs to be successful. One way that we do this is by using token boards in the classroom. After the student earns a certain amount of tokens, they can exchange the tokens in for a preferred item or activity. Over time the amount of work a child needs to complete to earn a token slowly increases. Using tokens is an easy way to deliver reinforcement quickly in the classroom without taking away from the rest of the class. Each child earns tokens for different behavior based on their individual plan and what behavior we are looking to increase for that child. This is textbook ABA: reinforce the behaviors you want to see and you will continue to see them.  During academic centers time students earn tokens for following directions and completing tasks relevant to the work (i.e., writing their name on their paper, finishing the worksheet, placing the worksheet in the designated Finish Bin).  We also work on walking in the hallway in a straight line, raising hands to get a teacher’s attention, and waiting to take a turn.  When we remember doing all of these things in elementary school they seem to have just come naturally to us.  However, at some point we contacted some form of reinforcement for all of these naturally-occurring school behaviors, and in turn, they just became routine.  It is very important for me as a teacher and a future BCBA to teach and reinforce routines that will help the kids be successful where they are now, and in the future.

The goal for our students is for them to matriculate to a less restrictive environment. And, one of the biggest questions we ask ourselves when prepping and planning for their change is, “What do the kids need to know in order to be successful outside of our bubble?” 

ABA has helped me teach and reinforce the behaviors and daily occurrences one imagines when they picture a more typical school setting: socially, academically, and behaviorally.  One example of this is in my classroom we are working on telling friends encouraging words.  Every time a student says something encouraging to their friend, they earn a cube.  When they have 3 cubes, they get a piece of candy or a toy.  ABA can be used in a variety of ways across a variety of settings and skills. If you can identify the behavior that you want to target ABA can be used to help teach a child to learn that skill.

I am excited to further my career as a special educator while pursuing my BCBA certification so I can continue to work with and serve the amazing and diverse population that I hold so near and dear to my heart; the kids that have truly changed my life and how I view the world.  With the right tools to succeed, anything is possible.  And BCBAs have the best tool boxes.

By: Christine Coffman, M.Ed.

A Positive Experience with ‘Wings for Autism’

As we are experiencing bitter cold temperatures and numerous snow days this winter, I find myself counting down the days until spring and dreaming of a warm getaway. For individuals with autism, traveling using public transportation can be difficult and overwhelming. Specifically, traveling via airports requires an individual to exhibit several skills that may need to be taught to individuals with autism. These skills include:

  • walking with a caregiver through crowded places
  • waiting patiently in a long line (with many people around you)
  • holding onto your belongings
  • using a crowded public restroom
  • tolerating sitting in a seat for extended periods of time (e.g., during the flight).

Additionally, there are unpredictable changes to schedules that may occur throughout the process of traveling through an airport (e.g., changes in the gate number, delays in departure time). Unpredictable changes to schedules and routines are typically very difficult for individuals with autism and may evoke anxiety and or inappropriate behaviors when they occur.

For parents, all theses factors can produce anxiety and could be reasons for avoiding travel all together. Not being able to travel via airports can restrict the number of activities and vacations that families would like to do. This could mean not being able to take their children to fun vacations (e.g., Disney World, not being able to visit relatives that live far away, or not being able travel at all as a family).

One resource available to parents and their children, for traveling on an airplane, is the Wings for Autism program. Wings for Autism is a program that originated at a local chapter of the Arc in Massachusetts. Their mission was to alleviate the stress of traveling and or flying with a family member with autism or other intellectual/development disabilities.  The main goal of Wings for Autism is to provide the family and individual with a disability the opportunity to practice entering the airport, obtaining a boarding pass, going through security and boarding a plane.

I recently had the privilege of attending the Wings for Autism event at the Baltimore Washington International Airport, with a client firsthand. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived to BWI airport and walked over to the Southwest Airlines concourse. I was immediately impressed with the set up and organization of the event. Every Southwest employee was wearing bright orange Wings for Autism t-shirt and they were extremely kind and helpful to all the families and their children attending the event. Employees were stationed around every corner to ensure that kids and their families knew exactly where to go next. From the beginning of the check-in process to boarding the plane, every step was planned out and autism-friendly. There were so many opportunities for the kids to practice traveling throughout the airport and for generalization of the socially-appropriate skills in the community. These skills included waiting in long lines, carrying bags through long terminals, identifying adults that can help, asking questions to find out information, staying with your family when it gets crowded, locating the correct gate that matches the boarding pass, and waiting for your zone or number to be called prior to boarding.

