As an organization that works with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) within the realm of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), our entire profession is based on scientific research, methodical therapy, and the principles of learning. However, we did something the other day that was completely new to us. It was something that had no pre-existing model or perceived outcome. It was something that required a lot from many of our people and I was so proud to be a witness to its awesomeness. So, I decided that I wanted to share the story.
Picture Day! It’s a day that every one of us has experienced. Whether you are an older generation before colored photographs or a current parent of a child in daycare. We have all been there. Students arrive to school, all dressed up, and ready to put on their biggest smiles for the camera. The photographer is set up and ready to go with everything but the kitchen sink. He or she has all the cameras, lights, backdrops… the works! After a few flashes and camera clicks, you are up and off while the next child files in right behind you for their close up. After the day is over, parents are just hoping that their child’s photos show the awesome person that they see every day. A few weeks later, and here are the envelopes with the proofs. Parents get the biggest smiles on their faces, seeing their pride and joy smiling back at them. It’s a streamlined process that seems to happen everywhere, multiple times a year in every school. It’s a pretty simple process right? But what if you’re working with a child diagnosed with ASD? A child who may not understand simple directions or who finds bright lights aversive? A child that can’t tell you that this environment with all this equipment is scary? Or that the new people who are talking to them are making them uncomfortable? As a parent of a child diagnosed with ASD, what do you do when all you want is a nice, professional photo of your little one that shows how happy they are? A photo that shows your amazing, fun-loving child’s true spirit?
Well, after a few requests by our families, it became clear that our mission was to make this happen at the Verbal Beginnings Center (VBC). After all, why should our children and families be deprived of this experience? So, we began the planning process. After calling a few well-known school photography companies, it was quickly apparent that we didn’t have enough children to make it worth it for them and/or no one had experience in photographing this population and did not want to proceed. However, we were not going to give up so easily. We contacted another photography company, Federal Hill Photography. The owner, Carl Schmidt, also did not have experience photographing children who were diagnosed with ASD, but he was eager to step up and help us make this a reality.
Once we were able to find our photographer, the next steps in the planning process could begin.
Communication & Schedules
Having teams at the VBC is great. I am extremely proud that we have created a culture where everyone wants to help when something new is being tried. Especially, when we all know it will benefit our children and families. For this VBC picture day to work, we were going to need to make sure all involved received accurate communication and at the right time. There was a lot to coordinate considering each child has their own clinician and a full schedule of activities to go along with their therapy. We had roughly 50 people who needed to know the expectations, process and plan well in advance of picture day. Our VP of Center Operations, Dr. Amy Atwell, worked hard to coordinate with the right people and create a top-down communication process so that the information was relayed quickly and accurately. Setting clear expectations and keeping everyone informed of the plan was the foundation toward a successful picture day. Amy made sure to map out a schedule for the photographer and clinicians. In your standard school photography sessions, kids are in and out of the “hot seat” in 60-90 secs. We wanted to make sure we had plenty of time with each child so Amy made sure to allot 15 minutes per child. Being prepared with something as simple as a schedule goes a long way to ensure everyone will be ready. The clinicians took the time to go over the rules for the children and even practiced smiling with them, all prior to the photoshoot. Looking back at picture day, it was clear that this proactive strategy prevented a lot of problem behaviors from occurring that day.
Setting Up The Room
We had to make sure the Picture Day Room was welcoming for the kids and more importantly, sensory-friendly. When taking professional pictures, you can always expect that pesky, bright flash from the camera lights. Even as a neurotypical adult, the bright flash of a giant camera light is not a pleasant feeling. You have a moment of flash blindness as your eyes adjust to want just happened. Can you imagine how this feels to a child with ASD? In our effort to reduce this discomfort, we used continuous lighting instead. Think of it like stage lighting for a play or video lighting for a commercial. We completely removed that sudden flash that so many of our kids would be averse to. Most of the kids still had some adjustment time “being in the spotlight” but after a few minutes, they didn’t even notice that the lights were there.
Every child that walked through the doors into the Picture Day Room, had their clinician with them. A clinician’s connection with their child is one of the most important aspects of ABA therapy. At first meeting, sometimes it takes clinicians weeks to build a really strong rapport with their child. The clinicians themselves become the child’s reinforcer and as it applies to Picture Day, this was no exception. The likelihood of the child engaging in behavior that we wanted, like smiling or laughing, dramatically increased when they got access to their clinician immediately following the act of smiling for the camera. Some children got tickles and others received hugs. The fact that the child’s clinician was in the room, providing them attention and encouragement, gave them the comfort they needed. They didn’t find this novel environment intimidating and their personality was able to shine through.
Getting back to that behavior that we wanted… smiling and laughing. For some children, this is an easy task. However, when a child won’t smile often or at all, how do you get them to engage in this behavior? Our wonderful clinicians crawled around, jumped, made silly faces, tickled and laid on the floor just to get that perfect picture. Why did we do this? We did this because we contrived the child’s motivation. Our clinicians spend hours with our children every day. They know their treatment plans inside and out. They know what they like and what they don’t like. This information along with knowledge on how to control the environment is invaluable. We brought in their favorite things; like fire trucks, iPads, label makers and bubbles. Once we were able to make the children feel comfortable in the spotlight, we would get them to smile and laugh unintentionally. Once that happened, we withheld the fun stuff until they smiled or laughed once again and then loaded them up with the reinforcers, hence contriving their motivation. The kids had a blast and we did too!
Flexibility and Patience
Flexibility and patience come with the territory in the field of ABA. If you don’t have those two qualities, it’s impossible to do the job. What was incredible to see was the flexibility and patience from someone outside the field of ABA. Our photographer, Carl Schmidt from Federal Hill Photography was very accommodating and he also seemed to have fun with the kids and found different approaches to all of our children. He had some children sit, some children stood, some had candid shots, and some looked right at the camera. But at the end of the day, all of them had smiles on their faces!
A Rewarding Day
Picture Day took a village. This day would not have been possible without our amazing clinicians, who always go above and beyond for our families and children. It wouldn’t have been possible without our dedicated leader, Amy Atwell. It also wouldn’t have been possible without our wonderful photographer, who took a chance when no one else would, to go outside his comfort zone. Thank you all for your commitment to compassionate care and the ability for us to use the tools available through ABA to put a smile on our children’s faces. At the end of the day, those smiles are just as precious to us as they are to the families that we did this for from the beginning.
Written by Diana Wolf, Co-CEO of Verbal Beginnings