Story Props

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get Beth to pay attention to stories beyond a certain level. Like the “Pete the Cat” and “Dr. Seuss” level. If I attempted a reading of a story like Little Red Riding Hood, Tortoise and the Hare, Bear Snores On, or other similar books that were more sophisticated in language and concept, she just seemed to have no interest. I tried verifying she understood each page (classic who, what, where, when, why questioning), simplifying language, re-phrasing it for her, and buying simplified versions of some stories. Still, no interest. What was missing? I wasn’t sure at the time, but I decided to try story props. Many story props (felt board, puppets, play sets, etc.) exist for preschool stories, but they are often hard to find or do not exist for the level-up stories. So making these props was no small feat, but in the end it was worth it.

I understand now, the biggest thing missing for her was inference. The more complicated the story, the more you have to infer what is not on the pages. She was not paying attention because she simply didn’t get it. For example, Bear Snores On and other bear books by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. The characters move around to various places but you don’t see them making the journey. On one page of one book a character is in a hole, then he is out the next page. The actual coming out of the hole is not shown. In another book the characters go through a variety of actions to take care of their sick friend bear, but a lot of the actions are implied. Beth needed to see it and do it to understand. Another huge problem with the bear books was the concept that other words or phrases have the same meaning as many other words and phrases in the world. In other words, Beth was not inferring unknown words from the pictures and hints in the other text. Through saying over and over while using the story props, this “means” she finally got the meaning of the word “means” and that there are a lot of words and phrases in the world that mean the same thing. As another example, the Mo Willems Elephant and Piggie books. Beth didn’t know that the characters were talking back and forth until we acted it out. It is essentially an inference problem, because the author never uses “said” or “says” in the books and there were so many back and forth exchanges. The above are just examples of how we can never take for granted that many kids with autism must be specifically taught concepts that those of us without autism and language delays do naturally.

Kids with autism primarily have a communication condition. It is not enough to question them on who, what, where, when, why and then hope they magically connect the pieces, which is unfortunately the approach of most reading programs for kids with autism based on what I saw in Beth’s K classroom and from what other parents have told me. There was not a single puppet or story prop in her K classroom before I pulled Beth out, but there were a lot of flash cards with single words. I strongly feel these kids need to see what is happening to connect ideas, but a lot of people are focused on making short term gains with flash cards because it is easier to collect data, it is less expensive, and it is easier to show progress. But later on, almost all the kids with autism I know in classes like Beth’s get stuck at comprehension. Have we lost the art of story telling? Have we sacrificed teaching comprehension and fostering connection of ideas for basic drills of single ideas in the autism classroom?  I think we should at least ask if this is part of the problem and if more efforts towards teaching comprehension should be introduced earlier in the process.

Below are some samples of story props I have created or bought that really worked to help Beth appreciate and understand these stories. In some cases, these props just added a new appreciation and a deeper understanding of old favorites, like Pete the Cat. In the other cases it was like a light bulb went on for her where there was absolutely no light before. It would take me an eternity to write down how I found or made all these things, but in general…stuffed animals, Folkmanis finger puppets, and figures from Amazon (Toob, Safari, U.S. Toy, Schleich-use half price coupons for Michael and AC Moore craft stores, if an animal doesn’t exist, like a mole, you may have to chop off some body parts and/or use acrylic paint!), felt, painting and cutting up boxes, calico critters / doll house / fairy garden accessories, and finding someone who sews (thank you Judy…the bear quilt was amazing and Pet the Cat’s groovy buttons are a big hit) can get you a long way. If you have specific questions about how I did something please contact me (tammy.lynn.graham@gmail.com). I will add more story props to this post as I make them.

Bear Wants More, Bear Snores On and Other Bear Stories

Bear Wants More

Sample concepts: Bears sleep all winter and wake up hungry and thin in spring, they eat a lot when they wake up, cave and the different names for cave, different forest animal names, decorating, strawberry patch, clover patch, fishing process, bears eat fish and berries, if you eat too much you get too big (and can’t even get back in the cave in this case), picnic is eating outside. You need two bears…one bigger that can’t fit back through the cave door after eating.