The event lasted about three hours and here is how it played out:

  1. First we waited in line to check-in at the check-in kiosk, tell the attendant your name and destination, receive your boarding passes,
  2. walk over to the security lines, wait in line to be screened by TSA security,
  3. gather your belongings and walk down the correct terminal toward the gate,
  4. identify the correct gate and wait for your seat zone to be called,
  5. board the plane by zone,
  6. sit on the airplane for an hour while the flight attendants and pilot explain the processes of what to expect during flights (e.g., how to buckle seat belt, where the exits were, what turbulence is),
  7. de-board the airplane,
  8. walk to baggage claim, and
  9. gather your checked baggage.

Every little detail about what to expect when flying was covered during this event and the event went smoothly. There were about 30-40 families with their kids, and the kids ranged from 2-3 year olds to kids in their teens/early adulthood. I could not have been more impressed with how accommodating the Southwest Airlines employees were and I could tell that a lot of families were satisfied with their experience. I would absolutely recommend for any family that is interested in getting their child an experience with flying and airports to attend this event in the future.

My client that attended this event ended up flying for real for the first time in his life in early January. He had a safe and successful travel going to his destination and coming back to Baltimore. With the experience he gained from Wings for Autism, this made traveling much easier and predictable for not only the child but the entire family. A trip to the airport can be chaotic, even for the most patient of us, but knowing what to expect can help alleviate some of the stress that can go along with traveling.

If you don’t have time to sign up for a program such as Wings for Autism before you travel, there are still many ways that you can help prepare your child for your upcoming trip. There are many situations that you will not be able to control (e.g., delayed flights or the baby crying in the seat behind you) but by preparing for the unexpected you can try to lessen the bumps that you may encounter. Some things to consider before you travel:

  • Have you child’s favorite item present
  • Have your child’s favorite snacks
  • Have new toys or activities that your child has not seen before
  • Plan for no WIFI – pre-download your child’s favorite shows or movies on your device
  • Make sure you have some low tech options available as well
  • Make sure your device is fully charged or bring a portable cordless charger
  • Bring noise cancelling headphones
  • Have paper and a pen so you can provide your child with a visual for any changes to the travel plan
  • Check in with the airline to see if there are any services that they offer
  • Breathe – the calmer your child sees you the easier the situation will be for them

You will never be able to predict every situation that you are going to encounter; however, taking time to plan for the unexpected can help you feel more confident in the traveling process. As the snow melts away, start planning, and get ready for take off! Happy travels!

By Josh Firestone

For more information about The Shafer Center contact 410-517-1113 or [email protected]

Talking to Siblings About Autism

Autism.  A word that comes with many questions, concerns, doubts, fears of the unknown and the future.  To parents with a child on the spectrum, it’s an ever evolving way of thinking of what the next steps will be and how will this effect their other children.  Unfortunately, there is that side of Autism that comes with rituals, routines or even aggressive behaviors that can be hard to explain to the other siblings.  With that being said, the question still remains for some families and that is, how do you talk to your neuro-typical children about their sibling’s behavior?

What seems to be a consistent answer among those families trying to have those talks is honesty. Families believe it’s important to talk to your child about how their sibling’s disorder will affect them. At every stage of their development, there will be new challenges to face, and there is no way around the fact that this will affect everyone in the family in one way or another. The older your child gets, the more aware they become of just how different they may be from their sibling. It can also work the same way with parents being honest with when they are feeling frustrated, or in a bad mood.  Being able to honestly share your own feelings opens the door for your child to do the same.  This type of communication also allows them the freedom to ask questions that may be considered inappropriate, rude, or inconsiderate in other circumstances. Your child needs answers as much as you do. They may have different questions or feelings, but they are legitimate. Acknowledging their emotions and questions can help them cope and understand.

Another effective way families talk to sibling(s) is by using books as a resource. Books on autism are some of the best tools for helping younger children understand why their brother or sister is different. Here are a few:

  • My Little Brother is Different – An Autism Story by Tammy Parker Cox
  • My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete
  • Tacos Anyone? An Autism Story by Marvie Ellis and Jenny Loehr
  • My Brother has Autism by Debbie Jaeger and Bobbi Hixson

Reading an age appropriate book and then discussing it with your child will give them a chance to ask questions and begin to conceptualize the issue of autism in the abstract, which can help to lead to a better understanding and in turn have empathy for those with a diagnosis.

