Failing Everything at School


Failing all subjects

Jim is in grade 9. While he seems bright and verbally skilled, he’s failing all subjects. He rarely hands in assignments. He constantly loses things. He denies that he’s disorganized and refuses all suggestions and assistance. He insists on doing things the same way, even when what he’s doing obviously is not working. Half the time he’s furious with the adults in his life and resenting that they’re always trying to make him do things.


Just how blunt are you when you talk to him? If you’re subtle or indirect, he might not take in your meaning. And how much talking do people do to him? In general, when a student is messing up, we as educators talk to him. And the less the kid responds or seems to get it, the more we talk to clarify and make our point. This does not work well at all with kids with autism because of their auditory processing weakness. In fact, the more we talk, the less sinks in and the more agitated/frozen/dug-in they usually become.

The best description of this I know of is in Donna William’s book, Somebody, Somewhere.  It’s a fascinating read, almost like reading a novel. Donna wrote when she was in in her 30’s, she has autism, a B.Ed. degree and is extremely articulate in describing things from her point of view.

When a kid seems bright enough and speaks well, we often forget about the auditory processing problem and use oral language as the way to communicate. While it is one way, it’s not the most effective especially in emotionally charged situations when the student’s ability to understand what he hears will go way, way down. Read Donna William’s descriptions. You’ll enjoy it.

The one thing I’d do with Jim is use visuals. Tons of visuals. Always. He’ll get information from something he can see so much easier than if he’s expected to learn by listening.

Author and presenter Linda Hodgins has created a workshop on using visuals for behaviour problems. Click on the title to take a look. It’s available in DVD or VCR format and called Visual Strategies Workshop.

Linda also has two excellent, easy-to-use books: Solving Behavior Problems in Autism and Visual Strategies for Improving Communication.

Another video you might find helpful is Visual Supports in the Classroom for Students with Autism and Related Pervasive Developmental Disorders.

I’ve found this reference useful:  Higher Functioning Adolescents and Young Adults With Autism: A Teacher’s Guide.

A helpful book is Autism in Adolescents and Adults.  You might not need to read it all right away, just browse at first. It’s a simple book where one page describes a problem or behavior and the next gives a suggestion (mainly visual suggestions).

A fair proportion of all kids with autism suffer from depression in the teen years. In adolescents depression most frequently comes out as anger rather than acting morose. That might be part of what you’re seeing.

And, it can look a lot like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or co-exist with OCD. People with autism tend to be rigid in their thinking and behavior. Because of their neurological differences, it can be hard for them to gather information from their environment, process, store and retrieve it when they need those facts. This makes it difficult for them to derive meaning from what’s going on, relate it to past experiences and come up with good strategies. When it’s hard to make sense of your world, you cling to what you think you know – hence the rigidity.

Another reason for depression in such kids is that around this age they notice just how different they are from their peers. And for kids with average intelligence, it’s frustrating to think inside that you’re smart but not to be able to get things that the kids around you seem to grasp with ease.

For teens with autism, medication is not at all unusual and can have a positive effect. It might help his mom and the doctor if the school provided checklists of the behaviour that you’re seeing in Jim. If his physician believes that medications may be helpful, there’s a very good chance that he may not get the meds right first try. He’ll need behavioral feedback to assess the dose, timing and if that’s the correct medication as there are a number of possibilities that could help

When you have a spare five minutes with Jim, go to the Do2Learn website and try these short games on emotions and facial expressions with him. I’m betting that he will be unable to correctly identify the facial expressions on these people. If so, that’ll give you a clue about one of the reasons his behaviour escalates.

We derive a lot of information from the facial expressions and body language of others. For the most part, no on teaches us these things – we just pick them up automatically. Not so with most people with autism, PDD and Asperger’s. Rather they need to be taught how to read non-verbal language. There’s a step-by-step short program designed by Dr. Tony Attwood specifically for autism/Asperger’s called, Exploring Feelings: Cognitive Behavior Therapy to Manage Anger  . (I’m assuming that anger is a problem, or that he does not stop to consider his choices before responding).

