How to teach your teen with autism to request a break

Self –regulation is a needed life skill  not practiced  by most teenagers. Often teens on the spectrum need sensory breaks to help them self-regulate, yet some are unable to communicate the need for one. If you are a parent or an educator, you may want to consider teaching the teen to request a break using a “ I need a break” card.

Let’s  say you have a student that you work one-on-one with for a one hour slot of time. Every time you sit down to work with him, after about 20 minutes he gets up and leaves the worktable and there is no holding him back.  What you need to do is teach him to communicate to you when he needs a break,  and allow him  to have  those needed breaks within reason.   Here is one way to do that:

  • Take data over a week or so on exactly how long he can work before he gets up and runs away.
  • Establish the amount of time he can stay and work without getting up away from the table (ie 19 minutes).
  • Make a bunch of break cards. They can be really simple – just take some index cards and write “break” on them. If the student needs a visual, use an icon or drawing of some kind, representing a break.
  • Next time you sit down to work, have a timer ready, and the break cards in front of him. At 17 minutes (before he would normally get up and run away) prompt him to give you a break card (having another person to help prompt him is best), then allow him to have a break, telling him he has a 3 minute break, or whatever amount of time is appropriate for that student, and set a timer.
  • Make sure he comes back (you may need help with this at first, or a favorite reinforcer back at the table). Keep doing this every 17 minutes and over as many days as it takes for him to get the idea that he gets a break every time he hands you the  break card.
  • Then, put a pile of break cards within reach of the student, and give him a break every time he hands you a break card, until you know he gets the connection between giving you the card and getting the break. For some this will happen the first day, for others it make take many days.
  • Then, since you know he can sit for 19 minutes, put 3 break cards in front of of the student and tell him he will have only three breaks the whole hour. If he chooses to use  the 3 break cards immediately, he is not allowed any more breaks, as you know how long he is capable of sitting and learning. You may need help keeping him seated, perhaps allowing him access to his favorite reinforcers. Eventually, he will pace himself to use the break cards on as-needed basis, meaning every 18 minutes or so.  (Note: If the student does not ever  want to return to the table, you may want to re-visit your lesson plans. Are you still working on the same lesson in the same way repeatedly? Perhaps the lesson is too easy and the student is bored).

Once the student has mastered using  a break card, you can generalize to other environments and situations.  It’s a great way to give the teen some much-needed control over his or her time, as well as teaching  an appropriate communication skill and behavior.

This was first published in the  on February 6, 2010.