For too long autism was seen and treated as a behavior disorder. We know, now, that this is not the case. Still, behaviors can be baffling, exhausting and too often prevent us from seeing a child. This is a real issue for parents, and we’re hoping to shed some light on how you can address challenging behaviors while keeping your focus proactive and inspiring harmony in your home.
Every day gives me new chances to understand more about my child and myself. As I watch my son play with his sister, I can see why he received his diagnosis of autism. He does struggle with communication even when he has the words. His play is mainly patterns of activities. He runs his train over the tracks with little interest in his sister’s variations on the town she is building for the train’s cargo. Yet, I see progress in their interactions and am encouraged that I have helped him develop those skills.
What I can’t understand is his outbursts. That is not part of autism’s description. His temper tantrums, meltdowns and crying fits exhaust the entire family, including my son. Shortly after his diagnosis, a social worker gave me a book on behavior management. She said, “You are going to need this!” Curiously, I read through the information on reinforcing behavior. It was easy to see that I should praise my child when he does something “good.”
It is a bit trickier when things don’t go well. One day in a shopping mall, I carried my screaming child to the car and drove home in tears. I knew enough not to call my mother who would remind me that children should never be permitted to “act that way in public!” How did my child get the meltdown message? And while all this was really hard for me to handle, I intuitively knew it was just as hard on him. These were not your “typical” childhood behavior problems.
All children learn appropriate behavior through experiences and people in their environment. I began to realize that my son was doing the best he could with the information he was processing. He has autism. That is not an excuse, but it is a reason for challenges with sensory overload, communication misunderstanding, anxiety, low frustration tolerance, and rigid thinking.
Yes, I still need to provide him with lots of positive reinforcement, but there is more to it. I need to prepare him in advance for experiences that may be difficult for him. He also needs to learn how to respond when he is anxious or does not understand what is going on. This teaching can’t be done during an outburst when my child is too upset to think clearly. But, there are many preventative tools that I can use. These are much more effective than threatening or punishing, which are common “tools” that are shown through research to be ineffective over the long-term.
Our children need patience and helpful instruction in what Mark Durand calls “functional communication.” We can help our children learn what to do when they feel anxious, confused, scared, and unsure what is happening. And while that can seem impossible in the moment – the moment you are abandoning your half-full shopping cart and fleeing the grocery store, it is the most effective way forward. Through education, careful observation and guidance you can inspire appropriate behavior in your child with autism. And we’ll help you do it.