Autistic children can struggle with unfamiliar places. However, one teacher of the year has found a way to help improve traveling experiences for autistic children and their families. Brett Bigham has created a way to use books to help special needs and young children prepare to go to new places. Learn about this technique and how to help children travel who may have fears. You can even make books for kids (or some older students might be able to as well.) What a life-changing concept! Ability books for those with special needs.
Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. All comments in the shaded green box are my own. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.
Vicki: Today we’re talking with Brett Bigham @2014ortoy, AKA “Mr. B” who was Oregon Teacher of the Year 2014.
Brett, your love and passion has been kids with special needs, for quite some time. And you work with older kids who have special needs, so we’re going to talk a little bit about a way that you helped kids with special needs kind of transition to other places. So, give me an example of something you’ve done.
How Brett helped his autistic and special needs kids take field trips each week
Brett: I worked with students who were ages 18-21, for quite a while, and a lot of my students had pretty severe autism. My classroom’s a county level classroom. So I was only getting students if the local district couldn’t handle their health or their behavior. I had two full-time nurses in my room and a very busy class.
So, what I started to discover was that when I took some of those kids with severe autism out on a field trip, they were melting down. They really couldn’t stand not knowing what was coming up.
So I kind of realized, “Well, I need to fix that,” instead of deciding they should go on field trips. I decided I have to modify what I’m doing. So I started going the week before to the event or the field trip we were going on. And we went out every Friday. It was part of our program, to get our students more used to being out in the community.
So if we were going to ride on the Portland Tram, I would go the weekend before and take pictures of every step. “These are the stairs you go in, this is the door you open, this is the ticket machine,” — every step they need to do the field trip.
I’d make a book. I’d print the pictures into the book, and then write all the steps. Then we would spend the week going over what was coming up.
They’re similar to a “social story,” which a lot of people who work with autism will see, like, “I’m Going to the Doctor” or a trip, or how to go. And they’re step-by-step, but they’re very generic. And I needed specifics.
I had to show the staircase they were going to walk up. I had to show them the signs they needed to look at to find the arrows of where to go. So, I just started doing them in my own room.
How one family was finally able to go on vacation
And after a while, one of my students that really needed these had what’s called Severe Self-Injurious Behavior. She would hit herself when she became upset. It was so terrible to see. It was the worst day of my career the first time she had one of these episodes. The year before I got her, she was sent home 34 times for that. The first year I had her, we had three incidents. Two of them were right at the beginning, and I started using the books. The next year she had zero. And the next year she had zero.
And her family started going on vacations. They had never gone on a trip in their entire life with her, and they were able to go to Hawaii. I made a book, “I’m Going to Hawaii,” and was able to go online and find vacation pictures from people.
And people took pictures of everything, so I got the inside of the plane so I could show her, “This is the inside of the plane you’re going to go on.” And they were actually the Aloha Airlines logos, but a plane stuffed with people. A lot of times, you know, you can get a picture of the airplane, but it’s empty. And this was crammed full, so she knew exactly what to expect.
And when her parents got back from the trip, their life was changed. Absolutely changed. They didn’t have a single incident the whole time.
And now that student has graduated. And when I met her, she was someone – they were trying to figure out how they could make a life for this young lady – one that meant she never had to leave her house. And when she left me, she got a job, and she goes to work five days a week. Her whole family’s life is changed from it.
How Brett puts pictures together
Vicki: So, you take the pictures. Do you have a technology you use to put these books together?
Brett: I do it in two different ways. I make a printout version that you can just look at on your computer and print out. And then I use Microsoft Sway because they have a feature where I can record the book. And that can also be used on the phone. So someone could take the phone, and push a button, and it will read it to them.
I’ve just started recording them. I only have one of them done. I have 45 books at this point.
- Editor’s Note: Today’s Sponsor Book Creator has all of these features as well. You can start now with 40 free books to create for your kids. Go to: coolcatteacher.com/bookcreator
How to Find the books
Vicki: Wow. Can people get them online? Can you give a link?
Brett: They are. They are all online, but sadly, most of them are only in places where I’ve been. So, I have quite a few books for Washington D.C., because I’m there for conferences. I have Portland, Oregon, where I’m from. Last year I was at the NNSTOY Conference in Chicago, and we took in the Chicago Art Institute, so they have a book. So, it kind of depends where I go. But I go a lot of places these days.
Vicki: And so they can tweet you to ask you to – if they have a special request?
Brett: Absolutely. You know, I would love to do that. Or I would help somebody in another state. If they said, “I really… I need to make this for my student.” I would walk them through every step, and then I would hope that they’d let me put them on my blog. It’s MrBsClassroom.com, and they’re all on there.
