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Teaching Impulse-Control to Children on the Autism Spectrum

Have you ever witnessed a youngster who doesn’t seem to know how to wait his or her turn, refuses to share, grabs objects out in public even after being told not to touch, has a meltdown in the middle of a crowded store, or constantly dominates a conversation?

Impulse-control is one of the most important skills that moms and dads can teach their children, because it is exceedingly important for success later in life. By learning impulse-control, children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can make appropriate decisions and respond to stressful situations in ways that can yield positive outcomes.

Parent can indeed teach impulse-control, but they need to understand that this skill is learned through a lot of discovery and repetition, not through reprimands and discipline – and this discovery and repetition happens slowly throughout childhood. Parents can’t teach self-control with a one-time lecture, rather they have to do one teachable moment, one situation at a time. Below are 16 strategies for tackling this challenge:

1. Allow “do-overs.” AS and HFA kids learn from experience far more than they learn from words. The best way to increase their learning is through repetition. After parents have completed any instructive corrections, they should give their youngster a chance to try again. This serves as a punctuation point on the lesson.

2. Demonstrate frustration-management skills. Low frustration-tolerance can be a big factor in impulse-control. Teach your “special needs” youngster how to manage her frustration so she can calm herself down when she’s upset. Time-outs are be a great way for children to learn how to calm themselves down. Your child will be less likely to act-out or seek revenge when she has a better understanding of how to manage her frustration.

3. Focusing on what your youngster did wrong is only half the equation. Parents need to tell their youngster what they want her to do instead. For example, say something such as, “You’re not permitted to hog the video game when you have your friends over. Think of three things you can do while your guests play so you’re able to share.”

4. Impart listening skills. Oftentimes, a child will behave impulsively because he doesn’t listen to the directions. Before parents have finished their sentence, the child is up and moving without really hearing what they said. Teach your youngster to listen to the directions first by having him repeat back what he has heard before he takes action.

5. Model good impulse-control yourself. If you're in an aggravating situation in front of your child, tell him why you're aggravated, and then discuss potential solutions to the problem. For example, if you've misplaced your cell phone, instead of allowing yourself to get agitated, tell your child it is missing and then search for it together. If your phone doesn't turn up, take the next practical step (e.g., retracing your steps when you last had your phone in-hand, calling your phone from a different phone, etc.). Show that good emotional control and problem solving are the ways to deal with challenging circumstances.

6. One of the hardest skills for an AS or HFA youngster who has attention deficits is to learn to wait.
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If he is unable to wait, he will usually act-out his frustration in the form of tantrums and/or meltdowns. Since children on the autism spectrum are visual learners, one of the best ways to teach “waiting” is through the use of visual learning techniques – along with something reinforcing or rewarding to the youngster. Thus, create a “wait picture” along with a picture of the reward. Tell your youngster that you and he are going to practice waiting (e.g., 5 minutes sitting quietly on the coach), and then he can have his reward (e.g., an additional 10 minutes of “computer game” time).  Praise your youngster for good behavior during this waiting time.  If he has difficulty demonstrating good behavior, try again for a shorter period until you have success (e.g., 3 minutes).  Then, in subsequent practice sessions, gradually extend the time your youngster has to wait for the reward (usually no more than 15 minutes, though). 

Another way to help an AS or HFA youngster learn to wait is to teach her time-telling skills.  To some kids, the words "five minutes" mean nothing because they don't know how long that is.  Some kids do well with digital clocks.  There is also a cool device called a "time timer," which shows the amount of time passing as well as providing an audible sound when the time is up.

7. Play impulse-control games. Play games that provide your youngster with a fun way to practice impulse-control. Games like Follow the Leader, Red Light Green Light, and Simon Says require impulse-control (playing memory games can improve impulse-control as well).

8. Promote physical exercise. When a child is physically active, she has a better chance at managing her impulses. When she is a bundle of energy, she is more likely to act without thinking.

9. Provide structure and routine. Providing structure can help parents keep their discipline consistent. When a child knows what to expect, there is less confusion and less opportunity for impulsivity. Repeat the rules and set clear limits often.

10. Repeat yourself as often as needed when giving instructive corrections. The key to curbing impulsive behavior is to teach your youngster how to think BEFORE he acts, and that requires repetition of your lessons.

11. Talk to your child about emotions. When “special needs” children develop an understanding of the difference between emotions and behaviors, it can help them control their impulses. For example, a youngster who understands that it is alright to feel angry – but not okay to push someone – can see that she has choices about how to deal with her feelings without reacting impulsively.

12. Teach problem-solving skills. When an AS or HFA youngster learns problem-solving skills, he will learn how to think before he acts. Thus, teach your youngster how to develop several solutions to a problem, and then analyze which one is likely to have the best outcome. For example, instead of instinctively pushing a classmate who cuts in front of him in line, he can problem-solve several different ideas of how to respond.

13. Teaching “cooperative games” (i.e., where players work together toward a common goal) also teaches impulse-control (e.g., doing puzzles together while taking turns adding pieces). Parents can share tasks as well (e.g., watering the plants together, unpacking the shopping bags, etc.). In addition, parents can give their child things to share with her friends on occasion (e.g., a special snack, a roll of stickers, etc.). To encourage sharing, use positive reinforcement rather than punishment. But, remember that it's reasonable for your youngster to hold back certain items; she shouldn’t have to share everything. As she matures, she will learn that sharing with her playmates (who are becoming increasingly important to her) is more satisfying than keeping things to herself.

14. Teaching an AS or HFA youngster how to play independently will also help her to develop impulse-control.  There are many times when parents can’t provide one-on-one attention to their youngster (e.g., when preparing meals, doing chores, talking on the phone, etc.).  It is usually during these times that behavior problems are witnessed, because the youngster is having difficulty waiting for undivided attention.  Thus, create an “activity menu” to help your youngster during these times. Take some pictures of activities that she has been seen to do independently.  Have a selection of these pictures for her to choose from during those times when you need her to play without your assistance.  Make sure that all the materials for the activities are easily available.  Set a timer for how long you want your child to engage in the activity – and every few minutes (5 - 10), praise her for playing independently.

15. To an AS or HFA child, impulses can feel like they have overtaken her, bypassing any logical thinking, causing her to disregard what she knows she should do. In order to help the youngster learn about impulse-control, parents need to break down that process for the child, helping her to become aware of her impulses before they lead her to a bad choice. Look for – and make note of – your child’s “impulsivity-triggers” (i.e., things that immediately precede her impulsive behaviors), and share your observations with her.

16. When giving instructive corrections, don’t preach. AS and HFA kids need time to process and integrate information. When parents lecture, their youngster becomes overwhelmed with too much information and melts down – or shuts down – and stops listening. Instead, be brief, using short statements and instructive action. 

Many behavior problems center around children struggling to manage their impulses. Aggression, parent-child conflict, disrespect, and oppositional behavior can often be decreased by teaching impulse-control techniques.  AS and HFA kids are not always able to express themselves calmly and in words. Frustration with people, things or circumstances occurs frequently – especially before they have the vocabulary to talk things out. But, there are many ways to teach your youngster how to express thoughts and feelings in a more constructive way. The techniques you choose will depend on his or her age and developmental readiness.

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