Home / education / Vaseline: A social skills lubricant

There are always different ways to do things.  When you work with kids who have ASD, you learn this fairly quickly.  You also learn that if you can’t think in a different way, you are going to have a rough go of things.  I recently heard a story in passing at a professional training seminar that I feel demonstrates incredible flexibility and creative thinking albeit a bit greasy.

This story changed even my perspective on some things and I considered myself clinically to be a master of weird ways of doing things. 

I once had a patient who I noticed tracing what appeared to be words on a glass dining room table with SALIVA, my initial reaction was not to chastise her and say “stop doing that!”.  I read what she was writing.  It turns out, she wanted to make a cupcake that day. 

After I pulled out some construction paper and started drawing a cupcake, she had no issue  putting her rough/wet draft to the side. That story isn’t even close to the tip of my weird iceberg.  Here’s what I realized after I thought about the story I’m about to share; Sometimes in order to solve a problem you don’t just need to be creative and flexible.  You need to be slick…as slick as Vaseline 🙂  Here’s the story.

The clinician at my training said she once had a very young client who loved to scratch other’s arms.  These weren’t little painless ignorable scratches.  This client liked to really put some power behind their scratches.  She said she often left sessions with blood dripping from her arms.  It was such a problem the parents were beginning to worry the child would not be able to attend school due to this behavior problem.  The upsetting thing about the problem behavior is that she felt it was sensory in nature, not behavioral.

The patient wasn’t scratching to get out of the activity, in fact he was a great patient and participated well, other than the scratching issue.  He was incredibly smart and overall very fun and pleasant (again, minus the scratching).

She said she tried everything.  By everything I mean EVERYTHING.  She tried to extinguish the behavior by ignoring it, using behavior charts, rewards, punishments, even wearing thick gloves and sweatshirts in 100 degree summer weather.  This SLP was by no means a quitter, she went on to consult other professionals and try their ideas, but the scratching continued.  Finally, she decided the problem was over her head and referred the patient to a former professor who had a knack for fixing problem behaviors.

She contacted the professor a few months later to check on the patient and ask how therapy was going.  Her former professor’s response?: “It’s going great! The scratching is no longer an issue and we are now working on new goals.  He’s such a great patient!”

Of course, her response to this was to immediately ask “How on earth did you get rid of the scratching?  I tried everything under the sun!”.  The professor responded with one word, “Vaseline”.  At first she thought she misheard or it was a joke, but it wasn’t.

The professor went on to say that after thinking about the scratching problem for a while, she realized that for this particular kid, scratching arms was the equivalent of needing to pop the bubble wrap that protects fragile items in transit.  He just couldn’t resist it.  Anyone else’s exposed or sometimes unexposed arms were just too tempting.

While interviewing the patient’s parents she decided to ask if there were any textures he disliked.  The parents said this particular kid could not stand the feel of Vaseline.

So naturally, before the next session she coated her arms in a think layer of petroleum jelly and bingo; No more scratching.  The temptation was gone. 

Since the kid was just developing language, she was able to increase his expressive and receptive language skills in the time others normally spent applying band aids.  Eventually, he was able to increase his language skills to a level where he could comprehend that scratching was painful to others. I know what you may be thinking here,

“Yeah right, how could he not know it hurts?  He sees the blood; people probably even say ouch.  How could he not know?” 

Sometimes kids with ASD do not understand a behavior is painful and once they do, they stop the behavior.  This issue is more common than you’d imagine. 

The professor reinforced that scratching hurts others with social stories and after a while, Vaseline coated arms became a thing of the past.

Here’s the take away message from this story: sometimes when we think outside of the box as clinicians, parents or friends we forget it’s not our box; it’s our patient’s, child’s or friend’s box.  We must view the world from their point of view.

The traditional method of molding and shaping a student often doesn’t apply to ASD.  WE have to be the clay that is molded in order to shape THEIR world.  Sometimes you might need to get a little weird, or even cover the clay in Vaseline 🙂