Another helpful program is Michelle Garcia Winner’s Thinking About You, Thinking About Me.

Despite the fact that your student has autism, Asperger’s of PDD, he’s still a teenager. At his age adolescents are finding their own way, wanting to be independent and make their own decisions. Rebelling to some degree against authority is normal. So in summary, how can you help?

  • Use visuals rather than relying on verbal information
  • Allow him choices within the parameters you set out
  • Enhance his skills at picking up on nonverbal cues
  • Social skills training in managing feelings
  • Teach and model appropriate ways to handle frustration, protest and anger
  • Find ways to get him to “buy in” to what you want him to do by showing him what the long-term result will be
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Team Sports


My son tried soccer last week. It worked and it didn’t work. He had fun some of the time but it really bothered him when a child missed the ball or did not play correctly. Then, things weren’t so pretty and he got very upset.


Being rule-governed has pluses and negatives. When it’s hard to make sense of your world, having clearly defined rules is comforting because then you know what to do. But when others don’t follow those rules…

A way around this is by doing social stories with your son about kids not following rules. He probably has not idea why another child would not follow the rule. The “Theory of Mind” or as Temple Grandin calls it, “universal mind” aspects of autism spectrum disorders means that whatever the person has in his mind, he assumes everyone else also has that same thought/feeling/intent. Your son may honestly not understand that not every child knows all the rules or that sometimes kids forget. Social stories are good for getting those sorts of points across.

A social story would also help your son know what to do when another child breaks a rule – what he should say, how he should act, who will take care of the infraction, etc.

A couple other aspects of autism/Asperger’s make organized sports difficult but still worth experiencing.

Many people with ASD have poorer fine and gross motor coordination; they may appear awkward, have an awkward gait when running, have trouble with fine motor skills such as handwriting. Then there’s the motor planning issues inherent in sports.

When you think about it, there’s a lot involved in accurately kicking a soccer ball. Just try

to explain step by step every small action you’d take when you try to capture a ball, line it up and kick it into the goal.

It can help to think of autism as a processing disorder. Most ASD people have trouble processing more than one element at at time. Your child may be able to look at you or listen to you but not effectively do both at the same time. Team sports involve a lot of simultaneous processing.

Not only do you need to be aware of where your own body is, control your arms, legs, feet and head but you have to be aware of where other people are at the same time. This is further confused because some people on the field work with you and some against you. Then you need to keep a sense of direction in your mind so that you don’t score on your own team.

Compounding this might be the sun flashing in your eyes, temperature and wind, the icky feel of mud on your hands and knees when you fall on a rainy day. And, it’s not silent out on the field. The kids yell. The coaches yell. The parents yell.

Auditory processing is a weak area for most people with

Asperger’s/autism and the ability to process when you hear decreases in noisy situations or when there are background distractions.

If your child has a lot of sensory issues, he might feel calmer if he wears a weighted vest, small wrist weights, a snug neoprene vest, neoprene biker shorts under his soccer uniform or similar apparel to help calm his overstimulated senses.

Prep work such as practicing the rules of the game alone with your son, taking him to the soccer field when no one else is around so that he can accustom himself to being there, practicing the coach’s soccer drills before practice time can all help ease the way and make your son feel more relaxed during team practices and games.

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Hands in His Pants – Chewing, Sucking, Hands in Pants…


I am a special education teacher who is currently working with a bright nine year old boy. His current diagnosis is multiple handicap, he does have some autistic tendencies. Two behaviors which are quite concerning are placing his hands inside his pants and sucking/chewing on his hands when he is excited. His team is trying to develop a behavior plan, but we’re not in agreement. Any suggestions?


Children with disorders other than autism may share some of the sensory sensitivities commonly found in people with autism spectrum disorders. That may be what your student is experiencing.

Do his parents notice the same behaviors at home?  What strategies have they found that work? Are they some that you could emulate at school?

