The team at Special Needs Book Review has known Connie Hammer since 2012 when she was our guest on The Coffee Klatch Tweetchat we hosted on Monday mornings. We were impressed then with the expert advice she had for parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Throughout the years we have continued to recommend her coaching and support services and her resources for parents.
She founded her coaching business, The Progressive Parent, LLC in 2005 and acquired her Parent Coach Certification™ from The Parent Coaching Institute of Bellevue, Washington, the nation’s only Parent Coach Certification ® affiliation with Seattle Pacific University’s, graduate-level Continuing Education Program. Prior to this she spent seventeen years working as a school social worker counseling children and supporting parents.
Now running her parent coaching business from home she enjoys connecting with parents by phone or in person across the English speaking world to help them adjust to the new life that having a child with Autism, Asperger’s or PDD-NOS brings. Her business also provides consulting services, teleclasses and workshops, programs and various resources for parents.
At the end of this post, you can find links how to follow Connie and links to the other posts we have concerning her parent coaching, support programs, and her amazing book, Autism Parenting: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience. Published in August 2016, Autism Parenting has over 300 tips for parents to enhance their child’s school success! Parents can read her book and find immediately doable strategies to help them be better parents.
The team at Special Needs Book Review thanks Connie Hammer, Autism Parenting Coach, for her guest post introducing her autism parenting book and for agreeing to take part, for a second time, in our Author Interview Series.
Lorna: Congratulations on your inspirational guide, Autism Parenting: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience. What motivated you to expend the amount of work required to come out with a 326 page guide book for parents?
<< Connie Hammer: My motivation stemmed from a desire to make the information I had available to parents who did not have access to me via the internet. Not every parent has access to a computer and many parents of children with ASD don’t have a lot of extra time to spend on one. I’m always looking for new avenues for the delivery of information that will help me reach as many parents as possible. Every now and then parents inquired if I had written a book. Eventually, I got tired of saying no and this triggered my motivation.
I began to compile all the articles, blog posts, and newsletter material I had written in the previous five years and sort it into categories. I was amazed to see how much material I had when I did this. This further energized me to transform the content I had into a book. So I decided it was time to write one.
Once I made the decision it triggered more ideas for expanding upon the content I already had. When I began to actually write the manuscript, my original one hundred thirty eight tips (138) snowballed into three hundred seven (307). In the end, I was surprised to discover that between the text and the tips I had a three hundred twenty-six (326) page manuscript after the final edit.
Lorna: With a 30 year career of coaching parents, I am sure you had many topics you wanted to talk about in your book. What made you decide to write about “Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience”?
<< Connie Hammer: I have to give credit for that choice to my followers. My past and present clients, subscribers to my newsletter, blog readers/followers, etc. made the decision for me. After compiling all of my writing over the years into the following categories – behavior, school/special education, toilet training, social issues, anxiety, sensory issues, transition to adulthood, etc. – I surveyed my list of followers, clients and other parent contacts. I asked them which topic they would most like to see a book about. Fifty-four percent checked school related topics.
They even provided me with specific questions they wanted me to address in my book which became the foundation for my table of contents. This motivated me even more. It was so nice to have a constant source of input and questions to guide my writing. It felt very much like a team effort.
That’s how my guidebook was born. I wanted to give parents what they needed and were requesting, not something I thought they needed. I could have chosen my favourite topic to write about but that would not have necessarily met the needs of the parents I serve.
Lorna: Autistic children seem to struggle most with learning how to initiate and be socially proactive. What are a few suggestions on how to try to get your child on the spectrum to become more socially proactive?
<< Connie Hammer: That’s an excellent question! Being socially proactive does not come easily to all people. Most people don’t consider that there are two sides to being social. Just as there are two elements necessary for effective communication to take place – sending and receiving messages – being social requires two components as well. Being socially reactive or responding to social cues is one, and, being socially proactive or initiating social interaction is the other.
As a K-8 school social worker for seventeen years, I facilitated many social skills groups with children that needed to learn and practice how to be appropriate in social situations. I observed that children without autism, or other related diagnoses, tended to have no problem initiating social contact but they needed to sharpen their skills on how to respond to a social interaction in a socially appropriate manner. Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder on the other hand struggled most with learning how to be socially proactive – how to start a conversation or join a group. I also determined that children with an autism spectrum disorder could learn social skills through effective teaching and repetitive practice.
To help a child become more socially proactive, it’s important to first teach them that every interaction or exchange is a communication, even if it’s non-verbal. Kids need to know that what they do and how they act, not just what they say, has a profound impact on another person. They need to understand that what each person remembers about a particular experience will impact the next social encounter they have with them. Most adults know this instinctually but children with autism often need this explained to them.
I coach parents to begin by creating opportunities that encourage their child to reach out to them and others. Eliminating distractions and making yourself the single most important object in the room will increase the likelihood that your child will initiate contact with you. When doing so, it’s important to practice patience and refrain from being directive – allow your child to make the first move then praise him for it!
