Raising Children on the Autism Spectrum: The “Best-of” Techniques

"Our son was recently diagnosed with autism (high functioning). What would be the best course of action/parenting changes we need to consider/focus on at this point?"

You may have just discovered that your youngster has a diagnosis of Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), and you are thinking “What now?” …or you may have a youngster who you know is different …or a health professional has said that he or she has some traits of autism, but is still considered in the normal range. You may be feeling overwhelmed, and it may seem like you are the only person or family going through these issues.

Is your child intolerant to certain types of food? Have you noticed that she doesn’t like loud noises, bright lights, tight or loose fitting clothes – and reacts inappropriately to any of these particular things? Does your youngster crave fast movement, or is he almost impossible to get moving in the morning? Does your youngster’s specific behavioral problems seem worse after lunch or a party? Do you find routines hard to establish and maintain?

All these issues may seem very daunting at the moment. However, with experience and help, you can teach your youngster to rule his AS or HFA traits rather than have his traits rule him. There are many things you can do to help your youngster better understand the world – and function successfully in it. Below are some crucial ideas that you may find helpful.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
Raising Children on the Autism Spectrum: The “Best-of” Techniques—

1. A common complaint of moms and dads with AS and HFA kids is the obsessive nature that they can have with a certain object or action. Repeated words, a fixation on a collection, or the obsession with a character or television show is an indicator of AS or HFA. As a parent, you have the power to limit the interest so that your youngster can experience other things. Make time each day for your youngster to indulge in his interest, but introduce other things to him as well.

2. As a mother or father, you may find yourself constantly explaining the condition to other parents, teachers and friends. It is your duty to clear the path for your youngster's interactions by letting others know about the disorder and explaining how it might affect their relationship with your youngster. Creating awareness makes it easier for your youngster to interact with others who understand why she is different. Awareness also helps others to not take offense to the things she says and does.

3. Children with AS and HFA tend to enjoy being isolated, because it is less stressful for them – and they do not have to socialize with others. So, when parents use a “time-out” as a form of punishment for misbehavior, it can actually be a positive experience for these “special needs” kids, which makes the consequence ineffective. Removing them from something fun is a better alternative. For example, if your youngster loves to play with blocks, perhaps the blocks should go in the time-out area. A timer can be used, which will help parents be more consistent when applying time-outs. Kids prone to destructive tantrums may be placed in a room that contains no breakable items, or one that has pillows they can use to get out their frustrations.

4. Choose your battles carefully. Teach your AS or HFA youngster how to make a request without a meltdown, and then honor the request. For example, say, “Try asking for that toy nicely, and I’ll get it for you.”

5. Cognitive-behavioral therapies are often used to help a child with AS or HFA unlearn his undesirable behaviors and replace them with more positive behaviors. Through this therapeutic technique, the child will learn to recognize the behaviors that need to be discontinued and come up with strategies to change his behaviors in the moment, until the change becomes permanent.

6. Create a list of behaviors and actions your youngster can’t control due to her diagnosis. These may include repetitive behaviors, along with poor peer relations and easy distractibility. Your youngster may require help and guidance to overcome these issues. However, she should not be punished for behaviors related directly to the disorder.

7. Determine preventative instructions to help your youngster learn the appropriate way to handle difficult situations. Through role play, discussion and stories, you can provide your youngster with alternatives to hitting, yelling and throwing. Social stories (developed to help AS and HFA kids understand difficult situations) may be particularly helpful for teaching about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Because kids on the autism spectrum often process information slowly, repeat your preventative instructions numerous times.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
8. Develop an appropriate format for instructing your youngster about behaviors that are unacceptable and that will result in a negative consequence. Because the symptoms of the disorder often include difficulty processing information, the list may need to be verbalized, written down and displayed in picture format. Copying the list and placing it throughout the house may also be helpful.

9. Do not reward your AS or HFA child after a meltdown for calming down. Some kids will learn that a meltdown is a good way to get a treat later.

10. Don't expect your child to “act his age.” Children on the spectrum are usually emotionally immature compared to their same-age peers, so parents should make some allowances for this.

11. Establish routines and traditions that add structure. AS and HFA children LOVE – and even crave – structure.

12. Give your AS or HFA youngster control over little things whenever possible by giving choices. A little bit of power given to the child can stave-off the big power struggles later (e.g., “Which do you want to do first, brush your teeth or put on your pajamas?”).

13. Implement a consequence plan. For each negative behavior you have identified as inappropriate from your youngster, decide the consequence. Discipline needs to be clear, concise, consistent and calm. If your youngster misbehaves, tell him in a few words what he did wrong and tell him the consequence (e.g., "Hitting your brother is inappropriate. Go sit in the timeout chair for 5 minutes").

14. In some younger AS and HFA kids who appear not to listen, the act of “singing” your words can have a beneficial effect.

15. Increase your tolerance level. Are you available to meet your child’s reasonable needs? Evaluate how many times you say, “No.” Avoid fighting over minor things.

16. Keep a sense of humor to divert your youngster’s attention and surprise him or her out of the meltdown.

17. Kids with AS and HFA often have trouble both understanding communication and comprehending tone of voice. Sometimes a visual instruction is more effective than a verbal one, since your youngster can review the action as often as needed. Visuals can be used to suggest schedules, chores, and even processes (e.g., the correct way to use public restrooms). Use pictures, photographs and cartoons to help your AS or HFA youngster understand what is expected.

18. Kids with AS and HFA thrive on clear rules, therefore posting a list of unacceptable behaviors and their consequences can be immensely helpful. For younger kids who can’t read yet, the rules should be reviewed periodically, and the list could also have visual illustrations to demonstrate the bad behaviors and consequences associated.

