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Choice: A Building Block of Self-Determination

Editor’s Note: This week’s blog post was provided by Louise Southern, Training Specialist for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

Self-determination is often described as the combination of skills and knowledge that enables a person to engage in goal-directed, autonomous, and self-regulated behavior. Self-determined individuals have the power to exert control over their own lives in order to achieve the outcomes that they desire. Self-determined individuals make things happen in their lives, and they recognize this power within themselves. Goal-setting, decision-making, problem-solving, self-advocacy, and self-management are some of the behaviors that self-determined individuals display.

As we know, these behaviors may not come easily to some individuals with ASD. To help cultivate these skills, it is crucial that individuals with autism experience multiple opportunities each day to make choices. Choice is one of the building blocks of self-determination, and it should be a primary consideration when we design instruction and interventions in school, at home, and in vocational and community settings.

Consider how many choices we make throughout the day. For example, we choose when we need a break at work, which pen we want to use, the order in which we complete certain activities, the route we want to take from point A to point B, and how to spend free time. Some individuals with ASD have moved through school and life without the opportunity to make choices, since everything is arranged and scheduled for them. As a result, some individuals with ASD become increasingly passive and may develop “learned helplessness.” Other individuals might display their inevitable frustration and sense of powerlessness in maladaptive ways – through tantrums, aggressive behaviors, or shutting down.

For individuals who are not able to verbally express themselves, choices should be presented in a concrete and visual mode that meets the individual’s communication needs – via written words, pictures, or objects. These individuals should have a way to initiate communication of their choices as well. For example, they may indicate choice via picture exchange, by touching an image on a choice board, or by reaching for one object when presented with several options.

And remember that individuals who can verbalize their choices may not actually do so. As an educator, I worked with a number of high school students with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s who did not self-advocate even to get their basic needs met. For students who became overwhelmed by a string of verbalized options or open-ended questions, I found that they responded best to a presentation of written options. For instance, the student could circle his or her choice from an array of options, write down his or her choice on a blank line, or place a number next to each task to indicate the order in which s/he wanted to complete certain academic assignments or activities. In some cases, I paired these written options with photographs and other visual cues to support comprehension.

Consider a typical day for the individual you support. Identify opportunities where “neurotypicals” might exert choices and control. Then, consider how or if the individual experiences frequent opportunities every day to express such choices. Present clear options in a way that is meaningful to the individual, using visual supports and structure as necessary. Ensure that s/he is able to communicate his or her preference. By doing this, you are empowering the individual and laying down the first building blocks of self-determination.

Louise Buchholz Southern, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and former special education teacher, has been working with children and adolescents with ASD since 1997. Louise has extensive experience implementing and overseeing home-based programs that emphasize the integration of Applied Behavior Analysis, Pivotal Response Training, and Structured Teaching elements for young children with ASD. To contact Louise, email her at lsouthern@autismsociety-nc.org.

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