Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Behavioral Interventions for Children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism

Many kids and teenagers with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) are prone to behavior problems, and on occasion, aggression. Even though frequently motivated to be near to – and to socially interact with – peers and grown-ups, young people with AS and HFA are deficient in age-appropriate, reciprocal social interaction skills (e.g., those required to participate in cooperative play and related activities).

A propensity for socially unacceptable behavior and insensitivity to – or unawareness of – verbal and nonverbal social cues makes these “special needs” kids vulnerable to displaying a variety of behavior problems. Accordingly, parents and teachers must provide appropriate instruction and supports for AS and HFA children to progress and experience success at home, school, and in the community.

Traditional discipline may fail to produce the desired results for kids with AS and HFA, mostly because they have difficulty appreciating the consequences of their actions. Therefore, punitive measures are apt to exacerbate the type of behavior the punishment is intended to reduce, while at the same time giving rise to distress in both the parent (or teacher) and child.

The same basic behavior management model that is used with “typical” kids can also be applied when crafting management supports for kids on the autism spectrum. That is, teams of parents and professionals should cooperatively:
  • target socially valid and pivotal responses for change
  • ensure careful measurement of targeted responses selected for change
  • systematically analyze behaviors that are identified for change relative to their functions and environmental and antecedent factors connected to their occurrence
  • select and systematically implement and evaluate appropriate interventions and treatments

Behavioral interventions entail manipulation of antecedent conditions (i.e., what happens immediately prior to the behavior problem) as well as use of consequences for targeted behaviors. Approaches that seem to work best with these young people give them an opportunity to participate in developing and implementing their own behavior management systems. Thus, whenever possible, AS and HFA kids should be involved in their own program development and implementation.

In order to be successful, behavioral interventions should be applied consistently across all areas of the youngster’s life. Also, the longer a particular problematic behavior has been evident, the longer it will take to change it. Therefore, it may take a while for the chosen strategies to be effective. The job for parents and teachers is to focus on the behavior they would like to increase or decrease.

One specific behavioral intervention that has been found to be useful with many kids on the spectrum is cognitive behavior modification. This is a strategy that teaches the child to monitor his own behavior or performance, and to deliver self-reinforcement at established intervals. In this technique, the locus of behavior control is shifted from an external source (e.g., the parent or teacher) to the child.

Cognitive behavior modification can be used to facilitate a variety of behavior changes, including following various specific house and classroom rules, and attending to assigned tasks at home and school. The following is an example of this technique:

One AS teen was assisted in monitoring and changing his "stalking" behavior at school. The teen had become a concern to school officials and his mother because of his serial interest in attractive girls in his school (none of whom he knew personally). His obsession with any one female student typically lasted less than a week. But during this time, he attempted to walk with these girls from class to class, sit with them at lunch, etc., at every opportunity.

Even though the female students protested loudly and did not encourage the AS teen’s interest in any way, it had no impact on his behavior! Furthermore, negative consequences for this behavior (e.g., detention, suspension) only seemed to exacerbate the problem.

However, the AS teen did respond positively to a cognitive behavior management program. His school counselor and homeroom teacher used a videotaped sequence of his stalking behavior to assist him in understanding that his behavior was inappropriate. He then was:
  • instructed to use a self-monitoring system structured by the school's bell system for signaling transitions
  • taught to use a self-recording system related to his contact with his peers
  • taught to use a self-reinforcement system

The self-reinforcement he selected was to spend time with classmates who agreed to sit with him at lunch and walk with him during class transitions. Social skill instruction related to his behavior during these peer contacts also proved to be beneficial.

It is crucial that parents and teachers recognize – and plan for – problems related to aggression and violence. Not all AS and HFA children have these problems, and most are not inherently aggressive. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that problems of aggression in some of these young people do arise from time to time.

The social deficits connected with AS and HFA (e.g., difficulty in engaging in age-appropriate reciprocal play) frequently create problems and frustrations that may escalate into aggressive responses and counter-actions. For instance, one youngster with AS had difficulty interacting with friends as a result of not understanding commonly known and accepted social rules, As a result, he gave the appearance of being rude and unwilling to follow generally understood game rules.

With some planning on the part of parents and teachers – and hard work on the part of the AS or HFA child – social skills can be learned and practiced on a daily basis. It may not come naturally, but it is very possible for young people on the autism spectrum to discover the basic ability in socialize in an acceptable manner.

Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

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