Ten Tips to Lead a 4-H Club that includes Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By: Chelsea Whitaker, Occupational Therapy Student and 4-H Alumni

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that makes it difficult for individuals to communicate and relate with others in the social world. Each individual diagnosed with ASD is affected differently and has a variety of strengths and challenges. Individuals with ASD have different degrees of verbal communication abilities, social interaction limitations, and sensory preferences. However, individuals with ASD tend to be very passionate, focused, and detail oriented especially if they are interested in the topic (Rao, Holtz, Ziegert, Brown, Fenichel, 2007; Grandin, 1995). The following are ten tips to help make the inclusion of individuals with ASD into the 4-H club a positive experience for everyone involved.

  1. Take a moment to foster acceptance of individuals with disabilities by educating club members about individuals with ASD including their strengths and their challenges. To help others understand ASD use the article “Explaining Autism Using Everyday Examples” referenced below. Stress teamwork and helping others during club meetings and activities.
  2. Expose members to the various opportunities and subjects that 4-H offers. You never know what will spark a club member’s interest. Many individuals with ASD have visual thinking abilities that can allow them to excel in science, engineering, as well as other areas (Grandin, 1995).
  3. Begin your meeting using words or pictures to describe what is to come and what is going to happen at the subsequent meeting. Individuals with ASD thrive when a routine and a schedule are in place (Rao et al., 2007; Schall & McFarland-Whisman, 2009).
  4. Because individuals with ASD are usually visual learners, any time that pictures can be incorporated during the meeting the better (Grandin, 1995).
  5. Provide sensory and movement opportunities throughout the club meeting. Opportunities to taste, touch, smell, see, hear, or move can engage an individual with autism and increase their attention (Grandin, 1995). Consider a multi-sensory activity, game, or animal visitor to enhance the take home message like healthy eating habits, the proper care of a 4H animal, or caring for a vegetable plant. Encourage but do not force participation as some individuals with ASD may find certain smells, textures, or tastes unbearable.
  6. Provide a quiet space for anyone who needs a break from the activity. A separate but inviting table and chair will suffice (Rao et al., 2007; Schall & McFarland-Whisman, 2009)
  7. Keep the physical meeting environment simple so that individuals with ASD are not over-stimulated. Individuals with ASD can be hyper or hypo-sensitive to their environment. Keeping distractions, sounds, smells, and lights to a minimum and having various sensory fidgets available will appeal to various sensory preferences (Rao et al., 2007). Sensory fidgets can be as simple as providing exercise balls to sit on and making silly putty, stress balls, and a beaded necklace available to play with (Schall & McFarland-Whisman, 2009). Giving individuals with ASD access to sensory stimulation may help them feel calm.
  8. Individuals with ASD can have a very difficult time interpreting facial expressions. Therefore, if you are unpleased with a behavior you must tell the individual in a calm and simple manner. For example, “it makes me feel upset when you jump out of your seat. Please raise your hand before going to the quiet area.” Rewarding positive behavior will encourage cooperation in the entire club. A reward can be as simple as choosing a game for the club to participate in following the meeting (Rao et al., 2007).
  9. Do not forget to ask children with ASD or their parents what they may be interested in learning about in the future
  10. Enjoy the level of diversity, different perspective, and strengths that someone with ASD brings to your club.

In order to better lead a 4-H club that includes individuals with ASD, you must first welcome these individuals into your club. Temple Grandin has ASD and was an active 4-H member as a child and adolescent. She used her sensory sensitivities and engineering abilities to revolutionize the agriculture industry. Over 1/3 of livestock handling facilities have been influenced by her innovative design (Grandin, 1995). Who knows what other individuals with ASD will do to expand the vision of 4-H?

Occupational therapists are invested in the lives of individuals with autism. Occupational therapists define occupations as meaningful activities that one wants to engage in. The occupational therapy profession seeks to help individuals with ASD meet their goals so that they can perform occupations as successfully and independently as possible (American Occupational Therapy Association, 2010). An occupational therapist gives individuals with ASD the skills, knowledge, and adaptations they need to successfully engage in their home, their community, and the world. Therefore, occupational therapists are another valuable resource when seeking advice on including individuals with autism into the 4-H club.

About umebaltimorecountyfourh

University of Maryland Extension, Baltimore County 4-H serves youth from ages 5-18 in Baltimore County MD through hands-on activities and learning experiences. http://extension.umd.edu/baltimore-county/4-h-youth
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