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Being a Partner in Communication and Regulation for Your Student with ASD

Last weekend was an exciting day for the Nashville community of spellers! Our students started the afternoon off with a bang during their group learning class (check out the FB post here), and then the families of TGPP gathered to learn about an important topic: our role as communication and regulation partners (CRP’s) for our students with Autism and other sensory-movement differences.

The majority of my previous posts have focused on the experiences of my students: how their bodies and brains function together, and what challenges this brings up for them in communicating, accessing education, and participating in activities we might take for granted. Their input is invaluable, and is shifting our perspective of this thing called Autism. But just understanding our students’ differences means very little without an accompanying action: for that, the value of YOU, as a Communication and Regulation Partner, cannot be underestimated. Today’s post is for all of you, parent and professional, who are jumping into the letter board world with both feet!

As a CRP, you have a big job! This can be especially daunting at the beginning, and might leave you reeling with questions like:

How do I cue my child/teen/adult’s motor?

How am I supposed juggle all these boards?

Wait, you mean I have to write LESSONS?! I can’t even spell myself!

Believe me when I say that you can and will learn everything you need to know as a successful CRP! Just as much as your student is learning a new skill, so are you. Time, diligence, and patience are your best friends on this journey, but of course, a little guidance along the way can alleviate some of those worries and help you reach your goals. So, as you travel, here are some tips, tricks, and information to guide your growth.

Setting Up For Success

Start things off on the right foot by preparing ahead of time. Read through your material and have questions ready to go, and give yourself options to ask for certain information in different ways so you can quickly adapt to your student’s motor skill on a given day. Trust me, trying to make up new questions on the fly is a great way to fluster yourself and your student!

Remember the environment. Depending on your student’s sensory needs, certain aspects of the room could be distracting or dysregulating: as much as possible, remove or reduce them. Turn off the music/TV, clear items from your workspace, or-for those with movement needs-have the student sit with his or her left side against a wall or solid barrier. Last but not least, make sure the chair your student is sitting in allows them good posture!

Knowing and Growing Your Skill

This is the technical part of being a CRP, and includes multiple skills that will develop with practice, like knowing what kind of questions to use, when to switch to a different board, and what cues to incorporate for your student. These “big ticket” skills are learned through training, coaching, and learning from other CRP’s: take advantage of your local network of parents and professionals to guide you in this. In the meantime, try the following tips as you practice!

Keep a steady and centered board position. Keep the boards centered in front of the student’s dominant hand to make the motor task of reaching to and across for letters easier.

Monitor all the motor! This includes posture and visual scanning skills in addition to the actual poke with the arm. If your student seems to be having trouble with accurately reaching the letters, use your supports to help him or her re-adjust posture and/or direct gaze to the boards.

Keep learning! As I mentioned, there are a ton of technical skills to being a CRP, and you do not have to learn them all overnight. Keep working, keep learning, and don’t give up!

Supporting the Sensory

Yes, in addition to helping your student develop purposeful motor skills, you are also acting as the regulatory agent for their sensory systems (I told you it’s a big job)! As always, the needs and successful strategies for each student will vary, but we as CRP’s can keep the following in mind when helping Autistic and sensory-motor impaired individuals on the boards.

Find what is regulating for your student. Keep favorite sensory items nearby and available, take breaks for your student to move, and above all, always presume that competence!

Recognize the signs of dysregulation. For most (if not all) of our students, “behaviors” we may previously have interpreted as defiance, escapism, or a lack of understanding are, in reality, a sign of dysregulation. Stay in tune with your student, and look for these changes.

Re-establish equilibrium. Ask yourself questions. Did I jump to the 26 board too soon? Was that question too open/ambiguous? Did something interrupt the environment? Could my student be experiencing a strong emotion or other internal stimulus? Even with this problem solving, we won’t always know what has affected our student’s regulation. Try making adjustments to what you are doing from a technical standpoint, and always be ready to integrate the sensory strategies that are most helpful for your student.

Experiment. A strategy that worked one day may not be helpful on the next. Stay flexible and explore different ways to support your student! Of course, when possible and appropriate, ask for your student’s feedback and input on this.

Honoring Your Emotions to Honor Your Student’s

Contrary to the traditional view, Autistic individuals experience deep emotions and are highly empathetic to those of others: not only do they have to work through sensory overload, but also the overload of feelings from those around them. In other words, if YOU are dysregulated, your student will likely experience that and may become dysregulated as well. The beauty of this is that you have the power to positively change the emotional tone of any session you have together:

Practice self-care. Find and take time for what regulates you! Take a walk, meditate, try yoga, read, talk to a friend, etc. Recognizing and honoring YOUR needs will only benefit you and your student when you are working on your skills as a team.

During your sessions, exude calm, confidence, and balance. No matter what happens, you are both making huge strides towards communication and autonomy every time you sit down together! Neither you nor your student have to live up to any performance expectations: your goals will be reached with practice and persistence, not perfection. Let me say that one more time: your goals will be reached with practice and persistence, not perfection. Know that you will misspell words, grab the wrong board, and maybe have to drop down to semi-open questions even though you had a great open response last week, and remind yourself that that is ok. When you feel confident that every session is an opportunity for learning and growth, your student will feel that too, and success will follow.

Before I sign off today, I want to mention one last but important item of note: always keep in mind that you will still have off-days as a team, even if you as the CRP are doing everything you can. Many factors are out of our control or even our awareness: maybe the weather is changing, your student is going through a growth spurt, or one of you just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Continue to be the strength and support your student needs, and all will fall together in its time.

Thanks to all of the parent and professional CRP’s and their spelling students who took the time to read this very long post: I hope sincerely that it gave you something you needed! Until next time, everyone!

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