Teaching A Process To The Autistic Child...

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In my opinion, the best way to teach a process to an autistic child was via the concept of "the critical path".  Those readers who had taken management classes would know right away what this meant.   For the rest of you, however, I explained this concept using a simple example - the baking of a cake – below.

Before we get started, I needed to first define "the critical path".   The critical path was the longest sequence of dependent tasks for which, if you changed one step/task in the sequence, in any manner, the duration of the task was no longer optimized.  

The critical path provided the optimal solution for completing a task based on specific constraints (i.e., precedents, or things that had "come first", etc.) that had to be taken into consideration.  This was the more "technical" definition.  

Obviously, with children, we were not as concerned with "optimizing/minimizing task duration" as we were with "proper sequence".  So, for example, you could not "eat cake" without first "making cake".   The focus here was to determine the actual sequence of "things that need to be done" for the task to be properly completed.   Again, this example involved "baking a cake", but the same concept could be applied to any task... getting dressed, brushing teeth, cleaning up, learning situations, etc.   For anything where a process was involved and, as such, by definition there needed to be a fairly specific sequence of event, the concept of the critical path could be used.  

This concept was actually quite simple to understand – it looked much more complicated than it actually was in the charts below.   It was simply that to explain this concept in depth required a lot of work and detail on my part since I wanted to provide what parents needed for "any process", and as such, I took an example that was a little more complex (i.e., baking a cake) rather than one that was much simpler (i.e., brushing teeth) in order to better explain the entire concept as it related to "flexible parts", etc.  But, truly, this was much simpler than it looked! :o)

In management, this could become very involved.   I provided "many of the steps" to completing one task -  to give parents an idea of how complicated a simple task could actually be when broken down into its parts - and given that this was what was necessary for the autistic child, I wanted to provide a very concrete example of "how complicated" something could actually be for the autistic child even though a "normal person" took the completion of these simple tasks for granted because in the "normal person", the parts were so much more easily integrated into the "whole".   Note that I provided a "partial list" of things that needed to be done.   If I had wanted to, I could have made this list considerably longer but space constraints in terms of presenting this on paper necessitated I limit the example somewhat.  Providing all the steps would have just made all this too overwhelming.  

My goal here was simply to provide for parents the simple concept of breaking processes down into their respective tasks for the autistic child.   I wanted to provide an idea of the things one could eventually take into consideration... and to give readers an idea of how one could expand or build on this concept as the child grew.  The bottom line to all this was really simply teaching "proper sequencing" to complete a task... and to teach a sequence of tasks, the whole or process must first be broken down into its components or individual parts. 


For each task, determine the following:  1.    Task Name/Description,  2.  Precedents (what were those things that had to be done first, before this task could be done?),  3.  Concurrent/ Current (what other tasks in the process could be done WHILE this one was also being done?),  4.    Dependents (what tasks could not be completed until this particular task was finished?),  5.    Duration (how long would this task take?),  6.    Planned Start Date/Time,  7.    Planned End Date/Time,  8.    Early Start Date/Time,  9.    Late Start Date/Time,  10.  Early Finish Date/Time,  11.  Late Finish Date/Time,  12.  Float (how much time did I save or lose in days or hours because I started a task early or late?).

In management, within each activity, each task was then analyzed for further constraints, such as human resources, etc.  We were not going to get into all these aspects here.   For those of you who really wanted to learn more about this subject the link below provided some good information in terms of basic definitions, etc.  There were hundreds of sites like this one for those of you who wanted to really get into the nuts and bolts of critical path processing... and there were also, obviously, a lot of software programs for management purposes. 


 I had not found (or really had the time to look for) a good child's program that taught this concept.   Therefore, if any parent knew of a software package to do this, please let me know and I will add it to my website.  What we were really looking for was software that would teach autistic children "proper sequencing" of multiple steps.  :o)  Software that allowed for some flexibility in sequencing would  be the most valuable of all in order to show the autistic child that there could be more than one right answer.

Ideally, a combination of "exact sequence" exercises followed by sequencing exercises allowing for some flexibility in terms of non critical tasks would be optimal... allowing the child to first work through the sequencing basics in terms of examples showing how "things needed to follow a certain order" and then allowing the child to "move non critical things around" to help increase flexibility in autistic children.  Jump Start's Advanced Second Grade Program (made by Knowledge Adventure, 800-545-7677, http://www.knowledgeadventure.com) in its section on "Discover Science" had some useful sequencing activities in it.   It asked children to sequence things alphabetically, numerically and based on processes too (i.e. a frog egg growing into a full frog).  It was definitely a good start in teaching this to children - although I, personally, would like to see something much more geared to the autistic, specifically, in terms of teaching sequencing of very specific every day tasks too.

