Today I had my usual telehealth session with one of my clients. I will change his name to protect his identity. Zach is a 13-year-old male diagnosed with autism. Zach is usually very responsive and easy to work with, we have an already established routine where I ask questions about his recurrent behaviors and he “honestly” reports what has been going on since the last time we saw each other (typically 2 or 3 days prior).
Today, I was excited because I was going to teach him how to make popcorn in the microwave. Recently we started a cooking program where I model for him how to prepare easy recipes step-by-step (task analysis for my fellow Behavior Analysts), and he follows the instructions and gets to eat the meal at the end. I was specially motivated and excited because I knew how much Zach likes his popcorn. We had a rocky start with some technical difficulties (got to love the internet!), but we were finally ready to get the cooking going. Zach was not as happy and excited as I initially expected him to be.
He was worried and nervous, I said “Zach, today we are going to make some delicious popcorn” and he replied, “I don’t know Ms. Carolina, I don’t think this is a good idea”, -But why? Don’t you like popcorn? And he said: “yes, but I’m not sure”. With a little bit of encouragement, I got Zach to ask mom where the box of popcorn packages was located, and I sent him straight to the kitchen. Zach was still very hesitant; he displayed the behaviors that typically indicate he is experiencing anxiety. I made sure to allow Zach space to tell me what was going on. During the whole activity I never stopped encouraging him and telling him that he could do it, and that he was not alone, I was there with him every step of the way.
I decided just providing verbal instructions was not going to be enough to build Zach’s confidence with the skill. I jumped to my kitchen and pulled out a bag of microwavable popcorn myself. I started modeling how to do everything, one step at the time, but then he got stuck, “I can’t open the plastic bag”. Yes, you can! Just think it is a pack of chips, of course you can do it”, I said. “Ok Ms. Carolina, hold on”, he said. “I’m here, take your time, you got this” I replied. Then we moved on to step 2 which consisted of unfolding the bag of popcorn, little did I know his bag had only one-fold when mine had two.
He was very frustrated, “this is not working, this is not a good idea” so I asked him to show me the bag of popcorn so I could help him. He did and continued to proceed! I made sure to ask him constantly how he was doing and reassuring him this was difficult because it was his first time doing something new, but it was a learning process and reminding him that at the end he was going to enjoy eating the popcorn he made. I told Zach that trying new things is scary for everyone, but once we learn how to do them, they become easier and less stressful, I reminded him I was there, and he could ask for help from mom if needed.
We proceeded with step 3 of our chain, opening the microwave, and placing the bag inside. No problems on this one, but a little bit of hesitation. Of course, the main step was approaching next. “Ok buddy, I need you to read the instructions, so we know how much are we going to cook the popcorn”. -Read? I don’t know! Maybe we should stop here. -yes, read, you can read very well and the only thing we need to know is how much time we need to cook the popcorn, so it doesn’t get burn” I said. “Ok Ms. Carolina” he started reading the cooking directions and the packet indicated 1 minute in high power. -Are you ready? “Close the door and press 1-0-0” – “Zach look, it’s just a button, the worst thing that could happen is that we burn the popcorn and even if that’s the case, it’s not a big deal”, then I guided him to take a few deep breaths and checked to see if he was ok to continue. He said yes so, we moved forward. As he pressed the buttons in the microwave, nothing was happening. “I can’t do this” he said. -Zach, some microwaves are different than others, let’s look for a popcorn button. – “There is nothing here Ms. Carolina, this was a bad idea”. Let’s do something, let’s call mom for help. – “OK” he said.
In a blink of an eye, mom was there to assist. We made sure to discuss how difficult this might be for him and decided her modeling with us would be helpful. Zach followed mom directions and was in awe when he started hearing the corn popping and the bag expanding inside the microwave.
The smile came back, the proud face was there, for both, him, and I. I screamed “YOU DID IT!!”. And in the middle of my excitement, I was able to indicate him where to locate a bowl for the popcorn and waited for him to get something to drink too. He did it, he followed all the instructions until the end and didn’t give up on me and my easy (not so easy) meal cooking plan.
“You did it” was an understatement, this accomplishment was a huge victory and a milestone towards his independence!!
In my mind, I anticipated there will be some hesitation from my client to engage in this task, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so challenging for him. I was put in a position to become creative and go with the flow, use my full arsenal of ideas and improvisation to keep him engaged and make sure he was able to reach his goal, all while ensuring he was as comfortable as possible doing so.
Here are some questions I thought some of our readers would ask:
1. Are these types of challenges common among individuals in the Autism Spectrum? It is possible. Maybe other individuals will struggle the same way with a different activity, or not. That is why it is called a SPECTRUM. Everyone experiences it in a different and unique way. I bet there are amazing neurodivergent individuals out there who love to cook and are good at it.
2. What is the name of the strategy I used to help Zach accomplish the challenge? It is called task analysis. That is when you break a task into small steps to make it easier for the learner.
3. Can I practice this at home? Yes, with the support and guidance of a Behavior Analyst. Some behaviors can be easily redirectable while others can end in a crisis and require crisis intervention. So please be careful! Also consider the social significance of the task. We chose to work on making popcorn independently because Zach often asks for popcorn. It’s one of his favorite things and being able to make it himself means he can have it more often!
4. Was Zach OK after he finished cooking? YES!! He was super happy, and he enjoyed the popcorn a lot. That doesn’t mean he will do it independently next time. He still needs support since this is an emerging skill.
5. Do I have to be a Behavior Analyst to understand how difficult a simple task can be for someone on the Autism Spectrum? Absolutely not. You just need to be a compassionate human being and understand that what is easy for you is not necessarily easy for others. Be more kind and respect the learning process of others. That’s the big lesson.
-Carolina Alay. BCaBA. Founder and Executive Director