Help Autistic Kids Help Themselves

A Personal Aside

Note: I choose to avoid person first language at the direct request of autistic individuals with whom I interact in real life as well as on the internet. I choose to err on the side of referring to autistics in the way they tell me to rather than follow a political convention.

Today I had to apply the CPS model, described here, with two autistic students. Both of these students have demonstrated major behavioral issues this school year and were even worse today, the first day back from a 10-day spring break.

The TL;DR of this post is that communicating with autistic kids is the best way to help them solve their own problems, rather than trying to impose solutions upon them.

How I approach working with autistics

Based on my life experiences with my twin brother, Kyle, I have learned to never underestimate an autistic. In fact, I often favor assuming autistics have a much greater ability than what is immediately apparent. I also wholeheartedly believe that the basic human need for compassion, understanding, and communication is stronger in autistics than any of us realize.

That being the case, I approach any behavioral issue with an autistic student as I would approach an issue with myself at that age. They either lack the ability to communicate what they need or what they lack in a way that the rest of us understand, or else they are feeling some emotional state that needs a resolution–again lacking the communication skills to access their needs. These two options apply both to Kyle and myself, so I go with it as a rough guide.

When I see a student misbehaving–one student today was trying to hurt others and to cause chaos in the classroom and the other student was running out of the classroom–I approach them for a conversation. I do this paying no regard to the student’s communication skills. I consider it my job to understand what they are communicating, not their job to make me understand.

Specific Example

Student 1

I will call this student Erin. I walked into a classroom and this student was peeling the name cards off the tables in the classroom. They then ran across the room and punched two students, and ran behind the teacher’s desk. I went over to Erin and got on their level. I asked them what they needed in order to work.

Erin said, “Toys”.

“Toys?” I said. ‘Tell me, what does [Erin] need to do to get toys”

Erin: “[Erin] needs to work first, then toys. Work first, then toys. [Erin] needs toys to work.”

DH (me): “So [Erin] needs toys to work. Do you need to see toys to earn? What do you mean? How can I help you? What do I need to do to help you work?” (I know this is too many questions, but they are rephrases of the same questions, I was hoping Erin would answer one of them).

E: “[Teacher] erased my board. [Teacher] broke the rules. No toys. No toys. No work for 5 minutes. No first work then toys. No!” (At this point Erin sprinted across the room and tipped a chair with a student still sitting in it while staring at the teacher).

DH: “[Erin], do you need to come talk to Dr. H in private?”

E: “Yes, now please [gives name of teacher’s room to go to] please.”

DH: “Okay, talk”

E: “Dr. H please work first then toys. Work first then toys. Work then toys. Work 5 minutes and then toys 2 minutes. [Erin] control the timer. Work first then toys. Please now.”

DH: “How do I do this. How can I help [Erin] do this?”

E: “Big marker and white board” (they brought me a sharpie and a whiteboard.) “No erase. Never”

DH: “[Erin] wants me to write words on the board?” (I wrote “First work 5 minutes, THEN 2 minutes toys” on the board).

E: (gives me a hug) “[Erin] will say sorry and do work for toys.”

Erin then proceeded to walk back to class silently, gave a personal apology to each teacher and student they had wronged, and asked a teacher to give them work so they could work for toys.

Importantly here, I did not give Erin any solutions. I did not tell them what to do, how to do it, and I certainly did not tell Erin to apologize to the peers and teachers that had been harmed during the incident in class. Erin had a solution in their mind already, but I was the only one willing to ask what they wanted and wait until they were able to formulate an answer I could act upon.  The moment I helped Erin achieve their solution, they ran with it and did not require further adult help.

Student 2

I will call this student Bryan. Bryan had a substitute teacher in their class. That being the case, Bryan ran out of class three times and refused to come in from recess. I was not involved in these incidents. I came in later.

The incident I dealt with was when Bryan ran out of music class. One of my students from last year found this student running down the hall and engaged them in a game. He then yelled down the hall to get my attention.

When I got there I let my old student go back to class. I sat down on a bench and looked at Bryan who was 10 feet away from me hiding behind a pillar.

DH: “[Bryan], can you come over here on the bench and have a chat with me?”

B: “F*ck no, you will grab me”

DH: “What if I sit on my hands?”

B: “Prove it”

DH: “Okay” (I made a show of standing up and putting my hands entirely under my legs and sat down)

B: “I am coming out!” (he walked VERY slowly until he was just out of arm’s reach of me) “What do you want”

DH: “I want to help you get back to class. Running out is unsafe and I cannot let that happen” (I don’t lie to kids, they see right through me. So I level with them, it has worked thus far).

