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  • Writer's picturedocschleg

Self-Direction

Has your child ever followed you around, asking for ideas of what to do, or looking like they're intensely bored? Do they seem dependent on other things (parents, video games, internet) for addressing the boredom? Parents often report this behavior to me, especially on school holidays like winter break. Kids find themselves out of routine with plenty of free time but seemingly no appreciation of the freedom this grants them to read a book, play with friends, or engage in a hobby. Instead, kids seem like they need to be entertained, and if they don't have access to video games or endless streaming videos, they can become distressed by the entertainment void.


I believe this is partially a skills deficit in the area of self-direction. Self-direction means making a relatively independent (autonomous) choice about what to do next. The automatic internet with its endless entertainment has indeed dulled most children's ability to entertain themselves. Still, I think the skill of self-direction is often lacking in children with an autism diagnosis.


Self-direction seems to be a complex set of simpler executive functioning (EF) and social skills. For instance, what I do next is dependent on what my options are and what resources I have. Instead of making this choice, many kids will simply ask their parents to generate options. This is not necessarily "tell me what to do," but "do all the EF work and tell me what realistic options I have to choose from, and make them something I'll find interesting, and make it snappy!"


On the one hand, this partially explains to me why kids on the spectrum seem to thrive in highly structured, highly directive environments like specialized classrooms. Even a "differentiated curriculum" operates on the notion of surveying the student's interests and then telling them what to do and how to do it, in the context of the regular curriculum.


There are some downsides to a self-direction skills deficit. Many autistic children truly languish when no one is telling them what to do, or what they were told to do doesn't work as it should. This can be a winter break morning when it's still 4 hours until they can get screen time, or a classroom when the child has finished their work and has not been told specifically what to do next. Another major downside is that some autistic kids seem to be easily influenced, for better or worse, by highly self-directed peers. Some are easily convinced to misbehave even when the misbehavior contradicts their morals.


Since self-direction is a skill, parents have a couple of options. First, they can stop being the self-direction proxy. Many parents of kids with special needs are Olympic-level problem solvers, so rattling off a list of highly engaging and bespoke screen-free activities is no big deal to them. It also feels good when we're able to read our kids so well we know what will satisfy their minds. Our kids however will not need to work on this skill if we reliably do it for them. Parents can simply turn the question around and ask, "What sounds good to you?" when asked for ideas on how to fill time.


Second, consider the basic skills that go into self-direction. Analysis (examining resources and asking what are my true options), problem-solving (how do I make this happen), and evaluation (am I entertained) are core elements. Even these three more basic skills are composed of many skills. Verbalizing the steps while you decide what to tell your child to do can help, especially for younger kids. Other parents will look at days ahead to map out such free times and work with the child to generate a list of things to do during those blocks. Questions about what to do can then get the reply, "Look at your list." Helping a child develop the skill of self-direction and a greater sense of autonomy can have massive implications for the child moving forward.

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