William loves church. He loves the vestments, he loves the beards, he loves the word “Prokeminon,” he loves Father Joel, and he loves that he knows what to expect every week. And I like to think he’s a pretty big fan of God’s.
Ergo, it’s been a natural thing to think that, someday, he might really love being an altar server. Of course, if it turns out he hates it, I’d never force it, but if it were successful, it would be so successful.
So. If this is our goal, and if it’s your goal, too…we’ve got some work to do.
I have (with the extremely helpful input of our priest) put together a list of skills needed for a child to have mastered in order to serve. We’ve identified five key skills needed, and I also worked with William’s program manager and BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) to determine a selection of strategies for teaching them.
So this is the first installment in a five-part series. Each post in the series will include one necessary skill for altar servers, followed by professional suggestions to build them.
First, we address the elephant in the room. Matches, anyone? No?
Necessary skill #1: Fire/knife/stove/boiling water safety
For the most part, I simply keep William away from these things (which I hear is not weird, even for a typically developing six-year-old). But, according to my priest and his son who serves, altar servers can be expected to:
- Light matches and candles
- Carry lit candles
- Cut bread
- Carry boiling water in a pot from one location to another
My priest pointed out that it’s perfectly acceptable to delegate some of the more difficult jobs (like the boiling water) to the older servers. But, from the start, William will have to know how to light a match, light a candle with it, and blow it out without burning his fingers, or, you know, lighting up the whole building.
1. Start with a motivator.
William’s big motivator is his special allergy-free chocolate. We make it clear that we expect (x) of him, and if he does (x), he gets some of his chocolate (btw, we’re talking, like, a chocolate chip. He doesn’t get an entire candy bar every time he does a math problem or uses his fork).
A lot of people see this as bribery, but think about it. Motivators exist everywhere, and are naturally attached to all our social interactions and routines. In fact, those motivators shape how we do things. Check out these motivators (anything familiar?):
- That “look” we’d rather not get from our mom or our spouse.
- Other looks that are actually fun: “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when…”
- Long lectures from a relative about how they think we should be doing things
- The embarrassment we feel as a result of doing something that sets us apart from the crowd–like tripping on stage or singing at the wrong moment.
- People diverting their eyes from us when we’ve talked too much
- A friend laughing at a joke we’ve told because we’ve delivered it with exactly the right mix of dryness and adorableness.
These are effective with us neurotypicals and they shape how we behave. But these subscript motivators often do nothing to move a person with autism, so we have to find what drives them, and creatively use that instead to teach them necessary life skills. If you wouldn’t consider it bribery to learn how to deliver a joke by judging when people laugh and when they don’t, then finding what motivates a person with autism–and using it–is equally appropriate.
2. Don’t be afraid to start slow.
If you’re teaching knife safety, it’s a little scary to just hand your child a knife.
Instead, start with a plastic knife and play-doh. That probably won’t get anyone hurt. When everyone feels confident with that, move on to something sturdier.
Take it from there, and keep practicing.
3. Create a social story.
Children (autism or not) often better respond to a set of rules if it’s in the context of a picture book. Here are a few pages from a social story that one of William’s therapists made for him when Sammy was born:
They don’t have to be fancy–I’ve hand written them in a notebook. William loves reading them, even after he’s mastered the skill. It’s his own special, personalized book. Here’s another example of one you can find at autism-community.com:
4. Visual prompts
For William, this usually takes the form of a schedule, like this one that we use for his bedtime routine: This one is designed so that when he completes the task, he can move it into the “All Done” category, since each task is attached to the board with velcro.
In a case like this, however you decide to set it up, the message you want to communicate to your child is first I do this, then I do that, next I do a third thing, and finally I do this last thing (or however many things are on your list), and then I get (my motivator)!
Another option is a set of visual prompting cards, to remind your child of a specific set of rules, like these:
Only, instead of “name types of fruit,” you’d more likely have them name the safe ways to hold a candle, or safe places to dispose of matches. Or, more simply, all the altar serving tasks that require special safety rules (When I light a match, When I hold a candle, When I turn the stove on, When someone walks by with a steaming pot of water, etc.)
It’s important, also, on these visual prompting tools, to include your child’s motivator. He needs to be reminded, probably often, that he gets something he really wants–just as soon as he does what he needs to do.
Next week, we’ll discuss the Art of Holding Still. Stay tuned!