Another way to help your neuro-typical children understand, is to let them hear from other families going through similar experiences in a support group setting. Sometimes your child needs to hear it from someone else. Raising a child with autism will challenge even the most prepared parent. The same will be true for your neuro-typical child. They are going to experience things that will make life different, and often difficult. Support groups for families dealing with autism can be very helpful. It allow you and your other family members to share experiences and stories, you may also pick up tips from other parents who are a bit further down the road who can offer words of wisdom based on their own experiences. Hearing from someone their own age about how they feel embarrassed or frustrated can help relieve feelings of guilt and anger in your child. It can also help your child feel less alone when they know there are other kids like them experiencing the same things.  Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital offers Sibshops in the spring, summer, and fall for siblings ages eight to 13 and in the spring for siblings ages four to seven. The purpose of Sibshops is to allow children who are siblings of children with special needs to have an outlet to discuss the positives and negatives to having a sibling with special needs. The group uses play and games to teach siblings team building, positive self-awareness, disability awareness, and facilitates discussions about the joys and challenges of having a sibling with special needs. In addition, the Baltimore Autism Society has autism support groups that meet the first Thursday of every month throughout the year.  Although this is mainly a parent support group; break out sessions are occasionally scheduled for teen siblings as well. The groups meet in the 3rd floor board room of Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital, 1708 W. Rogers Avenue, 21209.

The main thing to remember when starting any conversation with your child’s siblings is to make sure the discussion is on-going because their needs, like your, will change!  Even though there may be isolated points of time that you are discussing something with your child that is autism related, does not mean that the discussion ends there.  Each day brings about new and unique occurrences between your child with autism and their siblings, talking about what is going on will help build understanding.

Every family dynamic is different, so how you start the talk will vary across different families but taking the time to talk to your other children about the positives and challenges about having a sibling with autism will help them to understand and relate to their sibling.

By Erin Richmond

For more information about The Shafer Center contact 410-517-1113 or [email protected]

Extracurricular Activities for Children with Autism

It is hard to find extracurricular activities that our kids are interested in, and that understand our kids. With Autism awareness growing so are the opportunities for inclusion in extracurricular activities! If your kids are interested in sports, inclusive sports teams in the area include:

  • Adapted Karate at Baltimore Martial Arts Academy in Catonsville. Adapted Karate at Baltimore Martial Arts Academy provides a program for children with special physical, intellectual and emotional needs.
  • Allied Sports offers inclusive sports programs such as soccer, bowling and softball to high school students.
  • Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports provides recreation and sports programs for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities. Includes bowling, skiing, cycling, kayaking and more.
  • Baltimore Area Special Hockey, an ice hockey league designed for children and adults with traumatic brain injury, Autism and Down Syndrome.

If sports aren’t in hour child’s interest, there are also program for Arts, Theater and exploring nature. These programs include:

  • Access-Ability Sailing, Downtown Sailing Center offers opportunities for individuals with disabilities the opportunity to sail on Saturdays from April-August.
  • Ann Street Players at The Fells Point Corner Theater is a community program that welcomes individuals with disabilities get involved in theater.
  • Augmenting Ability in Harford County offers group and individual Music Therapy and adapted music lessons.
  • Exploration Art School offers programs to students with executive functioning challenges, ADHD, and ASD.

There are also programs out there to serve the entire family. Such programs include:

  • Lighthouse in Catonsville provides Sociabilities social skills groups and family counseling for children and their parents.
  • AMC Sensory-Friendly Films- AMC partnered with the Autism Society to provide a sensory friendly atmosphere for the whole family on the second and fourth Saturday of every month. Participating theaters include: AMC Columbia 14, White Marsh 16, Owings Mills 17, Georgetown 14 and MJ Capital Center 12.
  • The National Aquarium in Baltimore offers special visit times on select dates, early and express entry options, listening devices and other special accommodations for individuals in need.