B: “What”

DH: “I want [Bryan] to be safe and happy so he can go back to class. What does [Bryan] need, what does he want?”

B: “[Bryan] wants to be on his bed in his room playing Roblox on his laptop.”

DH: “Wait, what? This is about home?”

B: “Yes. Dad said I was naughty boy. He closed my laptop. He locked it in cupboard up too high for me”

DH: “So, dad said [Bryan] was naughty and took away the laptop so no Roblox”

B: “Yes. Mad. Angry.”

DH: “What does [Bryan] need to be able to go to class”

B: “Laptop”

DH: “Not an option”

B: “How can get Roblox back on laptop?”

DH: “Can you ask your dad how to earn it back? If he took it, then he thought you did something bad, maybe being good will help you get it back”

B: “Ask dad? Why? Dad closed laptop. Took roblox. Dad hates [Bryan]”

DH: “Dads do things that make them look like they are mean and hate kids, but it is because they love us and want to help us do good things. They take things so we learn to stop being naughty”

B:  “No hate?”

DH: “Nope”

B: “Good at school help laptop?”

DH: “Couldn’t hurt”

B: “OK. Hate class. Want games.”

DH: “I get that. But if you do not go to class can the teacher tell dad [Bryan] was good at school?”

B: “I go to class. Now. Hurry”

I then followed as Bryan slowly walked to class. He asked a number of questions about why parents are “assholes” and why they don’t understand his needs. I corrected the language since now we were not in problem solving mode and it was a teaching moment to teach expected vs. unexpected language in school.

He went to class and got his good report.

Why did it work

The standard adult tells student what to do model is less useful. It is because of this there are students that will punch their peers and say, “sorry” and assume all is well. They also develop a dependency on adults to solve their problems. They become powerless. They have no accountability. They have permission to misbehave so long as it is a new way of misbehaving. It is a vicious cycle I have seen over and over.

That was not what happened today.

I think today was illustrative because I worked with two students that have relatively low verbal language skills and underdeveloped coping skills. Both students were able to communicate in their own way the solution to their problem and engage with the solution. I did not spoon feed them. I just used a modified Rogerian psychology trick of restating what they just said as a question to keep them communicating. They did the work. They got their own needs met. They were empowered. They learned. They were accountable for their own solutions.

In short, by helping autistic students communicate to get their own needs met, they grew. They grew as students. They grew in character. They grew up a little. They grew as people. And that is my goal as a special educator. To build character and prepare autistic kids for the real world. Today I feel I helped, if only a little bit.



Collaborative and Proactive Solutions

A Teaching Aside!

So I have just finished reading a book that I bought over the course of the school year but never found the time to read until now. It brought up some good ideas that I would like to touch on. Mostly so you all go and read the book.

The book is Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Ross Greene, Ph.D. (Amazon Link – note, purchasing from this link results in Amazon giving a donation to the National Fragile X Society). This is the same author of The Explosive Child for anyone that has read that one (well worth it in my opinion). Also, give Dr. Greene’s website a visit, it is worth the trip just for the free resources (I am using his comics in this post, for example).

What struck me most was the Collaborative and Proactive Solution model (CPS) that Dr. Greene promotes is surprisingly similar to the method I came to a few years back when teaching autistic students (Previous Post). I will leave the nuts and bolts of how to do the steps associated with the CPS model to a reading of Greene’s book. I am going to focus on the assumptions the model is based on and why I find them both effective and optimistic, as well as why I am implementing them as soon as I have the opportunity.

The CPS model was designed for a general education environment. I, however, think it is better suited for a special education environment, not as a behavioral management tool, but rather as a teaching tool to teach social and adaptive skills to kids that are woefully lacking in that instruction.

Super fast how to do CPS

For this, I will quickly bullet-point how to do what Dr. Greene calls Plan B. Plan A is the teacher imposing their will on the student (this does not work, see below).  Plan B is the way we develop relationships with the student and collaboratively problem solve. Plan B is best done before everything hits the fan.

It can work in emergency situations, but it will have to be repeated when everyone calms down.

