Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often exhibit different forms of challenging behavior. It is crucial that these behaviors are not seen as willful or malicious; instead, they should be viewed as connected to the child’s disorder and treated as such by means of thoughtful parenting techniques, rather than by inconsistent punishment or other disciplinary measures that imply the assumption of deliberate misbehavior.
Specific problem-solving techniques (usually following a verbal rule) may be taught for handling the requirements of frequently occurring, troublesome situations (e.g., involving novelty, intense social demands, frustration, etc.).
Here are some crucial concepts on how to approach behavioral management in the case of children with AS and HFA:
1. Use simple and clear messages. Communicate your expectations to your youngster in a straightforward manner. For children on the autism spectrum, this may require more than just telling them. You may need to use pictures, role playing, or gestures to be sure your youngster knows what she is working toward. Explain as simply as possible what behaviors you want to see. Also, remember that consistency is key, so make sure that teachers, siblings, grandparents, babysitters, and other caretakers are all on board with your messages.
2. To understand your youngster's behavior, you have to understand the factors that affect it — especially his disorder. Thus, try to learn as much about the distinctive medical, behavioral, and psychological factors that affect your child’s development. Talk to other parents of AS and HFA children to help determine if your youngster's challenging behavior is typical or related to his individual challenges. Sharing experiences will give you a way to measure your expectations and learn which behaviors are related to your youngster's diagnosis, and which are purely developmental. Also, talk to members of your youngster's care team. Read up on the disorder, and ask the doctor about anything you don't understand. In addition, consider joining an online support or advocacy group for parents of children with autism.
3. A list of frequent problematic behaviors (e.g., preservations, obsessions, interrupting, other disruptive behaviors) should be made and specific guidelines devised to deal with them whenever the behaviors arise. These guidelines should be discussed with the AS or HFA child in an explicit, rule-governed fashion, so that clear expectations are set and consistency across adults, settings and situations is maintained. When listing the problematic behaviors, it is important that these are specified in a hierarchy of priorities, so that the parent and child concentrate on a small number of truly disruptive behaviors.
4. When faced with AS or HFA children who are aggressive and shouting, the parent should keep her face neutral and lower the volume and pitch of her voice. In most cases, these “special needs” children will quieten down to hear what the parent is saying if she remains remarkably calm in the eye of the storm.
5. Keep a behavior journal. Using a journal for recording problematic incidents can help parents to look back and see if there are any patterns or contributing factors. It can also be a good thing to look through with the AS or HFA child herself, talking about both the positives and negatives.
6. Help the child to make choices. There should not be an assumption 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 displeasure) and associated feelings. The need for such an artificial set of guidelines is a result of the child’s typical poor intuition and knowledge of self.
7. Encourage your child to establish and maintain friendships. Loneliness is one of the main causes for problematic behavior among AS and HFA children. Thus, try to encourage opportunities for socializing and making friends.
8. Encourage independence. It’s easy to do everything for your “special needs” child, including making decisions for her. Often times, when parents give their child the chance to do more herself and to make her own decisions, behavior improves.
9. Children who have trouble learning respond very well to discipline and structure. But for this to work, moms and dads have to make discipline a priority and be consistent. Correcting children is about establishing standards (e.g., setting a morning routine, establishing dinnertime manners, etc.), and then teaching them how to meet those expectations. AS and HFA children crave this consistency. When they can predict what will happen next in their day, they feel confident and safe.
10. Be assertive, yet calm. Assertive, calm instructions and body language are important assets when dealing with problematic behavior. Additional emotion from the parent into an already emotional situation only clouds judgments and causes greater confusion.
The most important thing for you to remember is that YOU know your youngster best. You are in the best position to help him overcome challenging behaviors simply by listening and responding on a level that works for him. Overcoming challenging behavior in an AS or HFA youngster involves changes in parental responses, being prepared, modeling therapeutic principles taught during behavior modification therapy sessions, and being willing to advocate for the best solutions for your youngster.
How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Asperger's and HFA Children