Dealing with the behavioral challenges in children with autism can be quite frustrating for parents, teachers, and other care professionals. Acting out can happen suddenly, last for hours, and be hard to control. In public settings, the behavior can trigger fear or embarrassment, further compounding the problem. At home, constant temper tantrums can create feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion for parents and other caretakers.
The child is frustrated because they don’t know how to get what they want. Caretakers are frustrated because they don’t know how to help or change the situation. Something has to give.
The following is a list of strategies that can help prevent difficult behavior AND promote positive behavior for children on the autism spectrum. Remember that every child is different. It’s important to be patient and know that it might be necessary to try different strategies to determine what works best with your child or student.
Remember that there is no such thing as a magic one-size-fits-all solution for every challenge. All any of us can do is try our best to implement effective strategies that teach children positive ways to get their needs met. As always, if you feel like the situation with your child is unmanageable, seek help.
BE CLEAR WITH THE CHILD ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING NEXT.
For example, “After you finish this game, it is time to put on your pajamas.” Or, “In 10 minutes, we are going to get into the car and drive to school.”
For many children with autism, it’s helpful to set a timer. Being able to visually track time can help the child understand the difficult concept of time. For some children, it might even be necessary to include reminders as the time is winding down – “There are 2 minutes left until we leave. There is 1 minute until we leave.”
For children who struggle to understand verbal communication, pictures that visually represent a series of upcoming events can be extremely useful. For example, if you want the child to sit down at the dinner table after they complete a puzzle, you might show them a “first/then” board with pictures of a puzzle and then the dinner table.
Technology can be a tremendous help with these kinds of strategies. There are several great apps for tablets and smartphones that contain a library of photos to create “first /then” boards right on the screen.
CHILDREN WITH AUTISM THRIVE ON PREDICTABILITY.
It’s extremely important for children with autism to know what to expect from the people and situations in their world. If caretakers don’t implement expectations with consistency and follow-through, it creates uncertainty that often leads to anxiety and acting out.
Do your best to make their world predictable. For example, tell the child that you will give them a snack if they finish their homework, and then do not fail to keep your end of the bargain. It can also be helpful to create predictability through daily routines. For example, homework, then dinner, then one television show, then get ready for bed.
As we’ve already discussed timers and “first/then” boards are useful to communicate the predictability of events. In many cases, as the child comes to know what’s expected and trusts that caretakers will follow through, the rigidity of routines can relax a bit over time.
Keep in mind that difficult behaviors are more likely to come out when things aren’t predictable, and no one can make life predictable all the time. Just do your best and get back in the swing of a predictable routine as soon as possible.
ALLOW CHILDREN TO EARN PRIVILEGES IN EXCHANGE FOR COMPLIANCE WITH CLEAR EXPECTATIONS.
Children with autism often respond well to the concept of earning privileges if they follow the rules. For example, let’s say your child has a history of throwing a fit when you won’t allow them to visit the toy section at Target. Before going to the store, explain exactly what to expect from the outing: “We are going to Target. We are going to shop for groceries, pay for our groceries, and then we are going home. We are not going to the toy section. If you follow the rules, you can play video games for 30 minutes.”
Remember that children who struggle with understanding verbal communication often respond better to pictures and visual cues. In these cases, set expectations with pictures and physical examples. For example, rather than telling the child to hold on to the shopping cart, demonstrate what it looks like to walk while holding onto the shopping cart. Show, rather than tell.
OFFER THE CHILD A FEW SET CHOICES.
Every child likes to feel that they have some control over their world and one way to do this is to offer choices. For children with autism, it’s usually a good idea to limit the choices to a few pre-determined options. Too many choices, or choices that are too open-ended, can be scary and overwhelming. For example, “Would you like to play this video game or work on a puzzle?” Or, “Would you like a peanut butter sandwich or a tuna fish sandwich?”
Once again, for children who struggle to understand language, present choices with pictures, encouraging them to point at the option they choose.
CREATE A DAILY SCHEDULE AND ALLOW THE CHILD TO BRING A TRANSITIONAL OBJECT FROM ONE ACTIVITY TO THE NEXT.
As we stated earlier, children with autism thrive on predictability, so daily routines are extremely beneficial. Break down routines into specific times of day. For example, create a before school routine, a during school routine, an after-school routine, and a bedtime routine.
Visual schedules might include pictures of activities in order, such as the child eating a snack, doing their homework, setting the table, sitting down to dinner, etc.
In some cases, it’s useful to allow the child to bring a favorite object from one situation to the next. For example, if the child is at home playing with a stuffed toy when it’s time to go to speech therapy, allow them to bring the stuffed toy along. This can assist with helping him transition from one environment to the next.
AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, WHEN GIVING A CHILD A TASK OR ASSIGNMENT, SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS FOR START AND END TIMES.
For example, instead of saying, “I want you to put all the toys in your room away”, tell them, “From 1:00 to 1:15, I want you to pick up the toys in your room and put them away.” For most children, it’s useful to set a timer so that the child has a concrete representation of the specific block of time.
For certain tasks, it’s more useful to communicate the visual cues that will allow the child to know when the task is complete. For example, “When you complete these 10 math problems, you are done with your homework and can go watch your television show.” In cases where the task has a clear visual ending, a timer is not always necessary.
In situations where the child is getting overwhelmed or frustrated with the length of time the task requires, it can be useful to allow a clearly defined break that lets the child do something enjoyable before returning to the task.
MANY CHILDREN WITH AUTISM EXCEL AT HANDS-ON OR VISUAL ACTIVITIES.
A great way to encourage calm behavior like sitting still and waiting patiently is to keep the child focused on a hands-on activity they enjoy. For example, if you are waiting in a doctor’s office with your child, bring a handful of blocks and instruct them to sort them by color or size. If you need your child to allow you 15 minutes to prepare dinner, instruct them to sort silverware or laundry, rather than telling them to “play quietly”.
We know that caring for a child with autism can be difficult and frustrating. However, getting upset is a sure-fire way to make difficult behavior even worse. When your child is acting out, do your best to remain calm. It can be useful to create a system of support for those times when staying calm is particularly difficult. For example, you might call a friend, family member, or therapist for support.
Understand that yelling and threatening a child with autism will not improve their behavior, and may actually make the behavior worse by creating anxiety or fear in the child. Children with autism are not choosing to frustrate you. That is not their goal. They are trying to get their needs met and simply don’t know how.
Keep in mind that some children on the autism spectrum have trouble generalizing expectations across situations, and if you are using a strategy for the first time, you might not see a change right away. In some cases, the child will push against the strategy at first simply because it’s new and unfamiliar. It can be tough but do your best to remain patient and implement these strategies with consistency.