Wow: The Big Difference a Tiny Toy Can Make See how one speech-language pathologist used a bendy figurine, social media and her imagination to connect with a depressed, withdrawn middle school student with autism. Have You Tried This?
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Have You Tried This?  |   April 01, 2018
Wow: The Big Difference a Tiny Toy Can Make
Author Notes
  • Katie Bernadkin, MA, CCC-SLP, is a clinician in San Diego middle and elementary schools, focused on autism, augmentative and alternative communication, and social thinking. Follow her on @themindandthemouth. katiebernadkin@gmail.com.
    Katie Bernadkin, MA, CCC-SLP, is a clinician in San Diego middle and elementary schools, focused on autism, augmentative and alternative communication, and social thinking. Follow her on @themindandthemouth. katiebernadkin@gmail.com.×
  • Interested in all the ways Wow was used? Check out his Instagram account at @world0fwow.
    Interested in all the ways Wow was used? Check out his Instagram account at @world0fwow.×
Article Information
Special Populations / Autism Spectrum / School-Based Settings / Telepractice & Computer-Based Approaches / Have You Tried This?
Have You Tried This?   |   April 01, 2018
Wow: The Big Difference a Tiny Toy Can Make
The ASHA Leader, April 2018, Vol. 23, 44-46. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.23042018.44
The ASHA Leader, April 2018, Vol. 23, 44-46. doi:10.1044/leader.HYTT.23042018.44
Have you ever wondered how to engage your toughest kids? As I was settling into my new position as a middle school speech-language pathologist, trying to navigate the intense socio-emotional needs of this age group, I met a seventh-grader named Max.
From the beginning of our relationship, I realized Max’s biggest hurdle in communication wouldn’t be his diagnosis of autism. It would be his anxiety. He was also selectively mute. On his terms, Max would speak in words, phrases and the occasional whispered sentence while he covered his mouth and turned away from me. Typical of adolescent boys, Max was really into Mario and pizza, so, naturally, these were my go-to topics of conversation on our most challenging days.
The simple mention of “Mario” would often coax at least one word from him. Despite having both autism and anxiety, Max would frequently get my sarcastic sense of humor, leading me to believe that he may have higher language and social skills than one might assume.
Max returned for his eighth-grade year seemingly the same kid. That year started off like most, with the first few weeks a haze as students transitioned from summer break into the school year. Max seemed to be doing fine, apart from a few isolated behavior incidents in which he was particularly withdrawn and noncompliant. But then, for no apparent reason, he began to slowly decline, his anxiety turning into depression, then withdrawal. Little did we know then what a big difference a little toy would ultimately make to his functioning.

For Max, control mostly looked like task avoidance. He would lay his head and torso on the table and ignore everything and everyone all day.

When reinforcers lose oomph
When students have anxiety, they operate from a place of fear, and nothing lessens fear like control. During his eighth-grade year, the only thing Max loved more than Mario and pizza was control. For Max, control mostly looked like task avoidance. He would lay his head and torso on the table and ignore everything and everyone all day.
His condition worsened for months, his absences from school mounting until his presence at school became a total surprise. Concerned, our team discussed how we could help him. Options included a functional behavior analysis or a possible change of placement to help decrease anxiety. However, because we mainly saw a mental health issue, we ultimately decided on an Educationally Related Mental Health Assessment, which recommended he receive counseling services.
For a long time, we couldn’t find anything more motivating for Max than the reinforcers he was already controlling. He continued avoiding doing work, interacting with anyone or engaging with anything non-preferred. One day, a couple of smiley-faced bendable figurines arrived as part of a classroom reward kit. And Max’s year took a turn for the better.
School staff noticed he had a particular fondness for a yellow bendy figurine. He gave this yellow figure a sticker that said “Wow,” and that became the toy’s name. For the first time in months, Max was showing interest in something. Worried that Max might respond negatively to a new development in his life—his teacher leaving—and hoping to keep the interest going, I merged “Elf on the Shelf” with social media (always a teen favorite), and “World of Wow” was born.
I launched a “Wow” Instagram account populated by posts showing Max that Wow was a mover and a shaker when he wasn’t around. From what Max could tell, Wow is into skateboarding and hiking—and he’s a foodie. For the first time in months, I saw Max really laugh. His reactions were a mix of entertained and disbelieving. He was also smart, suspicious … and on to me.
Slowly, I began to use Wow as a reinforcer. For example, I would tell Max, “As soon as you finish your work, you can see what Wow is up to.” This motivated him to start working again: In speech he began answering questions, and in academic subjects, he actually completed math or writing pieces. It was the most work I’d ever seen him produce. He began devising his own scenarios to post, and wrote about Wow in class.
Max joked about Wow, engaged peers and teachers with Wow, and wanted people to check him out. It was the most laughter I’ve ever seen from him.

Wow even snuck into the yearbook, participating in his own staged high school transition meeting. This made Max laugh for 10 straight minutes!

We all love us a yellow figurine
As Wow’s popularity grew, so did Max’s. Kids in class couldn’t wait to check out Wow’s new adventures, which occasionally led them to talk with Max. Teachers got in on the fun and “babysat” Wow over the weekend. One made a film set for Wow as part of an art project. Wow even snuck into the yearbook, participating in his own staged high school transition meeting. This made Max laugh for 10 straight minutes!
Wow helped prepare Max for dances, state testing and, most important, two major events at the end of the school year: his high school transition meeting and graduation. Wow headed into Max’s high school transition meeting first, so Max could see what it was like. Max’s meeting was rough (he interacted slightly with me, but with nobody else), but at least he made it into the room full of 10 strangers and stayed the whole time. This was more than I expected. By graduation, Max was a whole new kid most of the time, and spent his days laughing, eating pizza and being mischievous like most middle schoolers. He handled graduation like a champ: calm and confident!
When I first created Wow, I had no idea he’d become such a useful socialization, academic and engagement tool. The staff used him for reinforcement, writing prompts, humor, conversation-starters and social stories. The students used him as a way to talk, joke, act out and take risks. Most important, to me, Max was finally engaged.
2 Comments
July 25, 2018
Kelly Madison
Wow!
Great job, Katie! Loved this article! Way to think out of the box!
July 27, 2018
Katherine Bernadkin
Thank you
Thanks so much!
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April 2018
Volume 23, Issue 4