A Simple Strategy to Manage an Autistic Child’s Fear of Practicing New Skills


Novelty can be very difficult for kids with autism.



Learning a new skill is only one type of novelty in the life of an autistic child.    But it can go badly, and without much warning.

The meltdown from being asked to switch things up can be substantial.  Mostly out of proportion to the task demands, but to not the level of fear and frustration it triggered in a child.  And in a task that is often less complex than a skill they mastered last week.

Doesn’t matter.

That mega-meltdown can completely ruin their private lesson, or their whole school day.


What can you do to help a child with autism handle the stress of learning a new skill?

Try “bookending” the new skill with a skill they have already mastered.

What is “bookending”?

When you ask a child to briefly perform a familiar and related skill, then require either a specific number of repetitions of the new skill, or ask them to complete a few minutes of active practice of the new skill (no trying to run down the clock!), and then return to performing the familiar skill, you have “bookended” the new task.

Why does this work?

Because beginning with the mastered skill helps them calm and focus, and feel in control.

When they know that practicing the new skill will be brief, and they can measure how long they have to experience the stress of novelty, it makes it much easier to handle the emotions coming at them.

Repeating the original mastered skill helps them neurologically recover from the stress of the novel experience, and reinforces their trust in your statement that they are done with the new skill for the moment.

You always want children to trust you.  Too often we see progress and then decide that the best thing to do would be to give them more practice.  OOPS.  This indicates that we have not paid enough attention to the child’s feelings.  That never ends well.

“Bookending” is never a substitute for good teaching or good materials, or attention to the sensory environment.  But it is a solid method for helping a child with autism manage their big emotions during learning.

For more on supporting children with autism, read What to Say to Your Autistic Child During Potty Training to Get The Best Results! and Why Cutting Nails Is Such a Challenge for Autistic and Sensory Kids  .

Want great strategies to do potty training with a child with ASD?

I wrote a book for you!

front cover

The Practical Guide to Toilet Training the Autistic Child: Sensory-Motor Secrets for Success is now available on Your Therapy Source and  Amazon!

Autism does make potty training more challenging, but it doesn’t mean that kids can’t learn or that parents and professionals have to struggle.  This book isn’t filled with theory; it is a manual for success!

What’s inside?

  • Use the realistic readiness checklist to know where a child is on the road to independence.
  • Understand what the most common issues will be, and deal with them before you start formal training.
  • Got a kid with global delays?  Do Collaborative Diapering and Targeted Pre-Training to help them make progress today!
  • Need to find the best potty seat, footstool, or toilet paper?  The resource list will help you out!
  • Want to move a child from independence at home to using a toilet in public, but don’t know how to help them?  It is in here…!
  • Worried about the gnarliest problems like smearing, defiance, fears, and withholding?  They are discussed with honesty and compassion.

Potty training isn’t always a breeze.  But this book makes it much easier and less stressful for everyone.  Combining factual strategies with narrative accounts of three fictional families as they go through potty training their autistic child makes it easy to learn what you need to do.


By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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