“Are there methods to prevent meltdowns associated with receiving a consequence for misbehavior? When our high functioning (autism) daughter knows she is going to be punished, it quickly escalates into meltdown, which by then is much too late to intervene.”
Yes, there are some prevention methods (emphasis on “prevent”). The first and most important consideration is to think in terms of “prevention” rather than “intervention.” Once a meltdown is underway, it usually has to run its course (i.e., it's too late to intervene at that point). So, the best approach is to educate yourself on how to put the fires out while they are still small.
Here are some ideas for using prevention strategies to curb punishment-related meltdowns before that start:
1. Both home and in school, develop a daily routine so that your daughter knows what she is doing and when. Posting the schedule and reviewing it when your daughter becomes "stuck" can provide the necessary prompt to move on. Compliance is not a struggle between you and your daughter, but rather simply a matter of following the schedule. She will view the schedule as a guide. The guide will serve to decrease anxiety, which in turn decreases meltdowns and tantrums.
2. Expectations (e.g., rules, rewards, consequences, etc.) should be visually available. These must be clearly described to your daughter. Also, use charts with stickers or stars to keep track of reward systems. Use the letters of your daughter's name placed on a chart to keep track of consequences. Throughout the day, if letters have been received, they can slowly be erased for positive responding. This provides a wonderful visual response for appropriate behaviors, and you can deliver this feedback (depending on your daughter's needs) every ten minutes, fifteen minutes . . . two hours – you decide what works best.
3. Reinforcers will need to be very individualized, because young people on the autism spectrum often do not respond to “typical” reinforcers. Be well aware of what your daughter views as a reward. Incorporating obsessions into a reinforcement system is an appropriate way of offering a strong reinforcer and of also controlling access to an obsession. Make sure your daughter is aware of how the reward/consequence system works. Natural consequences can also be highly effective and will remove the "giving" or "denying" of the reward from you. Favored activities should follow less favored or challenging activities.
4. The physical environment must be consistent. In all locations, identify consistent areas where specific activities are completed (e.g., that homework is always completed at the desk in her bedroom or at the kitchen table). These areas/activities should also have consistent behavioral expectations, which are explained to your daughter. Identify clear physical boundaries (e.g., planned seating arrangement in school, a planned play area at home). Also, use consistent materials that are clearly marked and accessible (e.g., toys that are within easy reach and stored in or right by the area they will be used in).
5. Your relationship with your daughter should be consistent in both word and action. She needs to see you as a predictable person who is calm and in control. Being "easy" or giving your daughter a "break" will thwart your effectiveness. Make rules and stick to them. Make requests and follow through. Don't make second requests, and don't plead. Your interactions must be stable, allowing your daughter to anticipate how she will respond. She must see you as someone who can help her understand the world around her. Be highly organized and pay attention to details as you create a structured environment for your daughter. However, be sure to remain flexible within this structure. In this way, you will provide the structure your daughter needs to learn to be flexible, thus decreasing the possibility of meltdowns and tantrums.
How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Asperger's and HFA Children