If your child makes eye contact with you, smiles or reaches for your hand, immediately label the action as positive. Tell him why it is important and how it made you feel. Praise any effort to connect and celebrate it! When your child receives a clear message that what she has done has had a positive impact on you, you’ll begin to see more of the same happening.
Helping your child play detective is another strategy that will work. The goal is to expand her ability to understand how other people’s minds work. When observing other individuals or watching movies/TV together ask your child why the characters might be reacting or responding that way? What might they be thinking or feeling? How does their behavior affect those around them? Using the everyday world as your social laboratory is the best way to get any child to understand different social contexts.
Perspective taking is an innate process for many and therefore it is assumed that it comes naturally, but not so for kids with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Learning to think about the other person will help the child know what to ask when approaching a person and starting a conversation. There are resources I mention in my book that will help guide parents in this effort.
Lorna: To help a child learn how to be a good friend, you suggest to videotape him while playing with a friend and to use the video as a teaching tool later. What are a few other tips for parents who are trying to teach their child to be a good friend?
<< Connie Hammer: Yes, video taping can be a great learning tool if the child(ren) is willing. With your child’s unique needs in mind, I believe in always asking permission and explaining how the video will be used. If presented well most children will agree to it. Children with ASD are very visual and learn best that way. When watching a video of the play date together you can stop and/or rewind it to observe what the child is doing well and why it’s important. Without focusing on what they did ‘wrong’ you can also take the opportunity to brainstorm and discuss some different ways to interact with others.
In addition to this, it’s important to describe a friend. Never assume that your child’s definition of a friend is correct. Teach your child what a friend is – what they look like, act like, and talk like. Make a distinction between a best friend, playmate and acquaintance. It’s never too early to begin shaping your child’s perception of friendship.
Next you can discuss how to make a friend and teach the child what is involved. Guide the child to practice these skills whenever possible. Pre-teaching or reviewing these skills before you know the child will be with peers is helpful, as well as prompting/cueing them when they are with others, if you are able to be there.
Use the word. Make the word friend a daily part of your vocabulary, and take every opportunity to describe what a friend is and does. Opportunities to do this are everywhere. You can discuss your own friendships, those you see on TV/ in movies, or anywhere you observe friendships in daily life.
Discuss the recipe for friendship. Having similar interests, feeling comfortable and safe, are important ingredients to create a friendship. Ask your child to consider what they want to give and receive from a friendship. If your child has no idea, brainstorm friendship traits together.
These are some of the strategies mentioned in my book but there are more. All of these tips will pay big dividends in the friendship department for your child but it will also bully-proof your child to some degree. Children who really understand the concept of friendship will not easily be duped into a manipulative or abusive relationship.
Keep in mind that the information you give is secondary. The most important thing to consider is how you deliver the information to your child. Every child’s brain is unique and processes things differently. Your job is to tune-in to the way your child receives that information best and deliver it accordingly.
Lorna: A child on the autism spectrum is especially vulnerable. Research shows that children with special needs such as autism are two to three times more likely to be bullied than kids that are not autistic. What are a few things parents can do to bully-proof their child?
<< Connie Hammer: Yes Lorna, unfortunately the statistics you state are accurate. As mentioned above, teaching your child what a healthy relationship looks like is a great way to prevent bullying. This makes it easier for a child to identify a bully who is trying to manipulate, degrade or abuse them. Learning the difference between a friend and a bully can be difficult for the autism brain to comprehend but not impossible. Loving guidance with lots of repetition, persistence and patience are key.
Having an ongoing and open conversation with your child about so called ‘friends’/classmates is important to establish early on. Assessing the dynamics of your child’s relationships and keeping track of how each one develops as time passes is always useful information to have. That way you will be able to spot a red flag when you see one. Then you can give your child the support and skills to deal with it before it becomes an issue.
Also, it’s very important to inform yourself about the policies and procedures a child’s school has in place for dealing with bullies. Then create a simple step by step flow-chart (visual or verbal) for your child so she can be prepared to act accordingly if she begins to be bothered by a bully. Role playing or actually practicing these steps will help your child even more.
Building your child’s confidence to help him appear less vulnerable, helping your child identify and express her fears, and creating a buddy system are some of the other tips I mention in my book.
Lorna: A strategy explained in your book is to boost confidence with detailed praise. Please elaborate.
<< Connie Hammer: Praise is an extremely helpful parenting tool if used effectively. Using praise appropriately can produce great results. What is most important when praising children, on or off the autism spectrum, is not how much you praise them, it has more to do with the ‘way’ you praise them.
