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When and How to Challenge Kids on the Autism Spectrum

All kids on the spectrum have what I call, for lack of a better term, a breaking point. A child’s breaking point is the point when we’ve put too many demands on him so he is no longer in a mental headspace where he can process language, respond appropriately, and ultimately, learn.

Breaking points can look different in different children. I’ve found there are generally four ways that children display their breaking point:

1) Physical dysregulation - the child is no longer able to attend,

2) Emotional dysregulation - the child is too emotional to process language,

3) Resistance - the child becomes inflexible and rigid, or

4) Avoidance - the child is no longer interested in the activity

As therapists, we should know a) what a child’s breaking point looks like, and b) how many demands the child can take before reaching his breaking point. Our job is not to push the child past his breaking point, or to push the child over the edge. Why not? When you push a child over the edge, past his breaking point, you are causing that child to be dysregulated. This is a point where the child can no longer process your language and think in a logical way. We aren’t going to get any goals met once the child is past his breaking point.

Remember my sensory processing seesaw analogy? If you haven’t read it, click here to do so. Once a child’s seesaw is tipped (i.e., he is dysregulated), he is no longer in his optimal learning zone. In therapy, our goal is not to tip that child’s seesaw. When we push a child past his breaking point, we are losing that child’s trust. Not only that, but we are no longer a fun play partner for that child. Remember how important it is for a child to be motivated to interact with us. We need to keep therapy fun for him.

So where’s the sweet spot for growth?

In our therapy we want to target that sweet spot - the spot where we’re challenging the child to think outside of his comfort zone, but we are not putting such high demands on him that we are going to push him past his breaking point. That sweet spot is where progress is made. This is why it’s important for us to vary our level of prompting when working with kids.

Take this for example.

We know that asking open-ended WH-questions is a great way to work on ideation, but asking question after question is super demanding for most children and will push them toward their breaking point. That’s why it’s important to mix up our prompts. Maybe we are going to ask an open-ended question, then give a choice, and then make a comment - just to switch up the level of demands. The reason we need to know how many demands a child can generally take before reaching his breaking point is because you need to vary your level of prompting to keep the child in that sweet spot, the place where he’s being challenged just enough.

I know I said that our job is not to push the child to his breaking point. But, that being said, I always do once. Because I want to know how easy or hard it is for me to get the child to that place, and I want to know what it looks like when I do.

One time a therapist came to me who had just done what we call an informal play-based evaluation. This is where we look at a child’s play skills. During this assessment, we always look for the child’s breaking point. The therapist came to me and said, “His language is great! His play is great. He’s coming up with lots of ideas. I can’t get him to break!”

I decided to go in the next session. We were playing ice cream shop. We ordered some ice cream, and right as our characters were about to start eating, I yelled, “That’s MY ice cream! DON’T TOUCH IT! IT’S MINE!” And guess what, I found his breaking point.

Some kids who have really high level play skills will be able to come up with amazing ideas in sessions, sequence stories, and solve problems. But the second that the play gets overly emotional, they break. They don’t know how to deal with stronger emotions (usually negative ones). They’re not able to process language, regulate themselves, and logically solve problems when emotions are high.

Most of our kids on the spectrum are not this hard to “break”. A lot of the kids we see can’t take you asking more than three questions before losing interest. But every child’s breaking point is different. And once we figure out when it happens and what it looks like, we can get to that sweet spot where we can really challenge the child and help the child grow.

If you want a visual to use with families to show them how demanding certain types of prompts are, make sure to download my *FREEBIE* - The Prompt Hierarchy. Click here to get the free downloadable handout.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist, autism expert, and owner of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multi-disciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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