Working on the Front Lines of Autism Care
By: Stephanie Tafone, M.A., P.D., Behavior Intervention Specialist at Eden II Programs
Working on the front lines of Autism care in a residential facility is both rewarding and, at times, challenging. Although our residents depend on us in many ways to teach them how to complete day-to-day tasks, it is important for all staff to recognize and respect that our residents each have their own preferences and interests. Therefore, we always strive to let our residents make as many choices as possible (provided they are healthy choices that do not cause harm to anyone). Just because we as staff might complete a particular task a certain way does not mean it is the “right” or only way to do so. Recognizing and respecting residents’ choices can help avoid negative behaviors or frustration for our residents. Our goal is always to teach and foster independence and self-direction.
It is always important to build good rapport with our residents so we are in tune with their wants and needs, while also enabling them to better trust us, work with us, and learn from us. Unfortunately, with current staffing crises and funding cuts in residential care settings, one challenge we face is securing long-term, seasoned staff. This type of setting often suffers from a high turnover rate, which this is a matter that needs more global attention, as hardworking, dedicated, and experienced/trained staff are crucial for our population.
One of the biggest considerations we have on a daily basis, particularly during the global COVID-19 pandemic, is finding creative and entertaining recreational and leisure activities to keep our residents happy and actively engaged. Anyone can become restless and bored with nothing to do, and those with Autism are no different, which is why active engagement is one of our top priorities in a group home setting. When selecting activities, we strive to ensure that each resident’s preferences are considered and incorporated. This includes a combination of both community outings and in-house events/activities. Going into the community on outings can be challenging at times when unpredictable factors (e.g. noise, crowds, etc.) may trigger negative behaviors. However, we do our best to avoid triggering situations by researching and/or visiting the activity or location before our residents experience it in order to help determine if there are any barriers that will prevent it from being an enjoyable and successful outing for all. We also do our best to go prepared on each community outing with preferred items that can be used as a source of redirection and comfort if needed. For example, headphones to drown out noise if it gets too noisy, as well as preferred snacks or drinks if our residents get hungry or thirsty. In the residence, we also strive to think of creative leisure activities, such as dance or karaoke parties, Bingo nights, movie nights, baking, and arts and crafts. Having an enthusiastic and supportive approach, as well as using preferred reinforcers, helps to engage our residents in these activities and increase their interest level.
In addition to recreational and leisure activities for entertainment and socialization, day-to-day life in the residence is also a learning experience for our residents, as they work on a variety of individualized goals with their assigned staff. Examples of goals may include activities such as participating in a consistent exercise regimen, learning how to independently cook rice or make tea, learning how to independently count money and make purchases, and learning how to independently vacuum or clean one’s room. The selection of a participant’s goals is a collaborative process that involves input from parents/caregivers, input from the participant(s) if possible, and input from the management team at the residence. We strive to ensure that selected goals not only address a skill deficit, but are also aligned with the participant’s interests and will help the participant become more independent in daily living skills. Similarly, participants learn increased independence by participating in various chores around the house, such as setting the table for lunch and dinner, loading and emptying the dishwasher, and doing one’s laundry. Teaching many of these goals and chores can be accomplished through the use of a visual task analysis that breaks the task down into smaller components (i.e. individual steps), which are each depicted in visual images. Visuals are a very helpful teaching technique for those with Autism, who often struggle significantly with understanding verbal language and oral directions. It is also helpful for learning, especially in the initial stages, to use a preferred reinforcer to reward correct completion of steps. In the beginning of learning a new goal or chore, one step may need to be taught for a number of consecutive days until it is mastered and the next step can be taught.
Overall, working in a residential setting has been a great learning experience and we know that our work has had, and continues to have, a significant influence on our residents’ lives, which is very rewarding for all staff.
About the Author:
Stephanie Tafone, M.A., P.D. earned her B.A. in Psychology from St. John's University before going on to earn her M.A. and Professional Diploma in School Psychology from Kean University. She is currently in the process of completing the requirements to obtain an Advanced Certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis as she pursues national certification. For the past ten years, she has been working with both children and adults with disabilities. She currently works as a behavior intervention specialist at a residential facility serving adults who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She also works as a school psychologist serving children with various diagnoses and disabilities, as well as an adjunct professor for courses pertaining to Applied Behavior Analysis, Autism, and Intellectual Disability.