As parents, we may not remember learning how to share and take turns. Except under certain circumstances — possibly involving the largest slice of cake and a younger brother — we can’t remember not knowing how to share. And, once we got the hang of taking turns, we quickly recognized that this playground skill makes playing games even more fun.
But how do we teach those skills to our child with autism? It all depends on the context, says Katie Teresi, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Clinical Director with a.c.e. Therapies in Palos Heights.
At locations in Lockport, Naperville, Palos Heights and Merrionette Park, children and teens with autism and behavioral issues work with skilled professionals in ABA therapy to learn skills and gain independence. As part of the a.c.e. Therapies team, Teresi began to look at sharing and taking turns in a completely new way.
A former special education teacher who worked in multidisciplinary teams in a public school environment, Teresi admits that until she learned the “why” behind the acts of taking turns and sharing, she approached teaching these skills much as would any other — through rote training.
“I would use wait cards and visuals to reinforce the ‘my turn, your turn.’ I would teach taking turns during a game of Candyland, then again when using the broom. I had to retrain it across all settings,” Teresi says. “But looking back, was that bringing my students joy? Was it meaningful to them?”
“At a.c.e. Therapies, we have the amazing opportunity to use Essential for Living, a curriculum and assessment for moderate to severe disabilities,” Teresi explains. She realized that among the eight essential skills is accepting removals, making transitions, sharing and taking turns — four skills all grouped together.
Equipped with this information, Teresi moved forward with a new understanding — and a new way to approach teaching these vital skills to her students.
Start with space
In a typical situation, sharing and taking turns starts with tolerating another person in your space. “Can a child tolerate someone sitting close? Can they tolerate someone manipulating something in a parallel-play sense?” she asks. If this works well for the child, are they able to trade items of equal value? If they are using a marker, there’s not a lot of incentive to give it away, but if they swap it for something just as good, it’s not so bad.
“I’m really looking at each individual learner and how they progress through these skills,” Teresi says. And, because the willingness to share is contextual, students may be willing to practice sharing when the stakes are relatively low. “If you can pass shared materials that you are not using, those that aren’t meaningful to you, this is another step yet it’s not giving up something you really like.”
But, as with that big slice of cake from your own childhood, sharing a favored item, whether it’s a toy or a doll, is a game changer, Teresi says. “Before we can get there, we have to go through all these other steps,” she says.
By looking at sharing and taking turns as a continuum, parents, caregivers and BCBAs can really get to the why of these important skills and start small.
“If I can’t accept the removal of an item or a transition — we often think of transition in terms of location, but this is in regard to materials — how would I ever be able to share or take turns? We are working on all of these skills in tandem and for some learners, you do have to break it down rather than jumping to the ‘my turn, your turn’ approach,” says Teresi.
What you can do to help
If you want to reinforce the skills of sharing and taking turns at home, start by interacting with your child, Teresi suggests.
“Observe them and let them be your teacher,” she says. “Figure out where they are with these skills. If taking turns is your goal, at what point in the continuum are you seeing resistance?”
If your child can share space and engage in parallel play, but turns away and hoards an item when asked to share, there’s your starting point, she says. When a caregiver overshoots and encourages too much too soon, the child can begin to equate their presence with a worsening set of conditions which, from a parent’s perspective, is not a great place to be.
“So much of the time, we try to teach before we understand,” she says. “I take inspiration from Dr. Greg Hanley, who is all about finding the joy before we are able to teach. We are the joy bringers, and if it’s not a pleasant experience, no learning will take place.”
With a mantra of “staying curious,” Teresi says that she and her colleagues at a.c.e. Therapies are always open to learning and doing better. “Our clients are our best teachers,” she says.
Learn more about a.c.e. Therapies in four locations: Lockport, Merrionette Park, Naperville and Palos Heights. Visit ace-therapies.com.