10 tips from Sue Larkey’s seminar.

I recently attended Sue Larkey’s seminar on Teaching Strategies and Behaviour Support. Here are 10 tips that she covered in the seminar:

1. Not all strategies work for every child, and not all strategies work all of the time. If it’s not working, move on and try something else

2. No=never. The word “no” can trigger a meltdown. If you say no, and you mean not now, don’t say no. You say no, they hear “never”. A day after the seminar my son illustrated this very point. He was writing his grandad’s birthday card. He couldn’t fit the whole of a word on one line so I told him that he could use a hyphen and finish the word on the next line. He got very upset and wanted to scribble the word out and start again. When I asked him why he told me his teacher said that he wasn’t allowed to split the word up. So he applied that rule to all situations.

3. You cannot stop a behaviour. Each behaviour serves a function, so replace the behaviour with another behaviour. For instance if a child constantly chews their clothes, replace this with a sensory toy designed for chewing. This will help the child stay calm and concentrate. To just stop them without replacing the behaviour with an alternative will cause the child anxiety and make matters worse.

4. A sensory meltdown is different to a behaviour meltdown. There is no warning and it strongly triggers the fight or flight mechanism in the brain. It is a catastrophic reaction to social or sensory experiences. If they run and don’t look back it is sensory and no amount of rewards or bribery will work with them. They need comforting or solitude until they calm down. Don’t tell them to calm down as the meltdown may escalate, or ask them what’s wrong as they can’t tell you. A behaviour meltdown is different as it is a response to frustration, and will often end with emotional blackmail (!). The child is assertive and calm during this time. If you are unsure of difference, Sue says, look in their eyes.

5. Children on the spectrum are often multisensory or kinaesthetic learners (also called tactile learners) and respond to multisensory and hands on learning. They often concentrate better while playing with a fidget toy or moving around. They also respond better to rote and repetitive learning, and not problem solving learning, which schools have been moving towards.

6. Their intellect is their vanity. They may have the ideas and have done the work in their head, but may be slow to put onto paper. Do not humiliate them by telling them they have done no work. Get someone else to be their scribe or use Dragon software

7. Some children with ASD have a “veneer of coping” during school or social events. They are exhausted trying to be good, social and jovial, but when they get home they just want to relax and unwind. If any demands are put on them during this time, they may go into meltdown. This can be a problem when homework is expected.

8. During school, their should be a ratio of 25 minutes schoolwork, 5 minutes of special interest. This will serve as a reward, but also allows them to relax and refresh before moving on to further school work. At home, home is for relaxation so the ratio should be 25 minutes relaxation to 5 minutes work or chores. But for those children who have a veneer of coping, homework may be a step too far, so maybe an arrangement can be made where they do homework at school.

9. When children know the routine and are relaxed, you don’t always need to continue using all strategies all the time. Use common sense when to use and when not to.

10. Consequences do not work for children on the spectrum.

Brain Science of Aspergers and Autism Pt. 3: Learned Safety

Eric Kandel, in his book “In Search of Memory”, tells us that positive emotions appear to be processed in a different area of the brain to negative emotions such as fear or anger, which has the effect of inhibiting the amygdala, which is often activated when a child with Aspergers or Autism is having a meltdown or feeling afraid. This could explain why in stressful situations they calm themselves down with certain behaviours, be it repetitive actions, rocking or cuddling a toy.

Kandel’s studies show that by doing something that  is associated with safety, it activates a part of the brain called the striatum, which is involved in positive reinforcement and feeling good. This has the knock-on effect of activating areas in the prefrontal cortex, which inhibits the amygdala, thus inhibiting the anger or fear response.

This seems to me to be a weapon in our arsenal to calm those strong anger or fear responses, whether this is by having a familiar toy to hold onto, or a safe familiar place to retreat to in times of extreme negative emotions.

Brain Science of Aspergers and Autism Pt. 2: Anger and emotion

It is generally accepted that in Aspergers Syndrome and Autism that there is some abnormality in a primitive area of the brain called the amygdala. The name “amygdala” means almond, and there are two almond shaped structures buried deep within the medial temporal lobe. These form part of the “limbic system”, which is responsible for generating and modulating emotions, and laying down long term memories. The role of the amygdala is to coordinate information from different parts of the brain and generate the emotion.

Emotions are a response to bodily changes e.g. feeling hot, tense, sweating, or going red. The amygdala receives sensory information about a situation and the bodily changes from the nervous system, and everyday experience confirms or dismisses the threat accordingly. It is far better to interpret a stick as a snake and respond accordingly only to find out it was really a stick, than for your brain to think about it and get bitten before you realise what is going on.

According to neuroscientist Eric Kandel, emotion, such as fear and anger, has two components, conscious and unconscious. The amygdala receives information from both unconscious and conscious pathways when the brain perceives a threat.

The unconscious component of emotion is the operation of the nervous system. The stimulus is then analysed and an area of the brain called the hypothalamus regulates the emotion.

The conscious component of emotion involves evaluative functions of the cerebral cortex (the area responsible for planning, attention, language and reasoning), and the hippocampus, which is responsible for long term memories and the memory of emotion.

Central to both is the amygdala. According to Kandel, the amygdala is thought to coordinate the conscious experience of feeling and the bodily expression of emotion, particularly fear. It is also the area responsible for triggering the “fight or flight” response.

It seems that in the brain of someone with Aspergers or Autism that the amygdala is triggered on the unconscious component of emotion. It is possible that the brain misinterprets a stimulus as threatening, possibly due to Merzenich’s undifferentiated brain maps. When the person is in this state, logic and reasoning don’t work, and they are not necessarily aware of why they feel so angry or afraid. It appears that something in this system is not working correctly. It is understood that they have an abnormality in their amygdala, but there may also be other factors at work here, such as malfunctions in the pathways to the parts of the brain that analyse the emotion.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is often recommended to assist a person with Aspergers or Autism in the controlling of their emotions. Often the therapist will use a visual aid such as a “thermometer” to allow the person to recognise the bodily changes described above, before the amygdala sends the message to release the hormones associated with the fight or flight reflex. It also allows them to consciously analyse their emotions. Tony Attwood has a CBT program that he has developed; further information can be found here.

Once the emotion is triggered, it is impossible to reason with the person with Aspergers, so it is best to leave them to safely calm down, or to distract them. Tony Attwood advises using their special interest as an effective distraction, or maybe giving them a sensory toy to play with.

It seems that traditional methods of meditation and relaxation do not work with someone with Aspergers. Tony Attwood notes that they prefer to be active or physical or to do something repetitive, or even listen to music of their choosing, probably very loudly and over and over again.

References: In search of Memory by Eric Kandel, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood, The Emotional Brain by Joseph Le Doux

Sensory Overload

GRADUATION? © Socrates | Dreamstime.com


Many children with Aspergers may be over- or under-sensitive to certain sensory simuli, for instance sound, cold, touch or light. Over-sensitivity can lead to sensory overload and the Aspie child will do all they can to block out the sensations. This can lead them to be more wary of particular environments or want to avoid social gatherings. This may also cause them to become anxious or angry. Read more of this post