April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day, a time to promote education about the condition and inclusion of those affected.
According to the CDC, 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the prevalence is growing. But while many people have heard the term “autism”, they may not fully know what it means. Even the name “autism spectrum disorder” is new, recently created as an umbrella label for what were previously five distinct diagnoses.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s mission is to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. Youth with autism are some of the youth that need us most. Our Disability Inclusion Initiative provides Clubs and staff with the tools, resources, and training needed to better serve youth with autism and ensure a high quality Club experience for ALL members. At Boys & Girls Clubs, we strive to create environments that ensure every member feels welcome, safe, and that they belong. However, developing that safe space for those with autism can be a difficult task without an understanding of what the condition entails.
So, what is autism?
At its core, ASD is a neuro-developmental disability often associated with social, communication and behavioral challenges. It presents across all demographics, though it’s four times more common among boys than girls. Youth with autism may have trouble adapting to certain elements of their surroundings, ranging from an unusual smell to a change in routine. These stimuli are known as triggers and can lead to aggression and distress. You may be familiar with the phrase “on the spectrum,” which references how behaviors and sensitivities can vary significantly from person to person. Some individuals may be very high-functioning and independent while others need considerable support for everyday tasks.
Youth with autism can also have unique strengths and talents. They are often exceptionally honest, and can think in logical and nonjudgmental ways, which can be helpful in decision-making. Some individuals with autism are highly skilled in a particular subject or topic, which can come with an almost encyclopedic knowledge about that area. Youth with ASD are often loyal and reliable, and enjoy schedules and repetition.
In other words, one size does not fit all. It’s important to take the time to get to know each individual’s strengths and where they may need help.
However, there are some common behaviors and reactions associated with the condition. These can include, but are not limited to the following:
- Limited speech or no speech
- Limited or no eye contact
- Repetitive speech or behavior
- Intense interest in unusual topics and interests
As you get to know Club members with autism, you can begin to make plans for how to respond to what you know may become challenging situations. Let’s take a look at three typical scenarios that may come up during a day at the Club, and tips for how they can be navigated.
Club situation: Schedule changes & transitions
Behavioral challenge: Aversion to change
Youth with ASD typically work well in structured environments that have an established schedule. Any changes to the routine may serve as a trigger, and even planned transitions can be challenging if a member is not ready to end a certain activity. Planning and transparency are key to ensure autistic youth feel comfortable and prepared.
Tips for your Club:
- Post a daily schedule and review it with the member and his or her caregiver
- Clearly communicate any adjustments to the standard program with as much advance notice as possible. This could include changes in staffing or updates to activities.
- Use a countdown clock so that members have a visual cue of the remaining time to start preparing for transitions.
- Explain any instructions for the transition before it starts to set expectations for all members and staff.
Club situation: Social interactions and communication
Behavioral challenge: Repetition and topic obsession
ASD individuals may have difficulty keeping up a two-way conversation. They have trouble maintain eye contact and don’t often ask questions of others to keep up the exchange. Instead, they may repeat certain words, phrases or behaviors (i.e. pacing, hand flapping or rocking back and forth.) It is also common for youth with ASD to focus on a particular topic that can overtake all social interactions, making it difficult to engage with others.
Tips for your Club:
- Schedule time to discuss their topic of interest so that they have an opportunity to talk about their passion (set a timer to keep it from going too long).
- Reinforce discussion of other subjects either through verbal praise or a tangible reward system (i.e. stickers).
- Train and assign peer buddies. This will encourage social interaction among youth with autism and help other members learn about the condition.
- If a repetitive behavior isn’t bothersome, there’s no need to force a change. If the behavior becomes distracting, try to encourage a less disruptive action.
Club situation: Club design and layout
Behavioral challenge: Sensory overload
Autistic youth tend to be acutely aware of their surroundings, and these sensitivities can interfere with everyday life. While other members may be able to ignore a flickering light or a humming sound, it can be a major distraction for youth with autism. Similarly, highly decorated areas can lead to overstimulation. For ASD youth, sensory overload can significantly affect their attention and concentration.
Tips for your Club:
- Use dimmer lighting and bulbs that don’t flicker. Sunglasses can also be a good option if the lights are still too bright.
- Minimize loud noises and give members the opportunity to wear ear plugs or noise-minimizing headphones.
- Set aside space that will serve as a “cool down” area where members can go for a quiet place. Include calming objects like bubbles, stress balls and Play-Doh.
- Channel your inner Marie Kondo and declutter as much as possible. When it comes to decorations, less is more, and organization can go a long way in preventing sensory overload. Below are some examples of how rooms can be set up to accommodate sensitivities.
Both shelves are clutter-free, though the one on the right takes it a step further to remove any distractions.
This space is clean and has minimal visual displays. Also notice the storage space beneath each chair.
This activity area includes clearly-defined spots on the floor so that each child has his or her own space.
The suggestions above serve as quick steps that can be taken to create a supportive atmosphere, but they only scratch the surface. For more sample adaptations, check out this ClubX Blog post. For an in-depth resource on how you can create a great experience for members, Boys & Girls Club staff can download our Serving Youth with Autism Toolkit and access all of our inclusion resources including webinar recordings and tip sheets on BGCA.net.
What adaptations have you made in your Club to ensure that all youth feel welcome, safe, and that they belong? What strategies have you found to be successful when working with youth with autism? Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email us at ClubXBlog@bgca.org to share!