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Nothing requires more endurance than being a parent or caregiver for a child (or two….or three…) with autism who requires constant guidance with behaviors. Okay, maybe a marathon requires endurance- but a typical day in the life of a mom or dad, grandparent, teacher or caregiver who is “the” primary caregiver for a child with autism, can easily become as physically and emotionally draining as running a marathon.
Kids with autism need a lot of guidance and anyone who cares for a child with autism needs an arsenal of strategies to choose from as they navigate inevitably challenging moments.
Thankfully, we live in an era that allows us to seek and apply decades of behavioral research and education. Parents and caregivers can now make use of some of the most successful behavior management strategies just by their willingness to make some small changes and learn some new approaches to behavior.
What are behavior management strategies?
One of the first skills that parents of any child learn is how to navigate with and around their child’s behavior. It doesn’t matter if you have a typical child, an emotionally delayed child, a cognitively delayed child, a verbal child or a non verbal child. All children are driven by their emotions and the surrounding circumstances and at some point there will be some difficult behavior to contend with as a parent.
Behavior management strategies are garnering more attention in the last decade or two with parents, teachers and caregivers. As the rate of autism increases steadily, so does the need for behavioral therapy. These therapies are not just for children on the autism spectrum. They are the same child behavior strategies that can and should be used with all children at home, in classrooms and in therapy settings.
Behavior management is exactly what it sounds like. It is the management of behaviors both positive and negative. Yes, even the positive needs to be managed- or more specifically, be reinforced by praising the child for their behavior and rewardarding them. This is how children learn to repeat those behaviors again in the future.
Behavioral Triggers and Signs
It is much easier to manage behaviors if you know what provokes the behavior in the first place. In the behavioral realm, we refer to this as “finding the function of the behavior”. If we can find the function for the behavior (i.e what motivates the child to behave a certain way), the chances of finding a solution to the behavioral problem is far more likely.
Once we know the reason for a particular behavior, we can observe the settings in which the negative behaviors occur and identify the “triggers” that set these behaviors off. A non verbal child might be covering their ears with their hands at the dinner table- but there aren’t any unusual or loud noises. You just happen to notice that every time this behavior has occurred at the dinner table, you are serving broccoli. So, you remove the plate and bring it back to the table without broccoli and the behavior is gone. Just like that! Making simple observations like this can solve some behavioral concerns rather quickly. But some are not so simple. Here are some other possible reasons for behaviors to consider:
- Loud sounds (high or low pitches)
- Lights are too bright or too dim (fear of the dark)
- Other people in close proximity
- Too much activity
- Too many people in one location
- Too fast (speech or activity)
- Unexpected events
- Unfamiliar or undesired familiar circumstances
- Clothing isn’t comfortable (too tight, too loose, label itching, texture unpleasant)
- Ambiguous or vague circumstances (child is unsure and fearful of what is going on)
It might be helpful to observe and to take notes when there is an unexplained negative behavior. A good way to take note of behavior is to take ABC data. ABC is an acronym for Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. The antecedent was what happened immediately before the behavior occurred. The behavior would be exactly what the child did that was inappropriate or negative- the target for change so to speak. The consequence would be the immediate response following the behavior. This could be anything from a parent getting upset and sending the child for a time out to no response at all.
The goal is to find a pattern that might explain what set off or triggered the behavior (antecedent). In addition to that, the consequence should be documented and alternate responses to the behavior should be considered. For example, if the function of a negative behavior is to seek attention and the consequence is that the parent gets upset, it would be ideal for the parent to step away, take a deep breath and refrain from delivering any attention to these negative behaviors. Eventually the child will understand that their behavior is not a successful method for gaining attention.
Look for signs that the child is distressed in order to redirect the circumstances and possibly avoid triggering a negative behavior. If you see a child rocking their body back and forth or your child is hugging you constantly and won’t let go, this might indicate a rise in their level of stress. Do you need to go somewhere quieter? Do you need to slow things down? Take note!
It is also worth mentioning that while some kids with autism are acutely sensitive to certain stimuli, others are completely unphased by the immediate environment. This can be problematic if a situation occurs that your child needs to respond to in order to stay safe.
Autistic children who are overly sensitive to stimuli are hypersensitive. Autistic children who are minimally or unresponsive to stimuli are hyposensitive . While both of these reactions require behavioral management, there are some specific sensory activities for hyposensitive children that will help them to develop greater awareness of their own bodies in their environment and greater awareness of their environment so that they can learn how to respond appropriately.
How do you positively guide children’s behaviour?
