Parenting children who display challenging behaviours is always tricky, but parenting children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) presents a new challenge. Because children with autism can have difficulty coping with many situations, they often experience feelings of confusion, frustration, lack of control or anxiety.
>> Here’s a great video from The Huffington Post on what it’s like to be a child with autism. The video provides the child’s point of view as he enters a mall with his mother.
Understandably, these feelings sometimes present as behavioural responses that are challenging for parents. The child might retreat to a quiet place, rock back and forth or display any number of behaviours to voice their wants, needs or concerns.
Children with ASD are more likely to do socially inappropriate things, act aggressively and have tantrums, and less likely to respond to requests in a helpful way. This can be extremely frustrating for parents of ASD children, but it’s important to remember that there are reasons ASD children display challenging behaviours, and there are management strategies they can employ to help.
Identify Behaviours, Triggers and Rewards
Any behaviour is designed to produce an outcome. Whether it’s hugging your child to show them you care, or your child hitting the car seat to show their frustration, we all do things to communicate our feelings and manage situations. To manage challenging behaviour in autistic children, it’s helpful to identify a behaviour, what triggers it and what reward or outcome the child achieves through that behaviour.
An example given at RaisingChildren.net.au is a scenario where a child rocks back and forth and cries in the car when the mother stops to buy milk on the way home from school. In this situation, there is a clear trigger, behaviour and reward. The trigger is the change to the normal after-school routine; the behaviour is rocking and crying; the reward is that the child restores the normal routine when the mother decides not to stop at the shop after all because the child’s behaviour has made it too difficult.
Identifying behaviours, triggers and rewards can help you understand why your child is acting out, so you can begin to plan strategies to manage their behaviour.
Tips for Managing Challenging Autism Behaviour
- Set up a daily routine and make a timetable. Colour coding or picture timetables are useful
- Give warnings when the routine will be changed or interrupted
- Introduce new settings/environments gradually
- Communicate instructions and expectations clearly, briefly and with direct eye contact
- Let the child know that he or she can ask for help. It can be useful to have a symbol or flashcard that allows them to ask to take a break
- Focus on giving children praise for following your rules rather than punishing them for breaking them. Punishment might work in the short term but has been shown to be ineffective in the long term and can result in increased aggressive behaviour
- Discuss appropriate responses to situations as they occur
- Try not to put children in new/challenging situations when they’re tired or anxious
- Improve their diet
- Where possible, make sure family members, teachers and other significant people in the child’s life are consistent in their approach to challenging behaviours
- Be patient – behaviours will not change overnight
For further reading, see the Challenging Behaviours Toolkit from Autism Speaks. To secure a booking with a specialist child psychologist for ASD in Canberra, call (02) 6262 6157 or book an appointment online.