from a CEA mom
My husband glanced at me and asked, ”Why is your child doing that?’’ He was referring to our son’s incessant pacing, a routine interrupted only by the rapping of knuckles on the table. I had to admit this rumpus was filling the room and setting everyone on edge. I had no answer, but I knew there was purpose to this activity. I knew something else – our family was not sure what to do next.
It is difficult for parents to agree on what to do about behavior that upsets the flow of family life. Our response often reflects our life experiences. As new parents, my husband and I talked for hours about how we were going to handle discipline better than our parents did, sometimes with good reasons. But we find ourselves in the moment doing what we know. I often think, “I sound just like my mother!” Sometimes there is threatening, yelling, or even striking children. It’s natural in times of stress to parent how we were parented. But that’s not always the best choice.
No autism research supports the effectiveness of authoritarian methods, especially the use of punishment. Decades ago schools and treatment facilities tried lots of ways to address behavior challenges. The list is long and shameful: time out boxes, restraints, ammonia sprays, and even electric shock. The idea was that punishment would make children realize that the adult in charge had power and meant to use it.
However, the child with autism is not processing information very clearly when upset. Most experts believe that children with autism have difficulty with theory of mind or understanding what others are thinking. We all need this perspective to get along with others and adapt our behavior. Too often, when faced with authoritarian responses, the child with autism gets the message that someone is in power and joins the power struggle.
Family life on the autism spectrum cannot depend on methods that continually assert control with punishment. This approach is exhausting for parents and ignores the reality that the child will grow larger over the years. Our children need to be taught how to express their needs and adapt their behavior. Not an easy task, but family members can help by learning methods that acknowledge sensory sensitivities, communication challenges, and low frustration tolerance. We all want family life to nurture each member (including the parents) through love and support.
So how do you leave behind the “old” parenting style you inherited? Here’s some tips I’ve picked up along the way:
- Behavior is communication. It is influenced and maintained by the environment. We show our children what works to get attention and to get their needs met. My son’s pacing and rapping says something. Because he can’t tell me, it’s our job to figure out what the behavior is telling us.
- Parents, grandparents, and other care givers can all be good detectives to figure out what the child with autism is trying to communicate. I keep a journal of my observations, so I have something to reference. It also helps by letting out frustrations that are best kept away from my children.
- Our family discusses and agrees on how we will handle behavior we find difficult to live with. Consistency is critical. Decide on the same approach for everyone. If the approach works, the child’s behavior will improve. If it is not effective, we begin again by talking it out and adjust the approach.
- Your child can learn acceptable ways to let everyone know he is overwhelmed, frustrated, or confused. This helps him become independent. He can take these skills with him into his adult life.
- Positive behavior supports (rewards for “good” behavior, visuals, etc.) are most effective in helping children with autism learn adaptive and appropriate behavior. We use these methods every day. Best of all, they work with all kids.
- Professionals can help, but we, as a family, have to carry out the plan for change. There is no behavior police. Families have to decide what works for them.
Behavior change takes time and patience. Every idea isn’t immediately effective. A behavior consultant once advised us about our child’s paper ripping ritual. “Just let him rip until he is totally tired of it.” The result: our weekly garbage pickup included 14 huge bags of paper. I surveyed the situation. My child was not yet tired of ripping, but I was sick of it! We went to plan B – “Rip only in your room.” And it’s that type of creative structure within the chaos that makes family life manageable… for everyone.