Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) experience the world in a very different way than other children. For these children, behaviors considered to be inappropriate, such as outbursts, tantrums or "meltdowns" may be their only way to communicate their needs, wants and frustrations. Sadly, many parents and family members often do not understand why a child is misbehaving and their actions may make a behavior worse. In addition to causing family problems at home, these behaviors may also result in children with ASD doing poorly in school and at community events, and lead to a difficulty maintaining friendships.
Understanding potential causes of behavioral difficulties for children with ASD and developing tools and techniques to improve your child's behaviors can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life for the whole family.
Leading Causes of Inappropriate Behaviors
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Communication delays: Children with ASD may not always understand what is being said to them or asked of them, due to their communication delays. They also may lack the language to adequately express their wants and needs. Acting out, or throwing a tantrum, is a good way to get attention and often is the only way the children can express themselves.
Sensory dysfunctions: Sensory dysfunctions can also be a primary cause of behavioral issues. A common feature of ASD is oversensitivity to sounds, texture, smell and lights. For a child with ASD, it can be as bad as experiencing his or her environment as a jarring alarm going off constantly, a strobe light flashing, a putrid smell everywhere, a feeling of clothing being overly tight and itchy, being asked questions in a foreign language and getting in trouble when the answer is wrong. Very few people would be able to keep their behavior in check under such circumstances, but this is often an everyday reality for children with ASD.
Need for routine: A core feature of ASD is the need for sameness or routine. When children impose a high level of rigidity and structure on their environment, they are setting up unrealistic expectations. When these expectations are not met, it leads to an increase in anxiety and frustration, which, in turn, leads to an increase in behavioral problems.
Tips to Avoid Behavioral Difficulties in Children with ASD
1. Focus on the positive: The best way to eliminate negative behaviors is to reinforce the positive behaviors children engage in throughout the day. This will increase the likelihood they will repeat those behaviors. For example, praising children for homework they've already completed is more effective than yelling at them to finish it. Use motivating statements like, "Wow, I see you've been working hard on your homework. I'll bet you'll be finished in no time at all." When children with ASD finish a task, it is important to give some kind of reinforcement, such as a treat, a token or praise.
2. Tell the child what to do instead of what not to do: In general, it is more effective to give children direct commands. This is particularly true for children with ASD as they often take language literally. When we tell kids what not to do, we assume they will know what the appropriate alternative behavior is. For instance, if you tell a child with ASD "do not jump in the puddle," he may not understand that means "go around" the puddle; instead, he may think it is ok to splash in the puddle, walk through the puddle, etc. Saying, "Walk around the puddle" makes expectations clear and reduces behavioral outbursts or unexplained reactions to what they perceive to be correct.
3. Avoid using too much language: Children with ASD often have communication deficits. When frustrated or anxious, they may be even less able to understand spoken language than usual. Rather than trying to reason with a child in the middle of a tantrum, try to use few words and concrete language. Statements such as, "It is time to get in the car" are more easily understood and followed than if you explain why the child needs to get in the car, how you are going to be late and what will happen if he or she doesn't get in the car.
4. Warn your child of upcoming changes or transitions: While it may not always be possible, it is best to tell a child with ASD about any change that may be occurring and give them plenty of time to adjust. If you are buying new furniture, share pictures or bring your child to the showroom to see and touch it. Ask for help to decide where to place the furniture. This prepares the child for change and reduces anxiety.
5. Use visual schedules or reminders: Structure and consistency are two keys to improving behaviors. A fun way to do this is to develop simple visual reminders or schedules. This can be as simple as putting a picture of your child's teacher on the calendar for every day that he or she needs to go to school, or as complex as having a full schedule written out for every step for getting ready to go to school, along with the expected times of completion.
6. Teach calming techniques: Often, we tell a child to "calm down" when they are feeling anxious or upset. The problem is that we only use the word "calm" when a child is upset. It is important to identify for children what it means to be relaxed or "calm" so that they know the feeling we want them to experience. Try different relaxation techniques - counting to 10, taking deep breaths, yoga, music - to see which ones works best for your child. What calms any child may be highly individualized.
7. Beware of sensory overload: It is always important to look at the environment that your child is in, and determine if it is over-stimulating. A child may throw a tantrum in the grocery store because it is too bright or the "beep beep" of the price scanners is bothersome. The tantrum may be the only way the child knows to quickly get parents out of the store. If you think your child has sensory issues, develop coping strategies, such as letting him or her wear sunglasses in the shop, or listen to music to drown out upsetting sounds.
8. Use "time-out" effectively: The use of techniques, such as "time-out," - a common punishment that removes a child from an enjoyable activity -- needs to be used with careful consideration in a child with ASD. Time-out may not be effective because what other children consider an enjoyable activity may not be fun for your child with ASD. For example, a child may be held back from recess because she hasn't finished her work. However, if the child finds recess too loud, too unstructured and too crowded, she will actually prefer staying in over going to recess, and may even stop doing school work in an effort to avoid recess. The teacher in this case has mistakenly reinforced the negative behavior by assuming that the child wanted to go to recess. At home a child may be sent to his room after having a temper tantrum during the family dinner. The child may have thrown the tantrum because there was too much language being used at the table, or he did not like the smell of the food. Therefore, sending him away from the table and allowing him to be alone in his room may actually be what he prefers.
These simple strategies are applicable in any environment and can be used by parents and family members as well as health care professionals and educators. Consistent and regular use of these tips can prevent or reduce inappropriate behaviors. It's important to always keep in mind that children with ASD are not necessarily being manipulative or stubborn when they are having behavioral difficulties. They may not have any other way to express what they are experiencing. If we learn to listen to behaviors, we'll be able help them handle them in a more effective and productive manner.
Laurie Stephens, Ph.D., is the Director of Autism Spectrum Disorders Programs, The Help Group, www.thehelpgroup.org
The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.