Children on the Autism Spectrum and Problems with Impulsivity

Autism Spectrum Disorders are often characterized by a lack of impulse control. Kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are sometimes labeled unmanageable or aggressive because of their impulsivity, which involves “a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences.”

Even though HFA kids can be caring and sensitive, their good qualities are often overshadowed by their lack of impulse control; their ability to "self-regulate" is compromised.

Impulse control can be a difficult skill to teach to any youngster, and is even more difficult with kids who have a neurological disorder. Many parents of these “special needs” children have reported that their youngster seems to spend his life in time-out, grounded, or in trouble for what he says and does – both at home and school – due to “acting before thinking.” Teaching self-regulation can be frustrating for parents and teachers, but is vital to the continued success of kids on the spectrum.

Here are a few strategies for parents and teachers that can be helpful when teaching self-regulation to kids with AS and HFA:

1. Be very specific in your instructions. Kids with HFA have difficulty telling right from wrong, so teachers and parents must be concrete, stating clear, consistent expectations and consequences. Telling the youngster to "be nice" is too vague. Instead, say something such as "Wait in line for the slide, and don't push" or "When we go into the store, just look – don’t touch.”

2. Consequences need to be instantaneous – and short. Delayed consequences (e.g., time-out or detention) don't work for those with difficulty anticipating future outcomes (an autistic trait). Consequences should be immediate (e.g., if the HFA student hits another student, recess is suspended – but for only 10 minutes).

3. Consider employing a "point system" in which the child earns tokens or pennies for a positive target behavior. He or she can then redeem the points at the end of the week for a special “prize” (e.g., pizza dinner, extra TV time, another small goldfish for the aquarium, etc.).

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

4. Ignore minor problems. For example, if your youngster spills some juice because she's pouring it carelessly or too quickly, talk to her about the importance of moving more precisely and slowly, help her clean up the spill, and move on. Some slip-ups simply don’t warrant consequences. Pick your battles carefully.

5. Another method that can be used to teach children with HFA how to self-regulate is “redirection” from the problem-causing stimulus. Over-stimulation of the senses is a common cause of impulsive behaviors in these kids. So, look for cues that often precede the impulsive behavior so that you are aware of when they are more likely to occur, and find opportunities to redirect the child’s attention before the problematic behavior ensues. Music and art are two examples of activities that kids on the spectrum tend to enjoy, since they appeal to visual and audio stimuli.

6. Make sure that the punishment fits the crime. For example, dinnertime tantrums can result in dismissal from the table without dessert, rather than loss of computer game privileges (in this case, computer games have nothing to do with tantrums at the table).

7. No child is above the law! While HFA is an explanation for some behavioral problems, it is never an excuse (e.g., the disorder may explain why Michael pushed Sarah, but the disorder did not “make” Michael do it). Kids on the autism spectrum need to understand the responsibility to control themselves.

8. Acknowledgement and praise should be provided immediately (and as often as possible) when the child behaves appropriately. Catch him in the act of doing something good. Accuse him of being successful. And, specifically state what he is doing well (e.g., waiting his turn).

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

9. Post the day's schedule on a dry erase board, and erase items as they are completed. This gives HFA children a sense of control about their day. For example: At home, parents can post chores that need to be completed on that particular day, such as “take trash can to the street for pick-up” or “run the vacuum in your bedroom.” At school, teachers can post items such as “organize your desk (with specific directions on how to do that)” or “sharpen pencils.” Also, be sure to alert the child in advance about any revisions to his or her daily routine.

10. Posting house rules and classroom rules lets HFA kids know what's expected of them, and also serves as a visual reminder for those who act before they think. At home, the rules can be posted on the refrigerator door. At school, they can be posted on the blackboard. Any location where they can be viewed throughout the day will suffice. Some kids benefit from seeing rules written on an index card, such as “Wash hands before eating,” taped directly on the dining room table, or "Raise hands before speaking," taped directly on their desks at school.

11. Prepare for impulsive reactions ahead of time. In situations where a lack of structure or some other situation sets off an impulsive reaction in the HFA child, have a plan ready to help him or her to keep impulses in check. For example: At home, maybe the child can help with dinner preparations as a distraction. At school, perhaps the child can be given a special task (e.g., "monitor" or "coach") to help him or her stay focused on self-control.

12. Prepare the HFA child for ALL transitions. To avoid meltdowns and tantrums when moving between tasks (another stressor for kids on the spectrum), give the child a 10-minute warning, then a 5-minute warning, and then a 1-minute warning of a transition so that he or she will have adequate time to stop one activity and start another. This would include everything from preparing for bedtime at home to preparing for lunch time at school.

Teaching self-regulation to HFA children is a challenge, and there is no single solution that works for everyone. As with most teaching, the more intervention you provide, the greater chance of seeing success. Like working to improve other skills, it is helpful to begin teaching impulse control as early as possible. Above all, avoid getting aggravated and know that it will take time and patience. In the meantime, you can be proud that you are helping your youngster reach his or her full potential.

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