HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

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The Use of “Structure” to Reduce Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning

For many children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), problematic behaviors are common. The term “problematic behavior” is a controversial one, but it’s intended to suggest that certain behaviors present a “problem” for parents, siblings, peers, teachers, therapists, etc. This helps to prevent internalizing the cause of the behaviors and blaming the “special needs” child. This is a very important concept in AS and HFA, because it’s unlikely that any behavior which causes difficulties for parents and others is intended vindictively or maliciously. There is usually some other, unidentified, cause that provokes problematic behavior. Young people on the autism spectrum derive no enjoyment by being a problem to others.

Most problematic behaviors occur in the presence of parents and siblings (probably because AS and HFA children feel more comfortable simply being themselves when around familiar people). If such behavior is a problem for therapists and other professionals (which it is), then it can certainly be a challenge for moms, dads and siblings. Thus, it’s crucial that problematic behaviors are dealt with in way that (a) helps the entire family to cope more effectively, and (b) allows the “special needs” child to develop social skills and emotion management.

Low-frustration tolerance is one of the most common problems in young people on the autism spectrum. They often appear to go into a state of anger, rage, anxiety, or fear for no reason. All children get frustrated and then act-out from time to time, but this problem is more of a challenge for moms and dads of autistic children. These children may seem inconsolable during the episode of frustration, the episode often lasts a long time, and the resolution that typically accompanies the end of feeling frustrated rarely occurs.

Low-frustration tolerance is just one example of problematic behavior. Similar episodes of panic, anxiety, anger, and aggression may be seen all through childhood, the teenage years, and even into adulthood (e.g., yelling, crying, resisting contact with others, pushing others away, refusing to respond to interaction, using others as objects, refusing to comply with daily tasks, etc.). These behaviors are “problematic” in the sense that they cause disruption (e.g., to a classroom engaged in a lesson, a family outing or event, etc.).

Children and teens with AS and HFA often rely on rituals, routines and structure, which helps define the world in terms of consistent rules and explanations. Consistency helps these young people to function more comfortably in a world that would otherwise be perceived as confusing, chaotic and hostile. Most kids on the autism spectrum find their own strategies for imposing structure and maintaining consistency. Without this structure, they would be totally overwhelmed and unable to function …they would be unable to understand the behavior of others …and the information they receive through their senses would be nearly impossible to bring together into a purposeful whole.

When structure and consistency are disrupted in the AS or HFA child’s life, the world becomes confusing and overwhelming again – thus launching him or her into “problematic” behaviors as a response. This disruption of structure can be obvious (e.g., getting up at an unusual hour, having a collection of objects disturbed, not being able to engage in a favorite activity, being made to go a different way to school, etc.) …or it may be hidden (e.g., sensory sensitivities, subtle changes in the environment which the youngster is used to, etc.). Many of these “triggers” may be out of the control of the child. Thus, it’s important to remember that low-frustration tolerance and similar behaviors are not cases of “misbehavior” necessarily, rather they may simply be natural reactions to various unwanted stimuli.

How parents can begin to reduce problematic behaviors in their AS or HFA child:

1. At the time of the inappropriate behavior, be sure to limit your talking to “stating the rule and consequence.” Lengthy debates, explanations and arguments should be avoided at this time. Also, ignore complaints from your youngster. Further discussion about the rule and consequence can be done at a later time when things have calmed down.

2. Avoid anger and over-reaction to your child’s problematic behavior. Don’t let your emotions take control. Refrain from demanding or shouting. Stay calm! You’re “over-reacting” will through “gas on the fire.”

3. Establish family rules and put them in writing. Rules should be (a) specific, (b) easy to understand, (c) achievable, (d) age-appropriate, and (e) consistent. Rules should be discussed and decided upon ahead of time in mutual collaboration between the mom and dad without the youngster present. Then, after the rules have been agreed upon, they should be explained to the youngster in simple, concrete terms.

4. Help your youngster use problem-solving skills in order to make a plan for changing behavior in the future. For example, if the behavior involves difficulties getting along with peers, help your youngster learn appropriate communication and conflict resolutions skills.

5. Listen to your youngster’s point of view about a particular rule. When appropriate, consider making changes to the rule based on your youngster’s reasoning. This doesn’t mean you are “giving in” to your youngster’s demands, rather it means that (at times) you will negotiate with your youngster on a rule and reach a compromise.

6. Make your expectations very clear. For example, let your child know that (a) she WILL be required to perform certain tasks (e.g., completing homework, cleaning her bedroom, getting ready for school on time, etc.), and (b) there WILL be consequences for not completing such tasks.

7. Set up routines for daily living that are consistent and predictable (e.g., morning, mealtime, and bedtime routines). Your youngster will learn many things from these routines (e.g., how to take care of herself, how to interact with others, discovering that life runs more smoothly if things are organized and predictable, etc.).

8. Simply ignore some behaviors (e.g., whining and complaining).

9. Structuring your youngster’s environment. Determine what activities he will engage in and how he will fill his time. Also, be available physically and mentally to provide appropriate monitoring and supervision.

10. Try to anticipate problem situations (e.g., don’t let your youngster get into a situation where he becomes overly tired, hungry, or bored).

11. Use distraction techniques. If your youngster is acting-out, distraction with something of interest can focus her on more positive behaviors.

12. Use rewards to increase appropriate behavior. When it comes to children on the autism spectrum, it’s usually better to reward desirable behaviors than to discipline undesirable ones. Also, it’s best to provide the reward immediately after the desired behavior has occurred.

Note: While providing structure and consistency are important skills for you to use with your AS or HFA child, it’s also important to be aware of the importance of allowing her some independence and autonomy. As often as is appropriate, allow your child to have opportunities to make her own choices and decisions, respect her choices and decisions, and allow natural “real-world” consequences to occur (when safety is not an issue, of course).

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