What happened, though, since I have had this opportunity to go out and speak, I’ve made books now for eleven countries. So, I’m starting to collect people who can translate. I have an Italian mom who has a son with autism, and she’s translating all the books I wrote for Italy into Italian.
So my outreach is – I’ll do the best I can, which is an English book on how to go to visit the Coliseum, when I went. But it’s in English, so it helps somebody who speaks English who can go to the Coliseum, but this housewife is making it a tool for every person with autism in Italy. And that’s my dream.
How do you use the books with children?
Vicki: So you have the book. You show it to the child. You talk it through. So, describe what you do, once you have the book in hand, when you’re sitting down. You’re sitting down one-on-one with the child for this?
Brett: I’ve done both. You know, with the whole classroom, showing them. And then I’ll sit with a student, and we’ll just go page by page, and like this is… You know, I read the book to them and point at the picture and say, “We’re going to go here, and these are the stairs that we’re going to go up. You don’t need to be worried about that.” In the books, I always focus on “This is a safe place. Stay with your group.”
But I always show pictures – at least one in every book, I think, of someone sitting down on a chair somewhere – where I say, “If it gets to be too much, you can just sit down and rest for a minute. You don’t need to get upset. Just have a minute. Take a moment. Have a seat.”
Vicki: And you show them a place where they can sit…
Vicki: Ohhhh, so you’re giving them an out. You’re saying, “OK.” In some ways it’s metacognition. “OK, I realize I’m getting tired. So I’m going to ask to sit over here.”
Brett: Absolutely. And that way, they don’t have to stress out because someone doesn’t understand what they want. They can show me in the book. “I’m ready to sit down.” It gives them a way to communicate back, or maybe even to ask a simple type of question about the outing.
Vicki: This is genius. I mean, it’s just beautiful.
Helping kids and people with the fear of the unknown
Brett: But it’s not genius. It’s so… You know, once I realized that these people who have such a… That autism comes in so many different shades and varieties and… But the people who have that fear of the unknown, and the transition problems… Once I just took a moment to sit down and say, “Well, how do I fix that?” And it was a simple fix. They just need to know. But I had to figure out a way to get them to know.
And I feel sorry for my friends. I’m always – my poor partner – I’m always tricking them. “Hey, let’s go to breakfast downtown.” Then while we’re down there, I’m like, “Well, while we’re here, let’s go down by the Tram. I need to take some pictures. So you know, all my friends have been in books, and course they always say OK. How do you say no to that?
Vicki: Yeah, because I want to help a child who really needs the help.
Vicki: So… we’re going to put the link to the blog in the Shownotes.
Brett: Thank you.
Vicki: And do you have on your blog instructions for teachers who want to create books like you’ve done?
Brett: I haven’t done that, because nobody’s asked for it yet.
Vicki: I’m asking! (laughs)
Brett: You know what?
Vicki: I think people are going to want to know how to do that!
We need more travel books for children who struggle with fears of the unknown
Brett: If there’s a teacher who thinks that this is the answer to helping one of their students, I will do everything they need to help. If they can take the pictures for me, I can write the book for them. I haven’t done that yet, but I keep hoping I will have to. I’m trying to be the guy who takes the snowball at the top of the hill and pushes it. Because I can. It’s taken me twelve years to do 45 books. And that’s… that’s not enough. You know, I want… I want every Smithsonian Museum on the mall to have a book. And every important place, and every city… I want them to have a book, because, without them, people who have these issues with the transition will never get to go. Or if they go, it won’t be successful.
Vicki: So it just opens up a great opportunity for those with autism to be able to go places. It’s a great strategy.
Brett: Right. And if you have a listener who decided, you know, this is what my daughter needs. And they want to make a book, what I will do then is I’ll take that book and put that on my blog, and maybe help them find somewhere locally where they can do it so that the people in their community can share the book. And if ten people just do one book, then your community has the support it needs. I’ve done twelve for Portland, and it makes it one of the most accessible cities in the United States for people with this autism
Vicki: So what do you call these books?
Brett: I call them Ability Guidebooks.
Vicki: Ability Guidebooks… So, teachers, this is a remarkable idea. Ability Guidebooks for those with autism, or transition issues. And you know there are lots of kids who could benefit from this. I’ll include the blog, so you can go there.
Did you want to add something, Brett?
Brett: You were saying other students… I had never thought about that. I was thinking of my own kids at first, and what I started to get were messages from kindergarten and first grade teachers saying, “We were going on a field trip to the art museum, and I used your book to show my eight-year-olds exactly how to behave in the museum.” And it makes a world of difference because they see what’s expected beforehand.
Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford
Biography as Submitted
Brett Bigham is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year or to be awarded the NEA National Award for Excellence in Education. He was named a NEA Foundation Global Fellow in 2015 and is one of only a handful of teachers to be given that honor again for 2018 where he will travel to South Africa as a representative of U.S. teachers.
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