But the fun doesn’t have to be limited to after school and weekend activities, there are now vacation options that include sensory friendly activities that are inclusive for all families! Surfer’s Healing is a program that has spread to multiple beaches across the country, teaching kids to surf! Surfer’s Healing originated in Southern California, but has spread to beaches all over the country including Ocean City, MD, Mexico and Puerto Rico! For more information on registering and locations check out, Another great vacation opportunity is Autism on the Sea. Autism on the Sea is a national organization that has teamed up with Royal Cruises to create a sensory friendly atmosphere, as well as experienced staff and great activities to accommodate adults, kids and families with special needs. For more information on Autism on the Sea their website is,

Opportunities for inclusive activities are available for all children, families and interests! For more information on the activities listed above, and for other opportunities visit

By Michelle Fox

For more information on The Shafer Center contact 410-517-1113 or [email protected]

Trick-or-Treat: Teaching Our Kiddos about Halloween

Halloween is really fun holiday that many children look forward to all year long.  However, there can be a number of challenges for our kiddos, who are on the spectrum, during this holiday.  One challenge (usually the biggest one) is wearing the costume.  Costumes feel and look very different from what they usually wear. It is often a struggle to get them to wear a costume – especially if it has a hat or some type of head piece.  Another challenge is learning all of the steps involved in trick-or-treating.  It may seem simple but these steps (knocking on the door/ ringing the door bell, saying “trick-or-treat” or holding out a bag, and selecting one or two pieces of candy) need to be taught and practiced with our kiddos before going trick-or-treating. Walking around the neighborhood may also be a challenge for some kiddos.

In order to prepare for this fun holiday, we should address all of these challenges before Halloween. So, how can we do that? See below for ways to work on each of the challenges:

Wearing a Costume:

The first step for this is to pick a costume. Allow your child to be involved in picking which costume he or she wants. If it is difficult for them to make a choice, give them 2 to 3 choices to pick from. If they are a part of picking the costume and excited about the costume, they will be much more likely to want to wear it.

After you get the costume, allow your child to explore their costume before wearing it on Halloween. This includes playing with the costume, seeing you wear the costume, dressing others in the costume (e.g., sibling, stuffed animal, doll), and putting on small pieces of the costume at a time. Talk about how awesome the costume is while they are exploring it. When they put the costume on make sure to have a mirror available so they can see themselves in the costume. You may see how cute it looks but if they cannot see it, then all they see and feel is a fabric or accessory that they are not used to wearing.

If they are hesitant  wearing the costume (or a piece of the costume), have them wear it for small periods of time. For example, you can say, “You are going to wear the hat for 10 seconds. [Put hat on] Let’s count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.” Then remove the costume/part of costume and provide lots of verbal praise for doing so. Increase the amount of time wearing it as they become more comfortable with it.


We teach our kiddos by breaking larger skills into smaller pieces, so we need to do the same thing with the skill of trick-or-treating – practice all the steps involved one at a time.

  1. First, practice knocking on a door or ringing a door bell. You can take your kiddo outside and have someone inside to answer the door. Prompt them (verbally, by model, physically) to knock on the door or ring the doorbell. Have the person inside open the door immediately upon hearing the knock or the bell and provide lots of reinforcement (e.g., verbal praise, tickles, an edible) for knocking on the door or ringing the doorbell. Practice this multiple times across several days. You also want to keep in mind that practicing this may increase the likelihood that your child will want to knock on the door/ring the door bell a lot more after practicing this and outside of the context of trick-or-treating. Make sure to emphasize that you do this at Halloween and if it becomes an issue with wanting to do so more frequently, please consult your BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) about ways to decrease this behavior.
  2. Next, practice saying “trick-or-treat” or giving another individual a picture that says “trick-or-treat.” You can practice saying this phrase if your child communicates vocally or practice handing a picture to another person that says this phrase, if your child communicates non-vocally. As soon as your child communicates this phrase, provide reinforcement in the form of verbal praise and an edible or other tangible item (e.g., sticker, toy). Practice this multiple times across several days.
  3. Lastly, practice selecting one or two pieces of candy/toys out of a larger set of items. Present your child with a bowl or other container that has a number of items in it and prompt them to pick up one or two of the items. If they select too many, prompt them to put the extra items back. If they select one or two, allow them to have access to those items and provide verbal praise for selecting the items.

Walking in the neighborhood:

Take a walk in your neighborhood (or wherever you will be trick-or-treating) with your child before going trick-or-treating on Halloween. If you do not walk in this area on a regular basis, take the time to do so several times before Halloween so it becomes more of a routine before hand and is not a novel activity. This is also a good time to practice walking on the sidewalk, stopping at Stop signs, and looking both ways before crossing the street!

With all of this practice ahead of time, going trick-or-treating should be a lot easier for our kiddos once they have practiced the full routine and had so much fun in the process! We will be practicing all of these steps before and during our Fall Festival next Tuesday, October 31st and are so excited to see all of the kiddos in their costumes, trick-or-treating successfully, and having fun! 

By Anne Stull, M.A., LPA, BCBA

For more information on The Shafer Center call 410-517-1113