Friday, May 28, 2010

Red Flags vs Green Flags

Photo Credit to NakedPastor (really?)
It is IEP season in Special Needs Land. Families across the nation with kids with greater than average needs are putting on their big girl and big boy panties, their hip-wader boots, and diving into the swamp. Some are coming out winners, some are coming out losers, but most dread the hunt.

Attention School District People: When you focus on deficits, that is what you will see.

Attention Special Needs Parents: When the school focuses on deficits, that is how they will view your child.

Recently, I read a lovely piece written by Dr Jim McDonald called Red Flags vs Green Flags. He addresses the issue of autistic "red flags" and how they end up guiding professionals to make autism diagnoses when those diagnoses might be premature or inappropriate. What I found most compelling about his article is his urging of looking at what the child can do... green flags.... and how development works and that the addressing of those green flags is so very important. I was struck by this overarching concept: Look at what the child CAN DO. Build from the positive. Support that, and allow it to become a building place to address deficits.

Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile to share his article with you.


Red Flags-Green Flags: Which do you follow?
By Dr Jim McDonald

Parents frequently tell me about the ‘red flags’ that professionals claim to see in their child.

‘Red flags’ are signs of autistic-like or delayed behavior---such as severe language delay, lining up cars, flicking his hands, isolating himself, not talking to others, repeating actions or communications and many more ‘suspicious’ behaviors.

Seldom do people stop and ask: Does the child show as many positive social behaviors as the ‘red flags’ that appear? The diagnosis of autism, PDD or Asperger’s is often based on these ‘red flags’ without accounting for two critical things; ‘green flags ‘ developmentally correct behavior that is not autistic-like, and recent changes showing productive social and communicative behavior. These ‘green flags” and recent changes show that for some children, autistic behavior is a developmental matter more than a long-term disorder. Some professionals seek out negative signs, focus on the obvious differences and ignore positive ones that I call “green flags.” This results in unreliable and invalid assessment and treatment.

A green flag is a behavior that shows the child is developing in skills that show he is not autistic or delayed all the time. It also suggests that he is even developing out of autistic habits. Common green flags include playing with others, initiating or responding to others’ contacts, playing functionally and not repeatedly, communicating to others more than to himself, showing more interest in people, using language socially, occasionally having reciprocal conversations, cooperating, showing empathy and many other skills that can be built into the effective social life that defines success in autism.

A global ‘green flag’ occurs when the child is showing fewer ‘red flags’ over time or when they are less autistic-like in certain environments. It is now clear that autistic behavior is not everywhere and with everyone. Autistic behavior varies as the child’s environments vary.


When a child is seen as a list of Red flags, people often attend more to negative behaviors and less to positive ones that a can be built socially. Attending to red flags can result in increasing them.

Focusing on red flags often frightens parents into a state where all they see is negative things. Red flags depress parents and a depressed parent often gives up or gives up opportunities to help the child themselves. They give professionals many tasks that only they as parents can do at home in their daily interactions. Red flags can get parents into a habit of getting rid of behaviors rather than building positive behaviors (Green flags)

Focusing on “green flags” gives parents hope and motivation based on clear evidence. “Green flags” show how the child is developing and where support is immediately needed. They give the parents a place to start to have successes. We find that when parents and professionals respond to the ‘green flags’ they get more of them. Often the most effective beginning goal for a child is to have him do more of their green flags and do them in interactions with people who are matching, balancing and responding to them. Parents will even find that there are ‘red flag” and ‘green flag” people, that is ones who their child does poorly or well with.

Discuss the “green flags’ with your family and others so everyone is supporting your child’s progress rather than focusing on his problems. Use the red flag-green flag approach in your IEP plans with the school. Specify the value of including green flags in the goals so the child has some success to encourage him through the difficult goals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Right on! High Five! Etc. You go, MOM!


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