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The Instructor's Role for "Reframing" to College Age Students in the Spectrum
The reframing process is a teaching strategy developed by Dr. Michael McManmon and Dr. Stephen Shore.


Adam, a 23-year-old student with Asperger's syndrome, is back in college after a two-year hiatus. During his previous attempt, Adam did well on his homework and tests but lacked the social skills necessary to complete his group projects. His lack of participation with the group eventually caused him to become isolated, anxious, and depressed. He dreaded going to school because he felt everyone was purposely ignoring him.

During Adam's two years off, he spent some time reflecting on his experiences. He learned that other people had the same experiences as he did but that they experienced different outcomes. How could it seem so easy for them but be nearly impossible for him? By learning to see within a new frame of reference, Adam came to realize that his classmates were not isolating him at all; his own actions had caused him to be isolated. To be in a group meant to work as a team; therefore, by not participating, he was doing a disservice to the group. Adam's ability to reframe his past situation gave him a new perspective that he could take with him into the future.

What is reframing?

A frame can refer to a belief – which often can amount to a limiting view of the world.. Similar to a window frame, a smaller frame may mean you will be able to see less of the outside. Reframing seeks to convert one's thoughts and feelings surrounding a negative situation into a positive pathway for change. Reframing identifies the good intention in a negative behavior and readjusts the process to one by which that behavior can be made more successful.

It can boost self-confidence for an individual on the spectrum to realize that they are not defective or disordered but have many assets that neurotypical individuals do not. Understanding this helps to uncover the impact of learning differences and redefine past experiences and relationships.

Students are taught that they can take an active role in contributing to their own happiness by the regulation of emotions and reattribution of new behaviors through the process of reframing.

Who needs reframing?

Young adults with Asperger's syndrome (AS) and nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) have spent most of their lives struggling to operate within the framework of society. Defined as having significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests, what is known as "normal" to most is a learned process for those with AS and NLD.

Knowing that negative preconceived notions and expected outcomes can significantly skew the outcome of any situation, individuals can learn to reframe their perspective, creating a foundation for change and allowing new growth. Students are taught that they can take an active role in contributing to their own happiness by the regulation of emotions and reattribution of new behaviors through the process of reframing.

In typical college fashion, Emily skips breakfast and heads right to her 9 a.m. class. Today she has a mid-term and happened to sleep in as a result of being up too late trying to get some extra studying in. Emily knows the material that she will be tested on today better than anyone else in the class. She has been fascinated by biology since she was a young girl.

Why would Emily then fail her mid-term? An even better question would be why Emily might not even complete the exam? Preceding this situation, Emily was embarrassed about being labeled with nonverbal learning disorder. She did not want special treatment and, therefore, did not advocate for more testing time, even though she is entitled to it because of her sensory issues.

The ticking clock, shuffling of papers, and coughs of her classmates are a major distraction. If Emily would have had the insight to deal with even just a couple of the issues above, she would have had a considerably better chance at passing her test.

A proactive solution to Emily's problems is to reframe her narrow perspective into new beliefs:

  • Having a learning disability is just a difference, such as speaking a different language.
  • Taking care of core wellness issues such as hunger, fatigue, and anxiety is a basic necessity, similar to how a flower needs to be watered or get sunlight.

Begin the day by reframing

The reframing process should involve a morning routine. The session can be held in a classroom setting or other distraction-free environment such as a quiet room. Here are some items that an instructor can guide students through:

1. Emotional thermometers

2. Discussion of the day's theme

3. Relevant "hidden curriculum" items

4. Practice situations

Students prepare to face their day having learned valuable insights about themselves, being aware of their wellness issues, being clear from the previous evening, and organized for their day.

The emotional thermometer

Emotional regulation is a developmental skill used in interaction between one's basic brain mechanisms and the daily experiences with others. Your body regulates your emotions to help you react in appropriate ways. The emotional thermometer exercise helps to identify internalized emotions, the first step towards regulation.

The use of an emotional thermometer provides a visual means into self-regulation areas such as:

  • Hunger
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Disorientation
  • Flexibility

Responses are monitored from day to day for the purpose of self-reflection and for insight into the understanding of emotions and sensory issues. Through daily self-appraisal and the process of rating their own self-care and wellness, students can identify a relationship between their behaviors and social and emotional functioning.

