FirstPath Autism Q&A: What happens when a child is having a tough day?

Firstpath Autism

FirstPath Autism – Wouldn’t it be nice if we could sail through our daily lives unruffled, calm, and perfectly productive? Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need to deal with unexpected cancelations, illness, and bad moods?

Sure, but that’s not real life.

We are human beings, not human doings, and we live on planet Earth. Here, even the healthiest and most well-adjusted children (and parents!) sometimes get sick, tired, and just plain stressed out.

So how do you carry on with a consistent ABA therapy program when the going gets rough? That’s the question we’re tackling today.

Question:

I know that it’s important to practice ABA exercises at home on a daily basis, but what happens when a child is just having a really rough day? How do you manage the reality of difficult days while reinforcing critical skills at the same time? Do you have any ABA therapy tips for that scenario?

Answer:  

Good question! Kids are only human, so of course they are going to have rough days now and then. Here are a few such scenarios we’ve seen: 

  • A child doesn’t get enough sleep one night, and as a result, he is grumpy the next day. 
  • A child has begun a new medication, and her acclimation period is challenging. 
  • A child faces unexpected transitions and cancelations; for example, the child wanted to play outside, but it’s raining, so outdoor play is off the schedule. Children with autism are prone to experiencing difficulty with transitions and changes to their typical routines.

We refer to any situations and feelings that the child brings into the ABA session as ‘Context Events’. These can be physiological, social, or emotional events, anything that affects the child and how he or she is able to learn on that particular day.  

As clinicians, we are committed to continuing the ABA program. That said, on tough days we look to modify three key areas to lessen the effects of Context Events. Ours is a Fragile Learning Model, one that takes human frailty into account. 

Specifically, on tough days we look at: 

  1. Increasing structure
  2. Decreasing demands 
  3. Increasing reinforcement 

For example, if I had a migraine one day, that is not the day I would choose to learn calculus! Instead, I would simply wish to get through the day as easily as possible because I am physically unwell. 

On a migrane day, I wouldn’t want any major surprises. I would prefer to stick with a predictable routine. And I might also treat myself a bit more gently, because I know that I am working much harder just to get through the day.  

The Fragile Learning Model allows clinicians and parents to manage tough days while still teaching children with autism social skills.

One important caveat to note: when using this model, be careful not to do so in such a way that the child catches on. Children are very smart, and if you alter the ABA therapy program dramatically whenever they complain of discomfort, they will learn that discomfort equals an easy session.

If a child has a real stomachache one day and then realizes that their program has been modified solely because of the stomachache … then the child might very well fake a stomachache to avoid working the next day!

Fortunately, FirstPath membership includes an easy-to-use set of ABA therapy tips and strategies for how to apply the Fragile Learning Model within various Context Events. Many parents and teachers use this model, and it is effective for managing even a child’s toughest days. 

And as an added bonus, parents like you also report integrating the Fragile Learning Model for themselves when they are having a rough day at work or at home. After all, when you take better care of yourself, you take better care of those around you as well.


If you’re a FirstPath member and you’re interested in learning more about Fragile Learning Model strategies you can download it here.

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If you’re not a member of FirstPath, sign up to access our full library of valuable lessons, and to download the Fragile Learning Model stratgies.