One great way to start behavior management strategies with your child is to start with positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors. If you have ever heard an educator say that they caught your child being good- positive reinforcement is exactly like that.
As much as you can, try to avoid responding to the inappropriate behaviors in your child. When they are doing something inappropriate and you respond by yelling or taking something away, they are getting your attention. Remember, attention is attention whether positive of negative. A child that is driven to behave a certain way is not concerned with what type of attention they receive- only that they are getting the attention- period.
If you can focus all of your attention on the things that your child is doing right and appropriately, they are receiving attention and praise and they are learning what to do to get it. If all of your attention is on the positive behavior, they are more likely to repeat that positive behavior the next time they want your attention.
The same principles of behavior management work at any age or stage. Babies, toddlers, preschoolers, school age kids and even adults will respond to positive reinforcement.
What other behavior management strategies can I use with babies, preschoolers and children?
One of the most effective ways to reduce negative behaviors is to understand what approaches work best with your child. It is also prudent to know what your child’s triggers are. In other words, what things cause negative behaviors? Knowing these things and preparing for different tasks and settings in advance is one of the best ways to implement behavior management strategies to guide your child with autism toward more appropriate responses.
- Reinforcement: providing positive reinforcement for positive behaviors will increase the chances of your child repeating that appropriate behavior in the future. Positive reinforcement is adding praise, reward or attention in response to appropriate behavior. Negative reinforcement is the removal (subtracting) of something as a way to reinforce an appropriate behavior. For example, by allowing a child to skip a chore or get out of doing so many math problems as a reward for appropriate behavior you are delivering negative reinforcement. This does not mean negative in the sense that it is “bad”- think of the word negative as you would in math terms. Negative, in this case, refers to the removal or subtraction of an aversive task to the child. The removal of the aversive task motivates them to repeat their appropriate behavior in the future, in hopes that they can avoid the aversive task again in the future.
- Spending time with typical children who have behavioral control: Exposing a child with autism to typical children, who are exhibiting appropriate responses to their settings or the people around them, is a good way to show them how to behave. If they are verbal and communicate with their peers, they may be able to ask questions or listen to their peers when they have advice or corrections for them. Peers can sometimes be more influential because children want to fit in.
- Modify the environment: if there is something in your child’s environment that causes them to act out, try to identify what that is and change it to avoid the adverse reaction to that environment. If there is a certain odor (air freshener or a certain food) that causes distress to your child, eliminate it. If there is a noise that irritates them (certain music or a noisy appliance), do your best to avoid it.
- Teach social skills- read social stories, talk about interactions that went well (or not) and talk about what worked and what didn’t work with those interactions. Prepare for social events before you go. Give them a vision of what to expect in new settings and what is expected of them when you get there. You can also explain what will take place if they don’t meet the expectations in that setting. Will you leave and go home? Will you step outside for a break? Let them know what is coming.
- Limit interactions- with new settings or social situations it might be best to plan a short exposure for the first time. Maybe your child has never been to a birthday party. How will they react to the noise, the number of guests or the singing and fire on the cake? Will they be included or will there be other children paired up and ignoring the kids they don’t know? Talk about the possibilities and some possible solutions to them.
- First/Then- part of preparing an autistic child for various situations or events is to use “first-then” language. For example: “first we will go to the library to get a book- then we will get a hamburger on the way home.” When a child knows what is coming, they will be better prepared and negative reactions to the unexpected are less likely.
How do I stay calm when my child won’t listen?
Staying calm is sometimes difficult when you have an emotional tie to someone that is being difficult, but it is important. Remind yourself that you are guiding a child who is struggling with delayed development. Autistic children who have delayed milestones in childhood will function at a much younger level than their chronological age. Be patient and try to keep a teacher/mentor mindset.
If you struggle to stay calm, reach out to other parents who are going through similar struggles. Avoid yelling or threatening. Autistic children don’t respond well to this type of response and their behaviors can actually worsen from anxiety or fear.
Remind yourself that because of the delayed development in childhood, your expectations of the child with autism might be set too high. It is also difficult to generalize appropriate behavior from one situation to another for an autistic child.
When appropriate, step away from the tension and collect your emotions. Take a deep breath and try again.
The most helpful thing you can do is to reach out for professional help. Seek out a counselor or support group for parents of autistic kids. Seek out a good child development specialist and get referrals to behavioral resources nearby.
Circle Care Services is here to help your family. We are ready to work with you and your family to help you through the difficulties that you might face raising a child with autism. We work with your child one to one, we offer social skills groups and we also offer parent training to help you to understand how to work more effectively with your child. Give us a call so that we can help you to learn some behavior management strategies that will bring more peace to your entire family.