  • Teacher and student meet at mutually agreed upon time (read, not during the student’s recess)
    • Teacher asks student what is up (over and over and over again until they get a real answer)
    • Teacher honestly empathizes with student response
    • Teacher expresses their concerns
    • Student empathizes with teacher concerns
    • Student leads discussion for developing a mutually beneficial solution
  • Teacher and student work together to implement plan
  • Lather, Rinse, Repeat

I can attest. This works. Really well. It takes a lot of work. The teacher has to humble themselves. So does the student. But this works.

Why do I like this model?

It does not oversimplify behavior, or solutions

I like this model because it does not focus on the environmental cause of the behavior. As such, CPS does not depend on applying reinforcers or punishers to change the environment and thus change behaviors. It rather depends on seeking out the unsolved problem or difficulty the student is having. Even better, it suggests we do so collaboratively with the child having a hard time.

I will explain this below, but in brief it is better to ask the student what unsolved problems they have that are causing them to behave the way they are than to assume we already know the answer and unilaterally impose our overly simplistic solutions. If we, as adults impose our solutions, the kids will work against us and we will find ourselves engaged in a power struggle.

And, here is a hint to new teachers out there, as a teacher, you will always lose a power struggle against a child. Always! Kids do not fight fair and they have no reason to. They are scared. They are trying to survive something they do not understand. It is a lost cause, so give up on that right now.


Kids will never fight fair, and we do not get to demand that they do so

Furthermore, if you power struggle with a kid you deserve to lose. It is never okay to interpret a child’s behavior as an us vs. them situation. It is also never okay to assume the student is doing something intentionally to either bother or to get revenge on the teacher. There is a deeper reason than that. There always is.

It empowers kids to develop their own solutions

To oversimplify, the CPS model is a method whereby a teacher (or any adult for that matter) works collaboratively with a student or child to come up with a solution to the problem. This is in stark contrast to the majority of systems whereby adults impose their will on students and dictate behavior. This leads to power struggles (see above) and a generally negative vibe in the classroom.


This is not uncommon behavior among relatively high functioning kids in special education classrooms.

When an adult demands change from a student and unilaterally holds them to it, the student only succeeds in frustrating the teacher. This perpetuates a cycle wherein the student and the teacher escalate each other until bad things happen; often the student being suspended, expelled, or being highly controlled in the classroom. All of these endpoints violate the basic need for safety that all children have.

This cycle will, over time, transform a mildly challenging student into one that needs a behavioral unit in order to function since they have lost the ability to trust in a classroom setting.


At some point, fear and anger take over…Fear will always hide in the background, but Anger…not so much with the hiding.  Anger is an important and highly effective way kids protect themselves in times of perceived danger.

When a student volunteers an honest solution to their own problem and their teacher compassionately supports them, the student can achieve success. The teacher does have to keep up their end of the deal, but in general the student does all of the hard work. All they need is support and a little guidance.


This is how we want our students to feel! Anger and fear are definitely still there, but the student gets to feel joyful about their successes!

Of these two options, which is preferable: A student spiraling out of control in a classroom and taking the teacher with them, or a student taking the reins of their own education and life and taking control?

I can tell you which one I like more as a teacher. It is the same one I prefer as a compassionate person.

It does not assume behavior is intentional

The basic premise of this model is that kids with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges lack important thinking skills. If a child is showing maladaptive behaviors, getting your goat, or generally being disruptive, it is because the student does not know how to be “good”. They have to be taught. Or, as Greene phrases it, When the demands being placed on a kid exceed [their] capacity to respond adaptively is when maladaptive behaviors are going to occur.

Dennis_The_Menace 3-24-10.gif

On that topic, what does “Act my Age” actually mean?

Put another way (and Chapter 2 of the book is dedicated to this description), kids do well if they can. It is not a matter of whether they want to be good. It is whether they have the ability. Greene’s philosophy that kids do well if they can suggest that if a kid could do well, they would do well. Even for a tough kid, being good is always preferable to not being good. It is less stressful, rewards and other desirable thing are more often available, and it is just plain easier.

So, the way we help a student with behavioral problems is to find out what skills they lack and what is getting in the way of the student being successful. In other words, find out why they can’t do something and work with them to develop a solution so they can do that something.

