Motives Behind ASD Behavior: Parents’ Analytical Approach

"How can we as parents possibly know the difference between unwanted behavior as a result of the traits of the disorder versus behavior that is simply a form of tantrumming?"

When your child with ASD level 1, or High Functioning Autism (HFA), begins to act out, it often looks like misbehavior, sounds like misbehavior, and certainly feels like misbehavior. But for many kids on the autism spectrum, “misbehavior” (e.g., lying, acting-out, tantrums, disrespect, and other signs of apparent disobedience) may have more to do with typical autism-related traits (e.g., lack of communication skills, motor clumsiness, sensory sensitivities, cause-and-effect thinking, etc.) than with deliberate malicious intent.

This DOES NOT mean you have to allow “out-of-control behavior” as just another fact of your parenting an HFA child. Your youngster still needs to learn acceptable behavior to be safe and successful. It DOES mean, though, that you're going to have to look at things from a different angle.

In order to (a) differentiate between “misbehavior and “autism-related behavior” and (b) successfully address both, consider the following suggestions:

1. To start with, you'll want to narrow your focus to one particular behavior to analyze and change. Although it's tempting, don't just choose the thing that most annoys you. A better choice will be something that particularly puzzles you. For example:
  • Why can your youngster do math just fine some days, and balks on other days?
  • Why does he insist on punishment even when it upsets him?
  • Why does he get so wound up and wild?
  • Why is your youngster sweet and compliant sometimes, then resists to the point of tantrum over something inconsequential?

As long as you're going to be a detective, you might as well give yourself a good mystery. While you're stalking one behavior, you may need to let others slide, unless it's a matter of safety. Don't try to change everything all at once.

2. Next, keep a journal (or if it is a frequently occurring behavior, keep a chart) for noting every incidence of the targeted behavior. Include the time of day the behavior occurred, and what happened before, during, and after. Think of what might have happened directly before the behavior, and also earlier in the day. Think, too, of what happened directly after the behavior, and whether it offered the youngster any reward (even negative attention can be rewarding if the alternative is no attention at all). Ask yourself the following questions. Does the behavior tend to:
  • be more frequent during a certain time of day?
  • occur after a certain event?
  • occur during transitions?
  • occur in anticipation of something happening?
  • occur when routine is disrupted?
  • occur when something happens - or doesn't happen?
  • occur when things are very noisy or very busy?

Keep track over the course of a few weeks and look for patterns.

3. It may seem as though your youngster saves his worst behavior for public places, where it causes you the most embarrassment. But there may be a reason for that. Ask yourself the following question:
  • Does he have a hard time resisting touching and banging things like buttons or doors?
  • Does he have trouble in places where he needs to stay still and quiet (e.g., church)?
  • Does he resist places where children may be cruel (e.g., the bus, playground)?
  • Does he panic in places that are busy and noisy (e.g., the mall)?
  • Does he shy away from places with strong smells or bright lights?
  • Is there something about any particular place that might be distressing?

Notice reactions to different environments and add these insights to your journal or chart.

4. You can stubbornly insist that your youngster is responsible for his own behavior, but you're liable to be waiting a long time for the behavior changes you want to see. While you may find some behaviors annoying, disruptive, or inappropriate, it may be filling a need for your youngster. And even if your youngster is genuinely unhappy about the negative consequences of his behavior, he may not understand it enough to control it.
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

In the end, it is far easier for YOU to change (e.g., your expectations, actions, reactions, responses, etc.) than for your youngster to change. You will need to do some detective work to determine the support your youngster needs to improve his behavior, and provide it. Ultimately, you can teach your youngster to do this for himself. But you have to lead the way.

5. Take the data from your journal or chart (e.g., patterns you've discovered, observations on environments, etc.) and see if you can figure out what's behind the behavior. For example:
  • Maybe he balks at math when he sees too many problems on the page.
  • Maybe he begs for punishment because going to his room feels safer than dealing with a challenging situation.
  • Maybe he explodes over something inconsequential because he's used up all his patience weathering frustrations earlier in the day.
  • Maybe he gets wound up because “being good” gets him no attention.

Once you have a working theory, make some changes in your youngster's environment to make it easier for him to behave. For example:
  • Give your youngster lots of attention when he's being good - and none at all for bad behavior (other than just a quick and emotionless timeout).
  • If your child’s worksheet has too many problems, fold it to expose only a row at a time, or cut a hole in a piece of paper and use it as a window to show only one or two problems at once.
  • Instead of being happy that your youngster seems to be handling frustrating situations, provide support earlier in the day so that his patience will hold out longer.
  • Recognize situations your child feels challenged by - and offer an alternative between compliance and disobedience.

You may not always guess right the first time, and not every change you try will work. Effective moms and dads will have a big bag of tricks they can keep digging into until they find the one that works that day, that hour, that minute. But analyzing behavior and strategizing solutions will help you feel more in control of your family, and your youngster will feel safer and more secure. This alone often cuts down on a lot of “misbehavior.”

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said… I feel this article was posted just for me....my 6yr olds behaviour baffles me to no end and need advice
•    Anonymous said… I get so many comments of "you don't discipline your child!" People just don't understand.
•    Anonymous said… I get that from family a lot. I understand my son and use these moments to teach rather than control. It's quite frustrating, but my son is worth more than the peanut gallery and their opinions.!
•    Anonymous said… If anyone isn't happy with the way I handle my child they are welcome to take over the job. Except he's gone now, he's an adult, and he takes care of himself very well.
•    Anonymous said… My family don't understand me (NT) and hubby and daughter (ADHD/AS) for the way they do. "You got problems" as they quoted. Sure we have problems but we get counseling to HELP us move forward, understanding AS. If I didn't understand AS, I would have divorced hubby!
•    Anonymous said… Thank you for sharing this article. Wonderful advice.
•    Anonymous said… This is so true…and the peanut gallery can be overwhelming at times! Pick your battles. Nobody will fully understand unless you live it.
•    Db2TN said... This is a really helpful reminder to stop and evaluate what might be causing a "bad mood". I know most of my son's triggers, but when I am tired or distracted, can forget to do a quick internal check before reacting or trying to help him. There are times, though, when a spell of negativity or irritation can be baffling - just before Christmas break started, he was in that place. I wondered if just the anticipation of Christmas, as well as the upcoming lack of our usual routine was looming large. Turns out he was very nervous about a Dr's appointment which wound up going much better than he expected, and he was just fine after that. So now I need to add that potential to my mental checklist. But thanks for this article, it's such a help to receive new ideas and reminders of things I already know!  Thanks for this reminder to do a mental checklist before responding - or reacting - to a "bad mood". I'm familiar with most of my son's triggers, but a new one popped up recently, and it took getting through the event he was dreading before I realized that's what was causing the issue. New one to add to the list! I appreciate your articles so much - very helpful to get new ideas or be reminded of things already known or experienced!
•    Jacqui said... My three year old hasn't been officially diagnosed as of yet. We are in the loop to get tested. She has seen a couple people so far, and they are both on the fence with her. She may or may not have Asperger's.This is an awesome post. I am still learning her triggers to behavior. Christmas was a huge issue for us. And I had to find ways to tone it down. Slowly I am learning triggers. But it sounds like a life long process.

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