"I have a 9-year-old with high functioning Aspergers who over-reacts both at home and at school when things don’t go his way, which then turns into a meltdown that disrupts the entire house (or classroom). And I never know if this behavior is a symptom of the disorder or just plain disobedience, which leaves me clueless as to whether or not I should discipline my son. Any insight will be greatly appreciated."
Think of your son’s behavior as an iceberg. The behavior you are actually seeing is the tip of the iceberg, but there's a lot more going on under the surface. Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can't always express their feelings through facial expressions, body language or speech. Instead, they may be expressed through other behaviors. Your son might be trying to tell you he is tired, stressed, annoyed by something that happened earlier, or in need of some time alone. So don’t simply assume that, when your child is acting-out, it is tied to “not getting his way” (sometimes there will be a connection between the two, other times not).
There is a range of reasons why young people with AS and HFA have difficulties with behavior. The world can be a confusing, isolating and daunting place for your son, and it is his fundamental difficulties with communication and social interaction that are often the root cause of difficult behavior. There are some other possible reasons, too. For example:
1. Children with AS and HFA can find it difficult to cope with change, whether a temporary change to their timetable at school, or a more permanent change such as moving house. You may find that your son's behavior alters at times of change, but settles as he becomes used to a new environment or routine.
2. Communication difficulties can impact on how young people with AS and HFA deal with social situations. They may find social situations very demanding or stressful because they have to work hard to communicate with other people. These kids often don’t understand that other people hold different views from theirs. This may also make social situations difficult.
3. Young people with AS and HFA may not understand 'social rules' (i.e., unwritten rules that govern social situations), such as how close to stand to other people or how to take a turn in conversation. This is especially true if they find themselves in a new, unfamiliar situation. Therefore, social situations can be daunting and unpredictable. Some may engage in a particular behavior to try and avoid social contact.
4. If your son's behavior suddenly changes for the worse, check that there isn't a medical reason for the distress. Young people with AS and HFA can find it difficult to tell parents how they're feeling or where something hurts, even if their verbal communication is generally good. Some have seizures that can cause irritability and confusion, or gastrointestinal problems which may be painful. Parents can try using a pain chart to help their youngster indicate where he is feeling discomfort. Alternatively, some moms and dads use symbols to help their youngster indicate where the pain is.
5. Many young people with AS and HFA have difficulties processing sensory information. For example, they may not be able to manage some tastes or food textures, or find that someone touching them - even lightly - is painful. Certain smells, lights or sounds can be distressing. Some may find it difficult to block-out background noise and what they experience as excessive visual information. Instead, sounds, lights and other sights are all processed at the same level of intensity and lead to sensory overload. You may find that your son starts a repetitive behavior in stressful environments (e.g., hand-flapping, spinning) to try and block-out external sensory information. These children can be very sensitive to subtle changes in their environment. If there's a sudden change in behavior, think about whether there has been a recent change in the environment.
6. Unfortunately, young people with AS and HFA can be at more risk of being bullied than their peers. If you notice a sudden change in your son’s behavior, see if there has been any reported bullying or teasing in school. Your son may find it difficult to tell you if he has been bullied (some AS kids don’t even recognize what bullying is), so you might need to play detective.
7. Kids with AS and HFA can experience a number of difficulties with communication: (a) understanding what's being said to them (i.e., receptive language), (b) understanding non-verbal communication (e.g., facial expressions, body language), and (c) communicating with others (i.e., expressive language). Because of these difficulties, they can find it hard to communicate their needs or to understand what other people are saying to them, or asking them to do. This can cause considerable frustration and anxiety which, if it can't be expressed any other way, may result in challenging behavior.
8. Young people with AS and HFA can find 'sequencing' difficult (i.e., putting what is going to happen in a day in a logical order in their mind). They need to have timetables so they can see what is going to happen, when, and plan for it. However, unstructured time (e.g., break times at school), which can be noisy and chaotic, may be difficult to deal with. This is because it's difficult for them to predict what will happen and how they are expected to behave. You may find that behavioral difficulties occur more in transition times between lessons or activities. Abstract concepts such as time aren't easy to understand, and children with AS and HFA may find it hard to wait. It helps if you can be clear about why and for how long you are waiting (e.g., “We have to wait for five minutes, until 10.30. This is because the doctor can see us at 10.30.”).
What can you and your son’s teacher do?
Use a behavior diary to try and find out what triggers a particular behavior. This helps you to monitor the behavior over time and see what the possible causes are (e.g., if always happens at the end of the day when your son is tired after school). One way of recording behavior is an ABC chart. On this, you record the Antecedent (i.e., what happened beforehand, who was there, where your son was), the Behavior itself, and the Consequence (i.e., what happened following the behavior). By identifying potential triggers for the behavior, it can be easier to come up with ways of preventing it from happening in the future. Interventions are more likely to be successful if they address either the cause or the function of the behavior.
When trying to tackle behavioral difficulties, select only one or two behaviors to focus on at a time. Using too many new strategies with your son at once may result in none of them working at all. Write down all the behaviors you're concerned about, and then prioritize them, choosing the two most important ones to concentrate on first. Don't worry if things get worse before they get better. Your son will probably resist change initially. This is a normal reaction. Nonetheless, it's important to continue with the strategies you are using and be consistent.
How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Aspergers Children