It eliminates adults designing narratives about “hard” students

The assumptions of this model provide a nice prohibition of certain labels we place on students to excuse ourselves as teachers from helping them:

  • They just want attention
  • They just want their own way
  • They are manipulating us
  • They are not motivated
  • They are making bad choices
  • Their parents are incompetent disciplinarians
  • They have a bad attitude
  • They have a mental illness
  • Their brother was the same way
  • They are just autistic

What do these explanations all have in common? They are stories we are imposing upon behavior to describe it. We are trying to make our lives easier, not the student’s. We are adding a narrative to justify our decisions, not to dispassionately describe a student’s behavior. We are tagging kids with a story that fits our narratives, but does not contribute anything helpful to an interaction with the kid. Also, these all are very negatively valenced statements that blame the child for something. When we make these types of statements we are very prone to slide into diagnostic language that stigmatizes the student.


As adults, we are really good at telling kids they are broken. Not something we should particularly be proud of…

These types of statements also serve primarily to justify the course of action we as the adults have already decided upon. If we are inclined to refer a student to the office than we are going to use terms like: difficult, disobedient, disrespectful, willful, etc. We use some of the same terms for referring students for special education, but we often include, they can’t help it, they are just never going to be able to get it, etc. Lots of, they can’t or other disabling terminology. This language makes us as adults feel better, but does nothing to help a child succeed, in fact it serves a better function as an anchor to progress rather than an engine.

It forces teachers to dig into the actual why of a behavior, not the stereotypical, restricted ABA explanations

Here is are options from the book of alternative things we can say instead. Specifically we can list the skills we see lagging in the child (I cherry-picked autism relevant options).

The student appears to show:

  • Difficulty handling transitions
  • Difficulty doing things in a logical sequence
  • Difficulty persisting in challenging tasks
  • Poor sense of time and time management
  • Difficulty maintaining focus
  • Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem
  • Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words
  • Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration
  • Difficulty deviating from rules or routines
  • Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, novelty
  • Difficulty shifting from original idea, plan, or solution
  • Difficulty attending to and/or accurately interpreting social cues/poor perception of social nuances
  • Difficulty seeking attention in appropriate ways
  • Sensory-Motor difficulties

What do these all have in common? They are objective descriptions of behaviors. There is no positive or negative valence to these descriptions. They are just labels of behaviors we can address. Lastly, there are no diagnoses present when we dispassionately and objectively describe behavior.


I wonder which of these lenses is more precise…

I like this because I am trained in both behaviorism as well as cognition. In fact, we always joked by the end of my academic scientific career I was a rat/mouse neuropsychologist. In my experience, it is easy to attribute behavior to the environment and change the environment to change behavior, but that solves nothing. In fact, such an analysis barely scratches the surface of behavior.


We always need to keep digging when trying to help kids. If the solution seems easy, it is because it isn’t actually a solution. Don’t be lazy.

Many times, antecedent or environmental manipulation just kicks the problem down the road. The problem or difficulty the student is having has not been solved, just sidestepped. The CPS model and approach demands we engage with the cognition of a child, by which I mean we interact with what the kid is thinking and feeling, not just the behavioral output we see. Explaining behaviors in terms of what difficulties or challenges the student may face, which begs us to ask, “Why are they doing that? What do they need to not have to do that anymore”. These are the correct questions (See an earlier post of mine on this very topic).

It does not suggest difficult students be medicated or given diagnoses

Another reason I like this model is because it can be used either with or without medication. I have earlier stated that I believe medication is best used when it is a means to allowing an individual to access the behavioral support they need to overcome their challenges rather than as a means to alter behavior in itself (Post Here).

Greene goes into potential difficulties that arise when we as adults look at kids, tell a story about how we perceive their behavior (the first list above), and then medicate them. The challenging behaviors remain, so long as the basic skills the child lacks are not taught. The behaviors may just wax and wane a bit with each new intervention.


Labels…better for clothing than for kids I think


I always ask what happens to the diagnostic flavor of the week when the DSM changes…

To express my bias, I do see a value in a valid medical diagnosis to help inform knowledgable professionals on how to help an individual, but we far too often focus on pathologizing behavior and labelling kids rather than helping them in the educational setting (e.g., claiming “They are autistic so they just cannot do appropriate social behavior” when the student has never actually been taught “typical” from “atypical” social interactions). Dr. Greene and I share a very important assumption: Irrespective to diagnosis, we can help kids. We can engage them, and we can help them learn.

This book specifically addresses weaknesses of most classwide discipline systems


Quantity over quality is often the credo of behavioral management systems

A great behavioral aside in the book that struck me involved behavioral management systems in classrooms. Multiple stories are told about teachers that rely on the school-wide PBiS systems and assistant principals use to dole out discipline, referring students for harsh discipline because, “someone has to be tough on them or they will never learn”. This is not a helpful philosophy and long-term only serves to injure the child and irritate the assistant principal.


