Akron ABA Therapist on Responding to Difficult Behaviors of Child With Autism
One of the most significant challenges for parents of a child with autism is concern for their child’s well-being when difficult behaviors that are aggressive, self-injurious or socially isolating. As an Akron ABA therapist can explain, there is no one-size-fits-all “right way” to respond to difficult behaviors. It’s important to carefully look at what may be motivating the child to engage in this behavior and also what occurs right after that could be unintentionally reinforcing it.
Understanding the “why” is key to being prepared with a better response – one that involves keeping the child and others safe, and incorporates strategies to help reduce future occurrences and reinforce more appropriate means of communication.
Some of the difficult behaviors commonly reported by parents of children on the autism spectrum:
- Excessive scratching or rubbing
- Refusal to cooperate
- Screaming and yelling
- Throwing things
In a survey of 2,300+ published in the journal Pediatric Reports, roughly 40 percent of individuals on the autism spectrum currently or in the past have engaged in both aggressive and self-injurious behavior. The duration, severity, and frequency of these behaviors vary across the autism spectrum.
Why Kids With ASD Engage in Challenging Behaviors
It’s important to point out that usually, the child is not intentionally trying to test your patience or hurt anyone. And this is why “punishment” isn’t usually the best way to handle it because it’s not a matter of being “bad” or “spoiled” (no matter what kind of snide remarks you may hear from others if you’re unfortunate enough to be dealing with an episode in a public space).
A fair amount of research over the last five decades has revealed that comorbidities are a significant contributing factor in such behaviors. One of the most commonly cited comorbidities associated with these behaviors is impaired interoception, which is when a person has trouble perceiving their own internal body signals. (This condition isn’t unique to people on the spectrum, but it is fairly common among them.)
As an Akron ABA therapist can tell you, all behavior – at the core – is a form of communication. In ABA, we work to alter behavioral outcomes by studying the triggers and consequences/rewards and then consistently modifying one or both of those. But when issues with interoception are part of the “why” for the behavior, it can be tougher because the behavior itself is intrinsically physically rewarding, providing a measure of sensory input or relief.
Other possible behavior triggers include:
- Sudden or unexpected changes (in plans, activities, expectations, etc.)
- Frustration or anxiety
- Poor social and communication skills
- Difficulty focusing
- Mental and/or physical fatigue
- Executive functioning trouble
When you know this “why,” you can start looking at ways to reduce the chances of a trigger, as well as having a “toolbox” handy to respond quickly and effectively.
Addressing the Antecedent
In ABA, the antecedent is the first element of the “ABC’s of behavior science.” (The others are behavior and consequence.) The antecedent is the “trigger” or what happens right before the behavior occurs. Because kids with autism can’t always effectively express exactly what it is that they need or that’s causing them stress/pain/discomfort, etc., we have to carefully look for patterns of behavior to determine the specifics of what’s setting them off.
Armed with knowledge of the underlying issue, you can:
- Have a plan. You know your child struggles with transitions. You can help reduce this difficulty (and the odds of a meltdown) by preparing them with verbal and visual cues, timers, social stories, etc. so that they don’t feel so “taken off guard” when they must move from one activity to the next.
- Adjust the environment. Your child can still have meaningful or necessary experiences without experiencing them the exact same way as everyone else. Adaptations to account for sensory overload (headphones, sunglasses, chewable jewelry, etc.) can go a long way. Other adaptations can help ensure the environment is one that allows for engagement that is both calm and safe.
- Be picky about events. If your child struggles mightily with crowds, a theme park vacation may not be the best idea. Or if you do decide to go, perhaps limit the amount of time spent or distance traveled in a single go. Another example might be a child’s birthday party. If you don’t want to skip it entirely, maybe come early or later and only stay for a certain period of time.
- Have tools ready. Come prepared with tools to help them cope if they do start to feel overwhelmed. These can include fidget toys, electronic device with a favorite game app, “heavy work” exercises, etc.
- Give them choices. Providing the child with a sense of control can go a long way toward helping reduce challenging behaviors. You aren’t just telling them what to do and expecting they will, but instead giving them a choice about how to engage. For example, not doing homework may not be an option – but they can choose to either do it at their own desk vs. the kitchen table, or they can choose to do it alone vs. with parent helping.
- Designate safe spots. If you know certain places or scenarios are tough for your child, figure out in advance where they or both of you can go to self-regulate before continuing.
Adjusting the “Consequence”
The word consequence has a negative connotation, but that’s not necessarily what we mean here. It is simply: What happens immediately after the behavior? What is the child getting in return for their behavior? Is there a way to alter the consequence so that the child no longer finds engaging in that behavior to be an effective means of accessing that outcome?
When you work with an Akron ABA therapist, you’ll find the goal is to focus on supporting behaviors that are safe, productive, and boost the child’s confidence, while not supporting those that are harmful or socially isolating.
One approach that’s often effective when we’re trying to “extinct” a problem behavior is to avoid drawing attention to it. That often seems counterintuitive to many parents at first – because your instinct is to immediately tell them to stop, etc. But as long as the behavior isn’t dangerous, ignoring it entirely can be effective – especially if the behavior is attention-seeking. At first, this approach may actually trigger an increase in the behavior (referred to as a “behavioral burst”), but it will ultimately wane as the child learns they are not getting the desired outcome by engaging in it.
If you have questions about how to address the challenging behaviors of your child on the autism spectrum, working with an Akron ABA therapist can go a long way toward helping to identify the underlying cause and develop an effective response.
Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Akron, Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.
Understanding Challenging Behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Multi-Component, Interdisciplinary Model, July 2022, Journal of Personalized Medicine
More Blog Entries:
How Our Brecksville ABA Therapists Use Social Stories to Help Kids With Autism, Nov. 3, 2022, Akron ABA Therapy Blog