Many students with autism struggle with situational intelligence. This is the ability to scan a room or situation, analyze and understand what is going on. You may have had the student that bursts into a classroom and loudly announces that they have arrived. Or you may have the student that inappropriately interrupts your teaching to declare what they have brought for snack.
These students have difficulty with situational awareness.
They lack the ability to enter a situation, analyze it, and respond appropriately. For most students, situational awareness is easier. These students can walk into the classroom and seamlessly acclimate themselves into a new environment. The process of scanning, analyzing, and adapting to the situation may take only a few seconds for these students. In fact, these students are most likely scanning and analyzing as they walk into the situation, constantly assessing and reassessing the objects and people in the room as they navigate it. But, for your students with autism, this process may take much longer or they may not be able to adapt to the situation at all. For some of your more rigid students, a new situation or environment may cause overwhelm, and in some cases, meltdowns.
So, what can be done?
What strategies can we teach our students to increase situational intelligence?
The STOP model is an easy 4-step process for teaching students strategies for increasing situational intelligence.
STOP stands for:
Let’s take each one step-by-step.
Space essentially means reading the room in terms of placement between the student and the other things in the room. Teach your students to look around when they approach a new situation. Where are the things located in the room? Where are the furnishings? What could be going on in the room?
Time is the second step in the STOP method. It refers to the time of day. What time is it? What should I be doing at this time? What normally happens during this time of day? Although things do not always happen at the same time every day, it would be beneficial for your student to be checking his or her schedule to perhaps predict what they are walking into when they come into a class. Help your students by making sure that their schedule is in order before the start of each day. The ultimate goal in special education is to help your student become independent, so teach them skills such as setting up their own schedule, so that they may be able to be more independent in the future.
Your students with autism are keenly aware of changes to the classroom environment. Use this to your advantage. Teach them to analyze the room or situation by looking at what is different. How is the room organized? Have your student mentally assess how the room is set up before they enter. Practice this skill with them by setting up various scenarios and practicing navigating the room and finding an appropriate seat with as little disruption to the class as possible.
People are confusing; that’s for sure. Although your students with autism may not be able to analyze the facial features or body language of others around them, they will be able to recognize the relationship between people and other objects. Where is everyone sitting it the classroom? Where is everyone in relation to the teacher, the board, or their desks? Are they working in groups or independently? Are they at tables and desks, or on the floor? Practicing analyzing the distance between people and objects in the classroom is a concrete concept that many of your students can understand.
Increasing situational intelligence can be tough and it takes time. The STOP method can give you the foundation for teaching situational intelligence, however, as with any new skill, it will take direct instruction and practice. Time, consistency and follow through will be key to the development and success in situational intelligence.