19. Make sure your child “understands” what he is doing wrong! For example, do you talk back to him? Why, then, is it inappropriate for him to talk back to you? Maybe he has an issue with the other person's mind. This lack of “other awareness” or “Theory of Mind” is common in AS and HFA. Maybe he said something that was insulting, but didn't realize it. At that point, try and explain why it is that he said something wrong. Make sure you have explained to him what it is that he did, and why you are angry. It's not always easy, but sometimes reasoning it out in a logical way will help you vocalize what's wrong and will help your child realize what “the rule” is and what he has to do to follow it.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
20. Moms and dads need time-outs too. If one parent is home with an AS or HFA youngster all day long, that parent may need a break later. Moms and dads should pay attention to one another and give each other time to decompress when necessary. Develop a hand signal or other visual clue that lets the other know when these moments arise.

21. Moms and dads need to be in agreement when applying discipline to any youngster, but especially for kids with AS and HFA. If one parent thinks spanking is the appropriate punishment while the other feels that time-outs will be more effective, this will be confusing for the youngster. Time-outs, loss of privileges (e.g., video games, TV, weekly allowances), a fair-fining structure (as in police ticketing) with a cost associated with each offending behavior, or additional chores can all be used effectively.

22. Moms and dads should list the behaviors that they feel are most deserving of attention. This is an important step because some behaviors may need intervention or therapy in order to be eliminated rather than simple disciplinary tactics. For example, running in circles or humming may be habits that the youngster is using to self-soothe, even though these behaviors might drive moms and dads crazy. Odd self-soothing behaviors are common in kids on the autism spectrum with sensory processing (integration) issues, and they can be easily replaced with more appropriate ones (e.g., swinging on a swing, chewing on a healthy snack).

23. Pre-warn your child of any changes, and give warning prompts if you want her to finish a task (e.g., “when you have colored that in, we are going shopping”).

24. Promises and threats you make will have to be kept – so try not to make them too lightly.

25. Remain calm and do not argue with your AS or HFA youngster. Before you manage her, you must manage your own behavior. Punishing or yelling at the child during a meltdown will make it worse.

26. Review your discipline plan regularly. Consider your consistency regarding implementation of the plan. Evaluate your youngster's behavior and determine if the plan needs revisions based on her age, development, or behavioral changes.

27. Reward AS and HFA kids for positive attention rather than negative attention. During situations when they are prone to meltdowns (e.g., interacting with peers), catch them when they are being good and say things like, “Nice job sharing with your friend.”

28. Signal AS and HFA kids before you reach the end of an activity so that they can get prepared for the transition. For example, say, “When the timer goes off 5 minutes from now, it will be time to turn off the TV and get ready for bed.”

29. Social skills and the ability to communicate are often lost when a child has to deal with his disorder. He may have trouble observing the way others behave. In addition, he will have trouble reading and reacting correctly to another person's emotions, which could lead to a lack of relationship success. Despite this, the AS or HFA child can be taught social skills and effective communication techniques. He can learn how to read nonverbal communication techniques and properly socialize if his learning occurs in an explicit and rote manner through social skills training.

30. Talk with your child after he has calmed down from a meltdown. When he stops acting-out, talk about the frustration the he has experienced. Try to help solve the problem if possible. For the future, teach the child new skills to help avoid meltdowns (e.g., how to ask appropriately for help, how to signal an adult that he needs to go to “time away” to “stop, think, and make a plan” ...and so on). Teach your AS or HFA youngster how to try a more successful way of interacting with a peer or sibling, how to express his feelings with words, and recognize the feelings of others without hitting and screaming.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
31. Teach AS and HFA kid that anger is a feeling that we all have, and then teach them ways to express anger constructively.

32. Teach them some strategies for coping (e.g., telling peers who are teasing perhaps to “go away,” or to breathe deeply and count to 20 if they feel the urge to act-out in public).

33. Think before you act. Count to 10, and then think about the source of your youngster’s frustration, her characteristic temperamental response to stress (e.g., hyperactivity, distractibility, moodiness, etc.), and the predictable steps in the escalation of the meltdown.

34. Trouble can arise from friends who take advantage of your AS or HFA youngster. While your youngster may enjoy friendships, his unique situation may become a cause for concern when he is not able to properly communicate with friends or allows friends to take advantage of him. Only allow your youngster to spend time with other kids that you know and trust, under a parent's supervision. Once you become more comfortable with his friends and social situations, you can slowly allow him more freedom.

35. Try to build in some flexibility in their routine. If they learn early that things do change – and often without warning – it can help.

36. Try to get confirmation that they understand what you are talking about/or asking. Don't rely on a stock “yes” or “no” that they like to answer with.

37. Try to identify stress triggers. Avoid them if possible, and be ready to distract with some alternative. For example, if your youngster thrives on a schedule, but you need to change it for some reason, let your youngster know – and watch for signs of a meltdown during the change. You can then bring along a favorite item to distract your youngster from becoming upset.

38. Try to intervene before your AS or HFA youngster is out of control. Get down at her eye level and say, “You are starting to get revved up, so let's slow down.” Now you have several choices of intervention.

39. Use turn-taking activities as much as possible, not only in games but at home too.

40. When visiting new places or unfamiliar people, explain to the child beforehand what to expect. For example, say, “Stay with your assigned buddy in the museum.”

Remember, AS and HFA children are kids just like the rest, they have their own personalities, abilities, likes and dislikes. They just need extra support, patience and understanding from everyone around them. 

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

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