Effective Interventions for Problem Behaviors in Children on the Autism Spectrum

In order to create an effective intervention for problem behaviors in children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), parents need to take into consideration a variety of aspects.

Let’s first look at “The 4-Step Plan”:

1. Hypothesize the Function of the Behavior:
  • Escape/Avoidance
  • Sensory Feedback 
  • Social Attention 
  • Wants tangible item or activity

2. Gather Information:

a. Antecedent: Does the behavior occur…
  • Following a request to perform a difficult task?
  • Repeatedly, in the same way, for long periods of time, even when no one is around? 
  • When a request for an item or activity is denied? 
  • When you are attending to other children in the room?

b. Consequence: When the behavior occurs, do you…
  • Allow your child to engage in inappropriate behavior?
  • Attend to your child? 
  • Leave him or her alone? 
  • Negotiate or give the desired item/activity?

3. Plan an Intervention:

a. Based on information gathered, are environmental changes needed?
  • Limit toys and games available to your child
  • Less noise/chaos
  • Remove distracters

b. Based on information gathered, determine how you should react to the challenging behavior each time it occurs.
  • Plan to attend
  • Plan to ignore
  • Plan to redirect
  • Plan to remove privileges

4. Identify a Replacement Behavior:

a. What appropriate behavior is “functionally equivalent” to the challenging behavior?
  • Teaching your child to communicate his or her wants appropriately to replace escape/ avoidance behaviors
  • Teaching your child to ask if he or she can use the computer later to replace tantrum behavior 
  • Teaching your child to tell you what he or she wants/needs in order to replace attention-seeking behaviors

b. Create “replacement behavior” planning guide (write it down in a journal or notebook).
  • Describe how you will evaluate if – and how – your child uses the new response.
  • In what situations will “training” (i.e., behavior modifications) occur? 
  • What functionally equivalent behavior are you going to train in place of the problem behavior? 
  • What motivation system will be implemented during training? 
  • Which behavior are you going to target for replacement?

Next, let’s look at Differential Reinforcement:

Differential reinforcement is the process by which the frequency of a desirable behavior is increased while the undesirable alternative behaviors are eliminated. It is used when the desired behavior already occurs occasionally and when there is an available reinforcer.

The first step to differential reinforcement is to define exactly what the target behavior is, and also to define the undesirable competing behavior (e.g., if Michael plays video games twice as much as he does homework, the target behavior would be doing homework, and the undesirable behavior would be playing video games).

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The next step is to collect baseline data. Baseline is the period of time before behavior modification is implemented. The baseline serves as an indication of whether or not behavior modification is successful. So with Michael, the parent would record and graph the amount of time spent doing homework and playing video games each day.

In the third step, a reinforcer should be chosen (i.e., an item which the child is willing to work for), for example, snacks, praise, games, etc. With Michael, he could be reinforced with video game time.

Every time that the desirable behavior is demonstrated, it should be immediately reinforced. So, for every 30 minutes Michael spends doing homework, he would immediately be given 15 minutes of video game time. If too much time elapses before the child is reinforced, the target behavior will not increase in frequency.

Throughout the process, it is important for the parent to record the frequency of both the desirable and undesirable behavior so that progress can be tracked. After the desirable behavior is at the desired level, and the undesirable behavior is virtually eliminated, behavior modification can be decreased.

Lastly, here are a few additional interventions for problem behaviors in AS and HFA children:

1. Checklists and Schedules -- Provide visual structure and motivation needed to complete tasks/chores/activities, and stay on target by checking off tasks/chores/activities upon their completion.

2. Contingency Contracts -- The parent and child formalize agreements concerning specific behavior for the exchange of “reinforcers” (i.e., stimuli, such as rewards, the removal of unpleasant events, or punishments that maintain or strengthen a desired response) by writing an agreement. It outlines the behaviors and consequences of a specific behavior management system (e.g., good behavior “A” gets reward “A” …or misbehavior “B” gets punishment “B”).

3. Interspersed Requests -- Used to motivate AS and HFA kids to perform a difficult or unpleasant task by initially asking them to perform several easier tasks, which they can complete successfully in a short amount of time. This helps promote “behavioral momentum.”

4.  Premack Principle -- A method of maintaining and increasing compliance with rules through the use of positive reinforcement. A desired activity is available to the youngster on the completion of an undesired activity (e.g., the child who completes homework can earn an opportunity to play on the computer).

5. Redirection -- Introduce a novel stimulus to recapture the child’s attention by delivering verbal and nonverbal cues to the child to stop misbehavior, offering assistance with a task, engaging him/her in conversation, reminding him/her to focus attention on the task, or modeling calm and controlled behavior.

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6. Rules -- Establish, teach, and enforce house rules. Rules should be positively stated. Identify the specific behaviors you wish to see displayed.

7. Self-Evaluation -- A self-management system that has been used to promote appropriate behavior. AS and HFA kids are taught to evaluate their own behavior using a rating scale. For instance, a child can rate his or her behaviors using a 0-5 point rating scale ("unacceptable" to "excellent"). The child earns points, which can be exchanged for reinforcers based on both child-behavior and the accuracy of his or her ratings.

It is important for parents to know that, independent of their AS or HFA child's diagnosis, there are behavioral interventions that are very likely to help. A diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder increases the likelihood that parents will observe behavioral problems, but that does not mean that they have to live with those problems. Understanding that kids on the spectrum experience the world in a different way is important. But, moms and dads also have a responsibility to work with their child so that he or she can develop more socially appropriate behavior. Using the methods outlined above can be a good start toward this end.

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

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