Has anyone asked the Vice Principal if they would rather not blindly dole out discipline on the teacher’s behalf?

Similar stories are told about ticket systems that are modified response cost paradigms. Students start the week with 10 tickets and lose tickets for misbehavior. The good kids that don’t need a class-wide behavioral system end the week with 10, the kids that need help reliably end up with 1-2 at the most…and we assume their consistent failure to thrive means our system is working (I wrote about this earlier).


I’ll have the Theraputty please…

What struck me was the statement (said over and over throughout the book) along the lines that students that behave well in class, do so because they have the skills to do so. Students that behave poorly in class, behave poorly because they lack the skills to behave well. And the disciplinary systems we as teachers set up using PBiS, Class Dojo, Classroom economy systems, etc. are not sufficient to meet these students’ needs. Many times even explicitly positive systems are manipulative at best until we teach our students much needed social and behavioral skills.


If only they looked at the doodle I was making, it was really good!

Greene states as follows in the book (In Chapter 7-emphasis mine):

But many [students] are placed in special education classrooms because no one in general education has the wherewithal to pinpoint and teach their lagging skills and work toward resolving their unsolved problems. Many special education classrooms rely heavily on consequence-based programs that, as you now know, don’t teach skills or solve problems, and may actually exacerbate the kids’ difficulties.

In many of the settings in which the CPS model has been implemented-general and special education schools, inpatient psychiatric units, and residential and juvenile detention facilities-adults came to the awareness that it was the application of the contingency management program that was setting kids off moat often and causing many serious challenging behavior. They recognized that both adults and kids were far more focused on rewards and punishments than on the problems that needed to be solved. They learned that providing structure and maintaining order in a classroom has a lot more to do with solving problems than rewards and punishments.

The CPS model is optimistic

The final reason I like this model is that it is truly optimistic. It is based on the premise that all students can succeed, we just have to work with them. We have to engage the students in a dialogue, be truly empathetic to their needs and desires, share our own, and work collaboratively to reach a mutually beneficial solution. Students with autism can engage with the CPS model (I have seen it). Students with Tourette’s can engage with this model (again, I have seen it). Students with emotional disturbances can succeed in this model (yet again…). Severely intellectually disabled students can be successful (you guessed it), if only we take the time to get off our high horse and help them.

Is this model realistic for special education?

I believe this model is very realistic for a special education classroom. I think special education needs the CPS model as a vehicle for teaching valuable behavioral, social, and adaptive skills in a manner that will actually help the student learn them.

I have found in my last few years of teaching that the majority of problems I have encountered with students came down to a sensory overload and they just shut down or else came down to the student just not understanding what was going on and how to act accordingly. In my classroom a few years ago, I started having conversations with my more difficult students to help them understand how others were seeing their behaviors. What I learned was that they often knew what they were doing and that others did not like it, but they had a reason for doing it. And more often than not they thought it was a darn good reason. And it very often was a good reason when I took the time to empathize with their point of view.

When these students expressed their reasons, I could easily have interpreted them in terms of ABA definitions, that of behaviors fulfilling needs for escape/avoidance, attention, or sensory seeking. However, as I have written about before (Link), I chose to dig a little bit deeper and see how the students were interpreting their own behaviors. I often found an avoidance behavior was not avoiding the work, but rather they were avoiding being embarrassed by not knowing how to answer the questions and feeling like everyone knows that they are dumb and cannot do the assignment.

Often times, actually, attention seeking fulfilled this same actual need. They were trying to get adult attention so that they could get the adult to do the work for them, and thus avoid embarrassment.


Well, my example was avoiding embarrassment

Now, when I was going all of this, I had no idea what this CPS model was. It just seemed the logical move to take since the students I was working with were having significant problems existing in more traditional classroom management systems. I favored social and emotional development as a method with the end goal of having student engage in self refection and behavioral self-regulation so much as they were capable. As such, we had to have a lot of discussions about incremental progress and how we can work toward our own goals. Since I let the students make their own goals, they were very motivated to achieve them.

So now what

Now, I am going to pursue any training I do with general education and special education teachers differently. I no longer have to teach my own weird ways of doing things built over decades of dealing with my brother and his peers in the autism community. I can approach teachers with an evidence-based method and ask them to use it. Barring that, I can and will use it myself to help the more challenging and difficult students succeed. Perhaps even help them get out of special education and into the general education classroom.