Tips for instruction:

  • Students can be taught to regulate their emotions by altering their behavior.
  • Help students understand that they can create the feelings that they want by altering the factors that contribute to their wellness.
  • Get perspective on how their own regulation, or lack thereof, affects others around them.
  • Control some of the variables that cause depression and anxiety.
Themed meetings

Used as a daily process, reframing helps connect the dots between behavior and emotion. Over time, one can develop self-efficacy and self-control by associating new behaviors with past emotions. Since individuals with Asperger's crave consistency, using a consistent daily practice is an important factor in rewiring the complex patterns of the brain and decisions one makes.

Remember that college age students can have rigid social behaviors and be emotionally immature. A breakthrough is not a quick process. Discussing weekly themes with coordinated daily lesson plans covers a variety of topics related to core issues.

Suggested themes:

  • Flexibility and overcoming rigidity
  • Building relationships
  • Understanding and accepting of self
  • Understanding learning styles
  • Emotional regulation
  • Co-regulation
  • Self-advocacy skills

The hidden curriculum

The term "hidden curriculum" is used to describe the unwritten social rules and expectations of behavior that we all seem to know but were never taught (Bieber, 1994). Reviewing hidden curriculum serves as an effective method of pre-teaching. The instructor uses topics that are apparent to a neurotypical student but difficult for students with differences to understand. Spell out unwritten rules and practice situations beforehand.

The college student with AS needs to be taught about societal expectations that include:

  • Idioms or metaphors
  • Behaviors and actions
  • Assumed roles
  • Nonverbal actions, such as staring or inappropriate touching
  • Any other topic that may seem like “common sense”

Recommended practice activities:

  • Use video to analyze social situations (sitcoms generally work well).

    Stopping and starting the video, see if your student can:

    • Predict what will happen next
    • Pick up on sarcasm or idioms
    • Recognize facial expressions
    • Recognize nonverbal communication

    Role Playing – Rehearse situations such as:

    • Renting a book from the library
    • Asking a stranger for directions
    • Asking another student on a study date
    • Finding the positive in a negative situation
    The donkey rule

    The "donkey rule" can be used in group discussions in a reframing class. The theory behind the donkey rule is as follows: if five people call something a horse, it is not a donkey. This concept asks that you take a poll of five or so of your most trusted mentors when making a critical decision. The idea is that these people will generally lead you to the appropriate outcome.

    Tim, a 19-year-old with Asperger's just scored his first part-time job, stocking inventory at the campus bookstore. His new dorm mate, John, asked Tim if he could get him a discount on the books that he needed for the semester. Tim's manager had told Tim that a discount was available as part of his employment benefits. Tim wanted to help John, but he also wanted to abide by the rules his manager set. What should Tim have done in this situation?

    Confused and anxious, Tim decided to ask for advice. He polled his R.A. in the dorm, asked a couple study partners, and phoned his dad. They all said, "Ask your manager". With assistance, Tim was able to draw the conclusion that he needed clarification from his manager.

    Even if Tim's first inclination did not match up, it was important that he realized that other people have different opinions, often for good reason. This is the single most effective technique: The donkey rule teaches flexibility and social judgment, and breaks up grandiosity and rigidity. It can be used in almost any situation and is a pro-social tool that is easily incorporated into one's daily routine.

    To use the donkey rule, there must be a comfortable level of both self-advocacy and self-disclosure with one's mentors. Mentors should be role models, teachers, therapists, coworkers, parents, or other experienced members of society.

    Gaining new perspective

    If you do not know who you are and where you came from, how can you go forward confidently in the world? Daily reframing is a process for new growth and understanding. As a proactive approach to dealing with social and emotional well-being issues, reframing is a strategy one can take with them throughout their lifetime.

    REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE AUTISM FILE, WWW.AUTISMFILE.COM. Dr. Michael McManmon, Ed.D., is the executive director of the College Internship Program, and the founder of CIP. The program was founded in 1984 as a community-based alternative to institutions which served students with Learning Disabilities. CIP supplies a transitional apartment program for individuals to learn the skills necessary to live on their own. From the beginning, the program served as a psycho-educational alternative to traditional "medical model" facilities. See us on the web or call College Internship Program at 1-877-Know-CIP.

  • Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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