Autism is a distinctive neurological disorder that results in distinctive behavior problems. Being so, parents often must rely on their own distinctive strategies for dealing with such problems. Sometimes a bit of creativity is required on the parent’s part. But with research on autism piling up, parents now have a wealth of knowledge on which to base their strategies.
There is no predicting what an autistic child might do next. According to autism specialist Jocelyn Taylor, author of the guide “Challenging Behavior and Autism,” with tantrums commonplace and largely unpreventable in autistic children, one of the most important things parents can do to help their autistic kids minimize the damage done by problematic behavior is to prepare for such behavior. For most parents, this means two things: preparing to respond and preparing the environment. Preparing to respond entails having an action plan for a certain problematic behavior. For example, if your child has a propensity to throw violent tantrums, you might decide that whenever a tantrum occurs, you will take your child to his room to run the course of his tantrum. Preparing the environment means making sure that the place in which the misbehavior occurs is not going to exacerbate the problem. For a tantrum, for example, a room full of toys and hard objects can be risky for both the parent and the child. As a parent, you might consider removing all the dangerous objects from your child’s room. Putting the two aspects of preparation together, you are ready for a tantrum, knowing what to do and where to do it. In this case, removing your child from the room and placing him in his room, a safe room, will minimize the damage of this problem behavior.
Putting your autistic child in his room when he throws a tantrum is not just an arbitrary example of how to deal with a problematic behavior but a key strategy for parents with autistic children. Time-outs, effective for nearly all young children, are even more useful for parents with autistic children. This is because autistic children never grow out of the benefits time-outs bring. The main purpose of a time-out is to remove your child from an environment with a negative stimulus. For example, if your child has a tendency to hit his sister, removing him from the rooms in which his sister might be will keep him from reacting to that stimulus. As it works for autistic children even in their teens, the time-out is a useful strategy when parents know the problem lies in the external environment.
Autistic children are wired to follow rules, contrary to many parents’ beliefs. The autistic brain loves order, and without order, an autistic child will often react spontaneously to intrusive feelings, often resulting in unhealthy behaviors. The Texas Statewide Leadership for Autism Training advises parents to create rules and schedules for their autistic kids so as to help them form healthy behaviors. Consider printing out lists of rules and timetables for times and situations in which your child tends to act up. Opt for active rules, rules that tell your child what to do rather than what not to do. For example, if your child has a nasty habit of kicking the seats while sitting in the car, tape a list of “in-car” rules to the back of the front seats. This list of rules should contain active directives such as “keep your legs on the floor” and “buckle your seat belt when you sit down” rather than negative directives such as “don’t kick the seats” and “don’t unbuckle your seat belt.”
Give Prior Warnings Before Switching Tasks
As autistic children are creatures of habit and ritual, sudden interruptions frustrate them. Many parents might have noticed that allowing their child to engage in his favorite activity is often more pain than pleasure, for both parent and child. The pain comes when the action stops. For example, if you allow your child an hour of videogame time each day, something he loves, you might find your child throwing a tantrum at the end of that hour. But you can have your cake and eat it too: By giving your child a warning before ending an activity, you prepare him for its end. Instead of saying, “Hour’s up; turn the game off,” try giving a 30-minute warning, a 20-minute warning and a 10-minute warning before the hour’s up. You might also consider using a timer so that your child can watch the countdown. In this way, the end of the ritual is foreseen and not sudden. You can combine this strategy with giving your child a schedule so that he knows what happens after his favorite activity, as well. This makes for a much smoother transition.