Balancing the Tray


by Lenore Gerould (1996), Carbon-Lehigh Right to Education Task Force,
Schnecksville, PA. Distributed by Autism Services Center, Huntington, WV by kind
permission of the author.

Those of us who have daily contact with children with autism sometimes have
trouble explaining to regular education teachers or administrators the ‘hooks’
of autism; especially the kinds of support they need. You’re always trying
to explain the basics, ‘no, moving the pencil sharpener’s location in the
classroom is not what upset him. You have to understand that…’. Then I came up
with this analogy. Perhaps it will help others to visualize the support

Try to imagine the child balancing a large serving tray on one upturned hand.
Every distress for that child is like a liquid-filled glass you are putting
on this tray. The ‘distress glasses’ are unique to each kid; but generally
include things like auditory or visual over-stimulation, social interaction,
‘surprises’ or unexpected changes in the schedule, lack of clear leadership,
the number of people in the room; whatever is sensitive for that child. (Don’t
forget the ability to read the body English and anxiety of the adults around
them!) The size and weight of the ‘glass’ for that child varies; just like
the ‘distress glasses’ vary for each kid. Some things are merely shot glass
size, while others can be a two liter jug. At some point the tray is going to
start to wobble – the liquid will start spilling out of the glasses on the
tray. The cues that this is happening will vary kid to kid: just as the cause and
size of a ‘glass’ varies kid to kid, but generally include regressive
behavior, avoidance or shutting down, giggling or minor acting out to get

Hopefully, someone will help the kid rebalance the tray, or remove some
glasses. Perhaps taking a break, or allowing time to refocus or process will
work; again, techniques are unique to each kid. If there’s no intervention, the
addition of one more glass will topple the tray to the floor. The cause is not
the most recent ‘glass’ you added, but the fact that the tray was full or too
heavy (the latter is why the child seems so unpredictable to some people.)
Our efforts should be that the kid learns to hold a bigger tray, or to do
minor correction of the tray’s balance somewhat independently, but they will
always carry that wobbling tray. Ignoring cues can be disastrous, from classroom
disruptions to a major regression.

When an autistic kids’s tray crashes to
the floor, it is always a major event. That’s why, if I hear my son got highly
upset over a moved pencil sharpener and acted out, I do not want to hear that
he has to learn to accept change. The sharpener is immaterial, if I learn
that day he’d dealt with a substitute teacher, a fire drill just as Reading was
starting, dead calculator batteries halfway through Math, a ‘crashed’
computer in the middle of English, a late bus so that he missed part of home room
and some florescent lights in the class are half out – his tray was already

All of the distresses are unavoidable and he’d dealt with them without a
hitch; but each was another glass on this tray. Autistic kids need someone
around who is familiar with them; to sense how full the tray is getting and read
the cues, so there’s intervention before that wobbling tray topples to the
floor. That is why the type of support for these kids is critical, not just a
‘hot body’ nearby – but the ‘right hot body’ whom they can trust will help
balance and who knows the ‘hooks’.

For all of us, life is a balancing act, but for autistic kids the glasses
generally break when they hit the floor and it takes a whole lot longer to clean
up the mess and get a new tray.

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