Saturday, August 2, 2014

Taking a Break

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you have no doubt noticed that I have taken frequent breaks from writing.  That doesn't mean I am not thinking about things to say, but it does mean for extended periods of time I simply do not sit down and put my thoughts into writing.  I can then return re-energized and invigorated, full of ideas to share.  So, here I am!

Nothing refreshes quite like taking a break from routine activities.   We all do much better if we can fit breaks in on a fairly regular schedule.  Even an active toddler needs a nap - or at least quiet "down time" throughout their busy, active day.  Not to mention the parents who are trying to keep up with that super-energized youngster!  It is infinitely easier to be patient and loving when you are rested.

It is interesting that for many of our people on the autism spectrum, one of the things they have to learn when entering the work force is how and when to take a break.  For so many of them, this has always been defined for them.  Parents are told to have set routines in the home, and of course schools have regularly scheduled times for recess and lunch.  For others - those who seem unable to follow any regular pattern that is established for them - what they are doing throughout the day looks a lot like a never-ending "break" to those who prefer more structure in their lives.  Once you are an adult (or older teen maybe) and have a real job, you are expected to know how to navigate between work periods and break time.  It isn't always easy to do.

One of the many lessons I learned the hard way is how important it is to help my students recognize when they needed a break, and then find a way to do just that without causing disruption, or even injury.   When students were in my special education classroom, this was seldom an issue.  Our room was filled with a variety of materials that could be  chosen for "free time" activities - and in between all that free time (when I truly believe they were almost always doing something constructive like processing everything they had heard or seen that day, or learning how to self-regulate, for instance) they might be asked to spend a little time with me on something that looked more like school work.  Work time was limited, free time was abundant. 

But of course that's not how typical classrooms operate.  When I accompanied a student to their regular classes, I often missed a warning sign that we'd been there too long, or there were too many stressors in the environment, or too much/too little activity, or whatever.  The result might be an outburst of screaming, or pinching, or hair pulling or throwing things - whatever it might take to get us removed from that setting just as quickly as possible.  I experienced all of this and more, before I realized there must be a better way.

My preferred method of helping students learn about breaks was to give them control over the process.  It worked best to have a printed sign (I NEED A BREAK, for example) that was always readily available for them to touch.  And then it was critical that I respect that request.  For so many of my students, initiating an action - at least an appropriate, socially acceptable action such as pointing to a printed sign - did not come easily.  If they in fact made that effort, they certainly deserved that break. Many had learned to ask to use the bathroom, and that worked too, but it seemed preferable to identify the real need - leaving the situation to find a way to self-regulate and then return.

But I met with resistance from many of the regular classroom teachers and administrators, who didn't like it that I was giving up my authority and letting a student call the shots.  According to just about everyone around me, breaks should be scheduled by me at regular intervals.   It didn't help that in the beginning of this process it seemed as though taking breaks was all we were doing.  But I wanted them to learn the routine, and they needed to trust that I would respect their requests.  Learning a new skill takes lots of practice and repetition.   We NEEDED to take lots of breaks in the beginning!

As for those regularly scheduled intervals, well, the autistic body just does not operate that way.  When a student with autism, or other sensory struggles, begins to feel overwhelmed we are all better off if they can safely and comfortably remove themselves from the situation before losing control.

I have not been able to follow my students into adulthood, but now that I am interacting with a new group of young adults on the spectrum, I can see that their bodies do become more regulated as they age, or maybe they have learned some useful coping skills.  For the most part, they can sit for longer periods of time, are less easily overwhelmed, and with some help from those who provide support, can learn to take breaks on a regular schedule, finding appropriate ways to use that break time so that they can return to their job-related activities.  

But they all - young and old - do need and deserve our help, and our respect, as they learn this process. 


  1. Char - thank you for documenting this important issue of persons with autism being able to take breaks. I don't remember when my 42 year-old son Ben, who is completely nonverbal, acquired this skill but I think it was at a relatively early age. As you seem to mention, Ben asks to take breaks by signing to use the toilet, which we honor and he is able to do independently since I guess about age 7. If interested, for certain activities, Ben will stay in his place for about 2-1/2 hours, which he has been able to do since about age 10. Certain activities include Jewish prayer services, where during such 2-1/2 hours, Ben appropriately stands and sits with the the congregation. For other activites, Ben will initiate taking a break by asking to use the toilet after much shorter time periods (between 15 to 30 minutes but often longer) even though the activity lasts somewhat longer than when he takes a break.

  2. No doubt about it, asking to use the bathroom quickly becomes the most effective way of getting a needed break. We tried to help kids understand that we would always honor that (and of course, the consequences of NOT honoring the request were often unpleasant!). At the same time, I worked on providing other ways to request a break, again always trying to respect their needs and help them find appropriate ways to make those needs known. Our first recognition of just how long they could maintain focus and even remain seated was connected to the use of the computer, and especially typing to communicate. Some amazing results with that, as you well know!