Out of the norm behaviors come with the territory of autism, but how can a parent manage them? First, it is necessary to understand the behavior; what causes it, what prompts it to continue, and how to safely decrease its occurrence if not eliminate it altogether. You don’t need a degree in psychology to navigate this, because it’s really just common sense. A child development or autism therapy specialist may be able to assist you, if you’re unsure how or where to begin.
In the meantime, the majority of behaviors in a child with autism usually occur with reason. Their are different approaches a parent can take to help their autistic child in this department. They are:
- Ignoring: obvious, of course, is this technique because if your average child was throwing a tantrum you know enough to ignore the behavior so they stop. It works with children with autism too, who may be exhibiting an unwanted behavior for attention seeking, shock, or to get something they want. If the child is in a safe place and away from anything that can cause them harm, then this technique when used consistently, will help eliminate a negative behavior.
- Positive reinforcement: when your child is having a good day or a good moment, even, lots of praise reinforces in even a non-verbal child that what they are doing appeals to mom and/or dad and they should continue to act that way. Small treats or special outings/ events for accomplishing good behavior over a longer period of time are also examples of positive reinforcement.
- Environment: This one is not so obvious to many parents, but a child’s environment does effect the way they behave. If you set up the surroundings such that the child is able to control what they do or don’t do, rather than having to constantly be in control of the child and stop them from doing what you don’t want them to do, that teaches them that they can have some control, but you are in charge. E.g., placing the furniture in the room so as to break up the space and keep the child from running in circles or using everything as a trampoline or jumping off platform ensures that these behaviors stop. Used in conjunction with redirection to a more appropriate area, like outside play equipment, definitely helps.
- Warnings, timers, and transitions: warnings can be used with any child that has autism. It is simply vocalizing what you plan to do next and how long the wait is before you plan to do it. It creates and expectation for them that they will follow your plan and that they get to participate in what you’re planning. Timers and transitions are more often used with higher functioning children to get them to understand limits and periods of moving on to the next thing, or transitioning, to the next activity.
- Redirection: This is a big one. Bad behaviors turned good is the name of the game. You take away the power and focus of the unpleasant behavior by redirecting the child to something more positive. They want to punch because they’re mad? Give them a bop-it bag toy or some play-doh at the table and let them diffuse in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. They want to climb and jump on the furniture? Take them outside to run off the energy and climb the playground equipment in the backyard. Simple but conscientious substitutions make all the difference.
Designing a behavior modification plan with a special needs team will help. When everyone’s on board, the behaviors can begin to decrease or disappear entirely.
Behaviors To Expect When Your Child Has Autism
The difficulties that lay with diagnosing a child with autism depends a lot on a parent’s visual record of their child. The majority of this visual record is about the behaviors the parent has encountered with their child, and the types of responses received versus the types of responses that are typical. While a parent can either keep a journal of these things or relay them to a behavior analyst when the child is being tested, it is still vital to the process.
So what behaviors should you expect if you suspect your child has autism?
Beyond the physical and vocal limitations and slow development in each of these areas how can you tell what’s developmentally approrpriate and what isn’t? It’s a difficult question, because of the level of autism your child may have, but often the behaviors are very noticeable.
- Repetitive vocalizations or phrases, if he or she is verbal. It may worry you that your child has something a little more complicated than autism, (such as obsessive compulsive disorder) but these children often appear to like the sound of their own voices and will repeat noises or compulsively focus in on a topic and talk nonstop about it even if it isn’t appropriate or doesn’t fit in with the conversation around or with them.
- Repetitive hand movements. Shaking or flapping hands like a bird, wringing of the hands or twisting of the fingers, anything that looks like a bird taking off or self torture. This can also occur with other limbs and parts of the body, and it doesn’t stop without behavior modification and therapy.
- Rocking, swinging, swaying, pacing, running from one spot to the next and back again several times. These are all out of character for the average child if they are not purposeful and seem out of context with what is going on in the environment.
- Shrieking, screaming, crying, wailing. These sounds are usually the ones that bother parents the most, because they will occur at the drop of a hat or, as is the case with higher functioning autistic children, when something has completely frustrated them and they act out over the top vocally. It’s also very difficult to discover what a non-verbal autistic child wants or needs, because half the time the loud vocalizations come when the child wants or needs something, is in pain, doesn’t feel well, etc. With time a parent can learn intuitively what causes their autistic child to make these loud utterances and how to deal with them.
- Biting, hitting, kicking, scratching, punching, and slapping. While these can be typical kid things, in children with autism it’s acting out aggressively because they don’t like the rules, the status quo, the fact someone else has a toy they want, or even if they don’t like their lunch. If these behaviors are present in your child beyond the expected age for them to disappear, special training may be needed. Healthy redirection, quiet time apart from a group, and verbalizing to the child that that type of behavior is not allowed are the best approaches to this kind of behavior. In a child with autism, this is a behavior that they really don’t outgrow, it just has to be modified to occur less and less. In the average child, once they get past age two or three they outgrow it and find other ways to appropriately express themselves.
- Tantrums, stripping in public or in front of houseguests, etc. These are usually attention seeking behaviors and can be dealt with by only paying attention to the child when their behavior is acceptable or if you need to remove them from danger. While these may be even more shocking than all the previous behaviors together, you have to remember as a parent that shock on your face is exactly what your child is looking for.
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