Taylor came to me as a seventh grader. He introduced himself in this way –
“I have Autism. So don’t make me mad, cause when I get mad someone gets hurt.”
No one had specifically told him this, but his own experience had taught him over and over again, so much so that it was severely ingrained as an automatic emotional response, and effected the way he thought of himself and his potential to be successful in the real world, negatively influenced all his relationships, and limited his learning of problem-solving or self-regulating skills.
Video Stories have the power to change deeply ingrained patterns of behavior.
One of the triggers for his aggression was when his sister at home messed with his stuff. So, at school, our social skills group created a Video Story highlighting ways to solve this problem. Rather than address his normal pattern of behavior, we showcased several coping mechanisms that he could use to successfully stay cool even in the frustrating situation. The students wrote the script together as we discussed the scenes of the movie. So they are not sophisticated at all, but the students feel some ownership and involvement because they are sharing their own ideas.
First, we filmed him recognizing and naming his emotion. After a student in the role of his sister asked to play with his keyboard, Taylor said to the camera (as if it were a confession on a reality TV show), “When my sister plays with my stuff I feel angry and upset.” He then demonstrated some self-talk in order to think through evaluating his options and the outcome of his usual responses – “I can’t hit her or yell mean things at her because it won’t work. What am I going to do now?” Self-Talk is an important life skill that most of us use to help us consider our options and choose the most appropriate response. We need to be diligent about teaching this skill to our children as well. Then, in the Video Story, a friend said, “When I get upset, I call my friends on the phone. They help me calm down.” So then he calls a friend on the phone- “Austin, I’m so upset right now, and I don’t know what to do.” Austin has lots of ideas to help him think about something else- “You could watch Nascar on Fox; You could read a book called Marly & Me; You could play Mario Cart on Wii; or You could call your friends to come over and we could all bring our dogs.” Other friends had other, more traditional ideas for calming down like counting to ten, taking deep breaths, etc. We filmed Taylor taking five deep breaths which may seem a little boring or redundant, but it truly helped. It became a visual memory for him that helped to replace the deeply ingrained aggressive behaviors he was so accustomed to. In the video, he says, “Wow. I feel better!” and thanks his friends.
After watching this Video Story for a few weeks, an opportunity came to test his self-regulating skills. I had to send him out to a resource class that was full of triggers- poor structure, lack of reinforcement for positive behavior, and many students given free rein to pester and tease. One day the teacher came in to my classroom saying, “Taylor’s flipping out. Come and get him.” At the door, Taylor walked past me breathing his deep breaths and sat on the window sill in the hallway, continuing to breathe. I needed to maintain a positive relationship with the teacher, so I decided a few deep breaths would be benficial for me as well. I sat by him and joined in. After a few minutes, Taylor got back up and walked toward the classroom, saying, “Alright now. I’m cool.” I said, “Wait, don’t you want to talk about what’s going on or how you can stay cool in this situation?” He said, “It’s alright. I’m cool now. I can handle this.” And he went in and was able to stay cool, ignore the kid pestering him, and ask for assistance when he needed it. He was actually able to calm himself now, again and again, and we had no more aggression problems at school. This was the same kid who had said, “When I get mad, someone gets hurt.” Now he had a whole new way of thinking about himself, about those around him, and about his potential for social and personal success. He had learned that he was cool, could stay cool in any situation, and could even help others around him stay calm.