He sucks or chews his hands when he’s excited. Perhaps he has a need for extra sensory feedback in his hands and/or his mouth.  When he’s excited he has less ability to inhibit the need to suck or chew. You may not be able to get him to stop chewing his hands but you might be able to substitute this behavior for one other people will find more acceptable.

Is he a child who always has something in his mouth? Does he chew on pencils, erasers, etc.? If he’s craving oral-motor stimulation, possibly if he has a regular dose of oral-motor input throughout the day, he’ll not feel quite the need to chew on his hands when he’s excited.

You could try offering him other things to chew or suck. For some children, crunchy foods like pretzel, crisp cereals, carrots, and celery help fill the need for something in their mouth. Others do well with gum but you might have to experiment with flavors until you find the one that has the most settling effect.  Sour candies work well for some children. (If they’re stale or frozen, they stand a lot of sucking and each candy then lasts for a long time.

Drinking through a straw gives good oral-motor sensory feedback. He could have water in a sipping bottle on his desk and sip through his straw whenever he wanted throughout the day.  Thera-tubing is another chewing alternative.  I know a couple older students who chew on plastic coffee stir sticks or toothpicks throughout the day.

If it’s feedback through his hands he’s craving, some type of fidget toy might work. You could try koosh balls, stress balls, fabric swatches (try bits of silk, satin, corduroy, fake fur, etc. to see which he likes), a pencil grip, small plastic toys, or a smooth stone. Ask him what things he likes to handle – he may come up with suggestions that would not occur to you. One child I know likes to rub a piece of plastic pot scrubber between his palms.  Another presses his palms hard against his desk or on his thighs.

If he does the chewing/sucking when he’s excited you might be able to decrease the behavior by preparing him ahead of time. While most of your students would have already internalized that the favorite subject comes after Science.  The child with autism may have a poor sense of time and find it a surprise when he hears that the anticipated event is happening now.

He may be over stimulated by the sights and sounds other children find enjoyable.  A visual schedule on his desk may help prepare him for what is coming next and make it easier to sit through Math, knowing that the treat is coming once Math is finished.

When you introduce substitute suggestions to your student, you’ll have to give him an explanation as to why you want him to try these things.  Although it’s perfectly obvious to you, he may be unaware that other people find it unpleasant when he sucks on his hands. He may not have noticed or interpreted that look of horror on the face of the girl sitting next to him.  And, it he might be doing this because it makes him feel good or calms him.

He’ll need to understand why you want him to stop doing it and that he can get similar feelings through different means.  A social story is a good way of explaining what you do and don’t want him to do.

The hands-in-the pants could also be a sensory issue.  Again, it could be something for his hands to do and any of the fidget toys mentioned above could work as a substitute.  A piece of fabric or small fidget toy could be kept discretely in his pants pocket or in his desk.

Is he bored or overwhelmed when he does this?  Is it a cue to you that he needs a short break to get a drink of water or sharpen his pencil? Is he on overload and using this as a method of tuning out what’s going on around him?

This could be the start of early adolescence and he may like the sensations produced when he handles his genitals.  If so, that may be acceptable in certain circumstances but not in a classroom.  He can be given clear directions that he may do such things only at home in his bedroom or bathroom but no where else (or whatever parameters you and his family work out).

This is another instance where using a social story is very helpful. Carol Gray gives examples on this and similar topics on her web site.  Another resource you might find helpful is the book Sexuality: Your Sons and Daughters With Intellectual Disabilities by Karin Melberg Schwier and Dave Hingsburger.

As with any new skill, it will take guided demonstrations and practice before he learns to substitute any of these other devices for his hands.  Rather than constant verbal reminders, a visual picture of what he should be doing would be helpful as a cue card. One cue card could be taped to his desk and the teacher could have another one she could hold up when a reminder is needed.

When a child shows an obsessive behavior, it is very difficult to eradicate that behavior.  Rather than fight that battle, you may be better off replacing that behavior with a similar but more socially acceptable one or limiting that behavior to certain times and places.

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