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When my son was born, I used to joke that my wife would make him wear protective gear someday to go to the refrigerator. She is quite the worrier. With that, she puts a lot of thought into things that might happen. Often, the best defense against something that might happen would be not to put yourself in the situation it might happen. Is this safer? Perhaps, but at what expense? I had fun with it, knowing that I would be there to put them both in position to have experiences and support them as needed. Sadly, sometimes with the individuals that we serve, experience is second to risk…second to what might happen.

When I first starting working with students with autism, the program was largely focused on risk management. Students came to our school when it was determined that their needs could not be met in the public school. So with that, not only was the classroom self-contained, it was self-contained at school populated by students in an alternative setting. It took quite some time, but eventually the students would join other classes in gym class. It was safer for them to be in their room, with the people who know them. Right? Perhaps, but at what expense?

In the Mandt System, we talk about teaching the individuals that we provide services to how to get what they want, or get away from what they don’t want, in ways that do not hurt themselves or others. Using positive behavioral supports and interventions, we want to teach replacement behaviors to enable them to do this.

There was little question to how the students who came to us were using behavior as communication. Being non-verbal they were doing the best they could where they were at to get needs met. The emphasis of the program was on communication and independence. We did see progress quickly, however it was mostly self-contained. Experiences were still being hindered by what “might” happen. It wasn’t until we stopped focusing on managing risk, and started focusing on safety while getting out of the “safety net” of the school that we really saw progress take off.

Taking every scenario of what might happen into account, we planned outings into the community. Staff knew the “zones” they would play. Picture schedules and communication devices were ready to go. We knew the behaviors that each student would use, and we planned what we would do in those situations accordingly. We knew what helped them to de-escalate, and we planned accordingly by making sure we had as many options as possible.

Not all of the trips were smooth. That was to be expected, but staff was prepared to safely manage the situations. There were preferred trips like going to the pizza buffet, candy store, or parks. That was fun, but for true growth we wanted to challenge the kids to go places that nobody else would take them. We did weekly trips to the public library where it was difficult at first to understand not everything was for the taking and there was a process to borrowing…and bringing things back. We went shopping at Wal-Mart every Friday. When sharing this plan with one student’s father he told us, “don’t even do that to yourself.” Each student’s family or care provider had many reasons this wouldn’t be tops on a to-do list.

It is important to note these shopping trips. These trips were not to get preferred items. The students were not only each given a shopping list on a picture schedule to buy supplies for the school, these students did the supply shopping for the entire school! Boring, not interesting at all, school supplies! These trips opened the doors for experiences outside of school that they may have never had.

One day when covering the Liabilities and Legal Issues chapter in Mandt Systems training I thought of this story and it poured out. Each time I do it now I get emotional thinking about those three years I worked with those students. To think of how far they came from it being determined that the self-contained classrooms they were in at the public schools were not enough. To think where they would be now, and the experiences in life they would have missed out on, had we continued to focus on managing risk rather than safety.

One of my favorite memories of that time was on one of those shopping trips. We were going through buying supplies for the school when I saw the parents of the boy I was with. We could have easily gone down another aisle if we were looking at the risk of what would happen if he saw them. Instead, we went over. When his parents saw us approaching you could see their eyes widen with fear of what may happen. There was a hello..a hug…a goodbye…and he safely went on his way to finish shopping.

Lee Johnson – Hillcrest Family Services

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