It’s very important to keep praise for the important stuff. Be cautious when handing it out and stay away from what I call ‘lazy praise’, such as “good boy” or “good girl”. It’s always important to put more effort into specifically describing what a child did right, the result it had, and how it made you feel. Children on the autism spectrum are very visual and being specific with your praise helps paint a detailed picture in the child’s head which makes it easy to replicate the next time. An example of this would be, “Because you kept trying, you solved the math problem by yourself. Now your homework is done and you can play. I’m so proud of you!” Such detailed praise provides a child with a feeling of accomplishment that can carry over into other areas, boosting their confidence even further.
When it comes to praise, try to keep your focus away from the outcome you want to see and more on the effort the child expends. You can help children so much more when you teach them to understand that the effort they put into something is just as crucial as the results they receive.
Some other strategies for using praise include:
- Make sure your praise is authentic. Children have an uncanny way of figuring out when your words lack sincerity.
- Internally motivate. Minimize the use of external rewards. An excess of these can condition a child to do a task only when a desired item is available. Instead use praise, offer preferred activities, or enhance a privilege. This is always the preferred way to motivate any child.
Lorna: Parents of autistic tweens and teens often complain about their child’s poor quality of sleep and problems falling asleep. In your book you suggest “Avoid overstimulation by limiting screen-machine time. Television, video games, and violent movies only serve to heighten arousal in children, and make it more difficult for them to want to sleep and stay asleep.” What are a few other tips that can help with these problems?
<< Connie Hammer: Did you know that this quote you took from my book applies to many adults as well. Many studies have shown that the light in the blue-and-white range that is emitted from screen machines disrupts the body’s melatonin production. Melatonin tells your body when it is night/time to sleep therefore keeping away from tablets, phones, computers and television screens two hours prior to bedtime will help anyone fall asleep easier.
Poor sleep can affect more than just a child’s mood, it can negatively affect behaviour and create problems with learning, reasoning, and memory. It can also cause issues with weight gain, increase anxiety/stress related disorders, and signal a false diagnosis of ADHD. No parent wants any of that for their child so establishing a healthy sleep routine is the best thing a parent can do for their child.
The first step is to get together with the other adults in the household to discuss and create a realistic sleep routine. Then present a unified and supportive front when you implement it. Single parents need to get creative to get the support they need – a buddy system or someone they can call when the new routine is met with resistance can be useful.
A visual schedule of the new bedtime routine is often helpful in getting a child to comply as well as a bedtime social story.
Other tips include:
- Paying attention to the environment and anything that might be causing night-time anxiety. A simple shadow, a sound, the texture of the bed sheets, or even room temperature can sometimes be the sleep depriving culprit.
- A gentle massage or a bath with Epsom salts can relax the body and mind, preparing it for a good night’s sleep.
- Making sure a child gets lots of fresh air and exercise during the day to achieve a natural state of sleepiness as night approaches.
Lorna: In your bio it says, “I established my parent coaching business in 2006 that currently specializes in providing parents of children on the autism spectrum with the support and resources they need. My online business enables me to work with parents all over the English speaking world via phone or Skype coaching sessions.” Please explain to parents how they can access your services and what exactly you offer.
<< Connie Hammer: I offer parents a time saving way to meet their child’s needs once they have received a diagnosis of ASD or other developmental/learning disorder. I encourage parents not to wait for a diagnosis because there is much that can be done while waiting.
I provide various coaching opportunities at many price points. To hire me for coaching by phone, or in person as geography allows, click here to see the various packages. I also provide an affordable e-coaching (email coaching) option that works nicely once a parent has a few voice-to-voice sessions.
First, I encourage all parents to get to know me better by visiting my website www.parentcoachingforautism.com and reading my blog. Once there, they can also sign up to receive my free parenting ecourse, Parenting a Child with Autism – 3 Secrets to Thrive or my monthly parenting tips on The Spectrum. Parents can find me on Twitter at conniehammer, Face Book at Connie Hammer Parent Coach, LinkedIn at Connie Hammer and Instagram at conniehammerautism.
Any parent can start by taking advantage of my complimentary 20-minute phone consultation. I call it a ‘virtual coffee chat’. It’s a quick and easy way for me to get the details of a parent’s unique situation. I love to listen to their stories and offer them some immediate guidance.
If a parent would rather write to me, they can email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. I try very hard to respond to all of my emails within 24 to 36 hours.
Finally, I want parents of children with autism to know that I acknowledge their reality when it comes to finances. The treatments and therapies a child with ASD requires leaves very little expendable income at the end of the week or month; therefore, I offer scholarships that are not income dependent as well as a sliding fee scale. All parents need to do is ask me about them. This is also why I offer a Kindle version of my book for only $2.99 at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01KKM7PQE.
Lorna: Thank you very much for all you do for the autism community! We are so happy you made the time to answer our questions. Our team wishes you the best and hopes your book, Autism Parenting: Practical Strategies for a Positive School Experience, is a huge success!
<< Connie Hammer: I appreciate the opportunity you have given me to share Lorna! Thank you!