Children with Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism (HFA) often exhibit different forms of challenging behavior. It is imperative that these behaviors are not seen as willful or malicious; more accurately, they should be viewed as connected to the child’s disorder and treated as such by means of insightful, therapeutic and educational strategies, rather than by inconsistent punishment or other disciplinary measures that imply the assumption of deliberate misbehavior.
Parents and teachers need to recognize the difficulties that the youngster with Asperger’s or HFA brings to each situation as a result of his or her neurologically-based disorder. Among the common traits of this “special needs” child include the following:
- A need for predictability and routine
- A tendency to respond based on association and memory, which leads the youngster to repeat familiar behaviors even when they produce consistently negative results
- An overly reactive sensory system that makes ordinary noise, smell or touch irritating or intolerable
- Considerable difficulty organizing himself to do something productive in undirected play activities, in stimulating public situations, or when waiting
- Emotional responses that are apt to be extreme and are often based on immediate events, leading to rapid changes (e.g., from laughing to screaming)
- Lack of embarrassment or concern about other people's impressions of them
- Limited ability to recognize another person's perspective or opinion or to empathize with others
- Poor recognition of public versus private behavior
- Problems shifting attention
- Problems transitioning from one activity to another
- Recovery from emotional upset is often immediate once the problem is removed, but for some kids on the spectrum, irritability and secondary upsets can continue for hours
- Significant difficulties with understanding language, especially in group situations
Note: These traits are not the result of poor parenting or teaching. Also, they are not deliberate, willful or manipulative behaviors. They are simply common traits of kids with Asperger’s and HFA.
Specific problem-solving strategies can be taught for handling the requirements of frequently occurring, problematic situations (e.g., involving novelty, intense social demands, frustration, etc.). Training is usually necessary for recognizing situations as problematic and for selecting the best available learned strategy to use in such situations.
The following steps will help parents and teachers implement behavioral management techniques for children and teens on the higher end of the autism spectrum:
Step #1: Prepare a list of frequent and challenging behaviors (e.g., perseverations, obsessions, interrupting, or any other disruptive behaviors). When listing these behaviors, it is important that they are specified in a hierarchy of priorities so that both parent and child can concentrate on a small number of truly troublesome behaviors.
Step #2: Create some specific interventions that help with the challenging behaviors whenever the behaviors arise. Here are just a few examples of appropriate interventions:
• Instructional intervention is used with a child who already wants to change his behavior, but simply doesn't know how. This is one of the easier behavior intervention strategies, because you simply need to tell the child what to do and how to do it. Once he has this information, he can change his behavior on his own.
• Positive reinforcement is a good behavior intervention technique, because it doesn't even recognize the negative behavior. To positively reinforce a child, you just tell her that she is doing a great job or otherwise reward her whenever she does the right thing. This creates a situation where she associates the right thing with a good outcome and has no such association with the wrong thing. This helps to positively change behavior without having to punish, yell or otherwise negatively reinforce behaviors.
• Negative reinforcement is the opposite of positive reinforcement. Rather than positively reinforce the correct behaviors, negative reinforcement reinforces the incorrect behaviors. This is good for more serious issues (e.g., if the youngster consistently climbs on the counter next to a pot of boiling water, you need to negatively reinforce that behavior immediately, because the consequences of knocking over the pot are so dire). Examples of negative reinforcement include stern words, loss of privileges and other forms of discipline.
• Supportive intervention is when the child needs help reinforcing a behavior. She may know it theoretically, but she may not always apply it as it is not yet internalized. So, supportive intervention is when the child is gently guided through positive and negative feedback. It is different from other forms of behavior intervention, because it has a specific spot in the behavior management cycle – specifically, after the behavior has been learned, but before it is consistently applied.
Step #3: Make sure that the interventions listed above are discussed with the Asperger’s or HFA child in an explicit, rule-governed fashion so that clear expectations are set and consistency across adults, settings and situations is maintained.
Step #4: Help the child to make choices. Do not assume that he makes informed decisions based on his own set of elaborate likes and dislikes. Rather he should be helped to consider alternatives of action or choices, as well as their consequences (e.g., rewards and unhappiness) and associated emotions. The need for such an artificial set of guidelines is a result of the Asperger’s or HFA child’s typical poor intuition and knowledge of self.
Additional behavior management strategies that are critical to the success of the Asperger’s or HFA child include the following:
• Stick to a routine: This is necessary for both the youngster and the parent. A youngster with Asperger’s or HFA thrives on routine. Being able to anticipate what comes next is soothing and satisfying. Routine lessens anxiety, and a less anxious youngster has fewer outbursts. Adhering to a schedule is a necessary behavior management tool. If the youngster is complacent with her schedule, it eliminates some behavior issues. Behavior management for kids on the autism spectrum is about anticipating what will cause unwanted behavior and eradicating those situations. Because of insufficient social skills, the youngster often has to memorize the rules of situational norms (e.g., eating in a restaurant, waiting in line, sharing with friends, etc.). Routine-based behavioral management techniques focus on the prevention of the negative behaviors that accompany an unstructured or weak routine.
• Encourage the child’s special interest: The Asperger’s or HFA youngster will often have a very specific interest and obsess about it. Some moms and dads are apprehensive about encouraging this peculiar behavior, but it is actually a helpful coping technique. The youngster’s special interest can be used to encourage positive behavior (e.g., “If you share with your friend, we will go to the library and check out another book about dinosaurs”). However, don’t use the special interest as a disciplinary tool. Taking away the youngster’s “go-to coping skill” is denying him a form of self-imposed therapy.
• Issue rewards for positive behavior immediately: Kids on the autism spectrum are often unable to relate cause and effect, especially if a lot of time exists between the two. Thus, reinforcements should be given immediately. The youngster can’t relate a reward received at the end of the day to a behavior exhibited earlier in the afternoon. Also, rewards should be chosen carefully, and moms and dads need to follow through with the incentive (e.g., if stickers or other tokens are being used to encourage successful behavior, be sure that these rewards are readily available at all times – and in all settings).
• Use visual schedules: Kids on the autism spectrum crave structure, and visual schedules are helpful in creating order, clear choices and expectations. A visual schedule is a series of pictures that lists the day’s activities and choices (e.g., a morning schedule posted on the bathroom mirror can have pictures depicting the youngster brushing her teeth, washing her face, and getting dressed …or at breakfast, there may be a visual schedule showing meal options). Depending on the needs of the youngster, the schedule can illustrate more detail.
Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management