To bake a cake, there were certain steps that needed to be done.  These included:

1.  Taking out your cookbook   2.  Taking out your ingredients  3. Turning the oven on   4.  Taking out a bowl  in which to make the cake   5.  Mixing your ingredients   6.  Taking out a pan in which to bake the cake   7.   Pouring the batter into the pan   8.  Putting the pan into the oven  9.  Turning on the timer   10.   Taking a break/doing something else while the cake bakes   11. Listening for the timer   12.  Turning the timer off   13.  Checking the cake to make sure it was "done"   14.   If "done", removing the cake from the oven and letting it cool.  If "not done", going back to step  "putting pan into the oven and continuing all steps from there"   15.  Once cooled, removing the cake from the pan and setting it on a cake platter   16.  Decorating the cake   17.  Taking a plate and utensils out, 18. Putting a piece of cake on the plate and setting it on table, 19. Sitting down to eat the cake.

I had listed the tasks for the critical path ... but, you could move "some steps" around and still complete the task... yet, others were pretty well "set in stone" in terms of their order.   For example,  you did not want to turn the oven timer on until the cake was in the oven... or turn it off until the cake was ready to be checked or was "done".  

Now, to determine the critical path, you had to determine the ONE sequence that absolutely had to be followed for this task to be completed.   To verify that you had the TRUE "critical path", simply "move one step around"... if you did that, you should no longer be able to complete the task in the most optimal time (in manufacturing, etc., time was obviously the key component to “critical path determination”… but, in this example, it was left out since this factor was really not needed for what we were doing).  

I did not do a TRUE critical path here since time and other factors (i.e., human resources, etc. were left out)...but this one was "close enough" for you to explain the concept and to work sequencing issues with autistic children.   To do a true critical path would have involved including a lot more steps, time factors, human resource factors, etc. ... and there were always steps that could be "moved around" to various places.  I did all the various "combinations" of "where things could actually get done, and include all other factors, you would have so many arrows that it would become overwhelming.  So, I provided what I felt you needed to understand the concept in the graph below.    Again, this was a simple concept… it just looked a lot more complicated than it truly was!  :o)

The solid arrows show the "critical path"...  each task number was included in the appropriate critical path "node".   Thus, critical sequencing was shown by these arrows... one step could not go forward until the previous step was done (Again, I may not be 100% accurate here – especially in terms of the very first steps - but, this was pretty close.  It had been over 15 years since I took this management class - and the book was long gone :o)  ).

Some steps were critical (such as turning on an oven), but could be done at different places throughout the process... so they were critical to getting the task completed, but "where they happened" in the "critical path chain" could be a little flexible.   When a "flexible" task became a "critical path item", that arrow turned from a dash to a solid arrow to indicate that if this step was not done at this time, we could no longer move forward in the process.  For example, step 3, turning on the oven, could be done at any time, but it became critical just prior to step 10, taking a break... if step 3 was not done at the very latest, prior to step 10, then the process could no longer move forward smoothly... the task would not be "completable" without this - now critical - step.  

This simple example could be used to teach autistic children almost any process.   The idea was simply to break the task down into its parts... down to the lowest levels.   So, for example, to teach a child to dress himself, teach him first to remove his pajamas, then to take his clothes out of the dresser (showing him not only where to get his pants, his shirts, his underwear, his socks, etc., but also how to open the dresser drawers by himself and close them once the clothes have been removed).  Then teach the child what clothes "goes on first", "what goes on second", etc.

For each piece of clothing, show the child "how you put it on"... for example, to put on underwear, shorts or pants, explain that "the left foot went into the left foot/leg hole and right foot went into the right foot/leg hole", to put on a shirt, explain that the right arm went into the right arm hole, left arm went into the left arm hole and head went into the head or middle hole", etc.   You probably needed to show the child the "front and back" of clothing too... perhaps using the "tag" as a reference point.    

Flexibility could then be taught by showing the child it was ok to move certain tasks around... like putting the left arm in before the right arm (or vice versa) or putting the head in first when putting on a shirt, etc.  Teaching the child the concept of "OR" should greatly help increase a parent's ability to teach flexibility in tasks since if the child understood "OR" then the parent could simply say:  "or, how about doing it this way... will this work, too?".  

There were many ways to teach the concept of "or"... giving food choices was the most obvious.  :o)   The idea with the concept of "OR" was to teach that "more than one answer would work" and was "correct".   That would surely help increase the autistic child's flexibility in many, many facets of life.  :o)

Another thing I would mention had to do with the use of colors in teaching an autistic child.    Autistic adults had mentioned the fact that they often perceived objects as colors.    Given this fact, I think that parents should go out of their way to make use of colors whenever possible.    See my section on Colors.   For example, in teaching a process, telling the child to "put on his red shirt", as you went through the process with him... or to take out "his blue socks from the brown dresser".   Using colors may indeed be a powerful tool for parents in teaching the autistic and getting more cooperation in the completion of tasks.  

Again, these were simple examples, but they applied to absolutely everything that required a "process"... and that included the "teaching situation"... "social interaction", etc.  - all aspects/tools down to the most minute detail should be thoroughly defined or labeled, tasks identified and sequenced, etc.  If a child was experiencing difficulty with something in particular, I encouraged parents not to get upset but rather look at that "stumbling block" as an opportunity to find something you may not have properly labeled or defined for the autistic child... and then, to go from there!  :o)

I would later come to realize that the sense of touch was also critical in teaching the autistic child a process… further explaining why techniques such as “hand-over-hand” clearly worked so well for these children!  This issue was covered much later, although I did want to mention its relevance here as well!

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