Dominic and the Magical M&Ms

Imagine not being able to explain what you want. Your voice, your thoughts, just all being jumbled and not working much at all.

Dominic was such a child. He came into Room 623 with extremely limited communication skills. Dominic couldn’t talk verbally or even with pictures. Typically, the child would just grab your hand and motion to what he wanted. That was certainly helpful but it could be a problem, too.

Like most children, Dominic loved candy, soda and pizza. In fact, Dominic liked most foods in general. To get what he wanted, the boy would run to the refrigerator. The challenge was how to use the boy’s love of food to communicate his wants and needs. Something had to change and to change quickly.

The teacher understood if a child liked something that could become a powerful motivator to talk. Over the years she had learned what things children most preferred in her room. One of the favorite classroom items was the tiniest of M&Ms. The children also loved Sour Patch Kids, goldfish, gummy bears, squishy toys and cars.

Now, it is never good to have too many sweets. That is why the teacher really liked having the mini M&Ms with some of the other nonfood choices.

When the boy first came into the classroom he was very much like a toddler. Dominic would cry like a baby when he wanted something because he couldn’t tell you what it was. The teacher had other students like Dominic before. A major concern of any educator is that as any child grows older, it gets harder and harder to change habits.

For that reason, early intervention is so critical for all disabled children, especially those with ASD.

So it wasn’t easy for Dominic at first. He had been home schooled for several years and came in as an eight year old. School was totally new to the child. Dominic would grab whatever he wanted even if someone else was eating it. The boy would also run to the refrigerator and open it.

The boy seemed to be watching everyone. It was obvious that the child was used to getting whatever he wanted. That was Dominic’s first surprise. He had to learn to sit and wait. Once a child’s behavior is under control, academics can begin. To get the boy ready for learning, the teacher tried the magical M&M’s.

Rarely do they fail her. Though at times, some of the children hate chocolates. If that happens, usually gummy bears do the trick. For Dominic, it was M&Ms.

The parents knew that the teacher was going to see if Dominic would respond well to FMNV (foods of minimal nutritional value.) At first, she gave the boy the tiny candies frequently for following proper requests like sit down, come to the board and line up.

There was always an adult with the boy to help him understand what he had to do. After a while, Dominic got used to the routine. He certainly liked the rewards. The question was if he could learn to find the picture icon of M&Ms to request them? With PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), the boy was exposed to his first real communication method other than grabbing an adult to what he wanted.

The teacher placed the icon of M&Ms near-bye for the boy to see (which is part of Phase 1). He quickly grasped that handing that picture of an M&M meant he got an M&M. What the teacher wasn’t ready for is how quickly he learned to discriminate between pictures. Within days, the boy could select and bring the M&M picture from an array of five pictures. Soon, Dominic discovered the bubbles icon, gold fish icon and the coveted soda icon.

Then he found pictures inside his PECS book. The boy had grown to like this funny game of pictures. Dominic had learned to talk through picture icons. For the teacher, the tiny M&Ms had worked their magic once again.

Pamela Gross Downing, a special education teacher can be reached at