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Bear Snores On

Sample concepts: Bears sleep all winter but many other animals don’t, friends were scared when they woke the bear but he was just sad because he missed the party, making popcorn, tea

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Bear’s New Friend

Sample concepts: the new friend owl is shy and hides from new people in a tree and in a hole, misunderstanding shy for someone not liking you, being scared when the owl jumps out, asking “Who?”

 

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Bear Says Thanks

Sample concepts: sharing, having different things one can share, different foods, being thankful

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Bear Feels Sick

Sample concepts: feeling sick, taking care of loved ones (with food, drink, cold cloth, checking fever, worrying), illness can be transferred to others, feeling well

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Bear Feels Scared

I found that after I did the above, I didn’t need the props for this one. But what a great book. Concepts: being lost and scared, having friends come search for you, feeling safe again. This was my favorite book of all of them!

Pete the Cat

Pete the Cat Groovy Buttons

My friend Judy made the shirt and velcro buttons (I had to paint one with acrylic paint to match the color in the story). The doll is from Amazon. She LOVED popping them off. The best part was showing Beth the buttons rolling away.

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Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes

pete the cat

This Little Folks felt set (purchased from Amazon) is great to show Pete stepping in things, staining his shoes, then having everything wash away when steps in the bucket (add all the layers and then take all the layers off when it washes and it tells the story perfectly).

Elephant and Piggie (Mo Wellims)

There is a Bird on Your Head!, Today I Will Fly!, and Can I Play Too?

Main Concepts: Friendship, being silly, inclusion and acceptance, humor, conversation with a friend

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The Mitten and The Hat (Jan Brett)

The Hat

Sample Concepts: Hanging clothes to dry on a clothes line, naming clothing and animals, teasing others and hurting their feelings, silly (animals wearing clothes)

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The Mitten

Sample Concepts: the concept of squeezing into something and stretching out something, silly (dump the animals out and make a big deal of the sneeze-that makes an impression!), knitting mittens (I used felt, but knitted mittens would be even better for this story…then you could teach making clothes with yarn), easy re-telling of past events (what happened? who stretched out the mitten?)

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In the Tall, Tall Grass and In a Small, Small Pond

Sample concepts: many different names for movements, animal names, where animals live (pond, grass, ant hill), animals eat bugs, berries, and sip flower nectar

In the Tall, Tall Grass

The bat finger puppets (Folkmanis) were a big hit because of the way their wings float.

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In the Small, Small Pond

Good luck finding a crayfish…just use a small lobster.

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The Golden Egg Book

Sample Concepts: Various actions (rolling down a hill-use pillows under a blanket to make a hill, kicking, jumping on, etc), guessing what is inside something, being lonely and making friends

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Rosie’s Walk

Sample concepts: prepositions, navigation, slapstick comedy (the fox is chasing the chicken but hits himself with a rake, falls into a pond, gets covered with flour, lands in hay, upsets a bee hive). The farm play set is from Amazon (Storytime toys) but any farm toy can be used.

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Sequencing is a …

XXXXX. You fill in the blank (hint, it rhymes with witch).

Not that sequencing is a bad thing per se, it has just been a huge struggle for Beth. Sequencing with pictures is important, because it is a great tool for teaching basic story telling, which helps with conversation and reading comprehension, and it is also useful for teaching steps in a process (i.e. “how” things are done). Beth’s difficulties with visual attention, visual motor planning, gross motor planning, working memory, expressive language, inference from pictures, and impulsivity means we were stuck in basic 3-step sequencing for months with essentially no progress. We kept plugging away at it though and we finally have a process that works. Below I give my advice and examples of how we do 3-step sequencing based on some hard lessons learned. I hope this will be of help to others who are struggling with basic sequencing.

1. Ditch the store-bought sets and make sequences that are meaningful to the child. After I tried and failed with about 5 ready-made sequencing sets, I resorted to taking my own pictures of my child doing every-day tasks. The payoff was immediate. I suggest choosing sequences that the child is very, very familiar with and asking what he/she sees in the pictures before you use them for sequencing. If the child doesn’t understand what a picture is trying to represent (the inference), then re-take the picture to correct the inference, ditch the set, or save the set for later. Remember, in the beginning the goal is to work on the sequence in and of itself. Here is a list of common basic sequences and pictures of a few sets we use:

  • Favorite foods/drinks (e.g., peel banana, eat banana, throw away peel; open yogurt, get spoon, eat yogurt; open water, pour water, drink water)
  • Favorite activities (e.g., open bubbles, get wand, blow bubbles)
  • Going to familiar places (e.g., get in the car, Mommy or Daddy drives, we got to [familiar place])
  • Familiar processes (e.g., go into store, get shopping cart, pay; unlock door, open door, walk outside; open car door, get in the car seat, Mommy or Daddy drives)
  • Beginning, middle, end of favorite books or videos
  • Daily living tasks (e.g., put on pants, put on socks, put on shoes; put toothpaste on toothbrush, brush teeth, rinse; go potty, get toilet paper, flush; turn on water, get soap, wash hands; turn on water, take a bath, dry with towel)
Sequence 1: Open yogurt, get a spoon, eat yogurt; Sequence 2: Open bubbles, get wand, blow bubbles

Top sequence: open yogurt, get a spoon, eat yogurt; Bottom sequence: open bubbles, get wand, blow bubbles

Top Sequence: get in the car, Daddy drives, go to Subway; Bottom sequence: Put toothpaste on toothbrush, brush teeth, rinse

2. Address visual attention challenges. Beth gets easily distracted and has trouble with looking on a flat table-top surface for extended periods of time. Typical solutions for increasing visual attention include the use of slant boards and easels. We address some activities through a slant board, but I have found an easel is better for tougher tasks. As shown in the video below, for sequencing we use a magnetic white board table top easel, and I attach magnetic tape on the back of the laminated pictures (you can use clear contact paper or a laminator).
3. Address motor planning challenges. If motor planning is an issue, find a motor plan that works for sequencing and stick to it (and tell all therapists and teachers to use the same motor plan). You will see in the video below we went with boxes for placement and we place the pictures above or below the boxes on an easel.
4. For visual scanning or impulsivity problems, guide the child to slow down and look at all the pictures first.  I have learned a great deal from watching where Beth’s eye gaze is directed, and have noted her getting fixated on certain pictures, stopping mid-scan, not looking before she grabs a picture, etc. To be successful with this task, the child must examine all the pictures first. I usually use a verbal prompt (I say look at the pictures, or if she is really distracted I tell her to look at each picture) and often use a sweeping motion with my hand.  I am very careful to avoid guiding her to the answer with my hand (I stop randomly while sweeping/pointing and randomize placement of pictures).
5. Start with a sequence the child knows and model the task. I use A, B, C and 1, 2, 3 in the beginning of each session to remind Beth what we are doing (shown in video below). For completely new sequences I model the set several times before I expect her to sequence the cards independently.
6. Keep the guiding language consistent at first, then expand to more complex and varied language. I started with saying “What do you first?” (she places first ), “And then?” (she places second), “And then?” (she places third picture). But after a while I realized sequencing is a great opportunity for language expansion once Beth gets the process for a particular set of cards. Then I started varying the language and asking longer phrases. Here are some ideas:

  • “How do you [insert main sequence idea]?  First…then…, then…”
  • “What do you need to do when you want to [insert activity]?  First…then….then….”
  • “Let’s put these in order. First…, next…, last…”
  • “Let’s talk about the story (for books or video screen shots). In the beginning…, in the middle…, at the end…”

7. Reward appropriately and give breaks. You will see in the video we got lucky and only used scented stickers for this round of sequencing, but I keep the reward high for this demanding task. We have used mints, gum, gel clings on the light table, a promise to go outside, and many other things to keep Beth motivated. The video below is a particularly long session for her and in general I give her more frequent breaks. Some days she is just not into the task, so we tray again later or do the task another day.
8. Once 3-step sequencing with custom cards is mastered, consider moving to store-bought sets to expand learning and language. You can work on what the boy, girl, or group is doing in the pictures (work on he is..,  she is.., they are…), teach new processes, find gaps in knowledge, and get ideas for new activities you can do together. For example, if a set of sequence cards shows making lemonade and the child does not understand the sequence due to lack of experience with the process, make lemonade together.
9. Most importantly, observe carefully and think outside the box. Despite Beth’s expressive language delays, she chose to talk during the sequencing activity.  It definitely surprised me, but now I understand that using expressive language slowed her down and helped her with task focus and working memory.  I believe in following my child’s lead in general, but it is especially important during challenging teaching tasks.