Addressing the Root Causes of Disobedience in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“How can I get my 9 y.o. son (high functioning autistic ) to obey and do as he's told? He won't do his homework and refuses to clean his room. He is defiant and talks back. When we try to discuss these problems with him in a peaceful, mature manner, he usually ends up getting angry and yells at us. And with the recent start of summer school, things have gotten much worse. What are we doing wrong?”

Unfortunately, disobedience is an issue more common in High-Functioning Autism (HFA) than in the general population. It can occur for numerous reasons. For example, anxiety, low-frustration tolerance, sensory sensitivities, social skills deficits, difficulty understanding emotions and their impact on others, when rituals can’t get accomplished, when the youngster's need for order or symmetry can’t be met… just to name a few. Thus, it’s important to understand that in many cases, the child’s oppositional behavior may be a symptom of some underlying issue related to his or her disorder.

Children on the autism spectrum possess a unique set of attitudes and behaviors related to their disorder that may result in the appearance of willful misbehavior. For example:
  • They tend to be physically and socially awkward, which makes them a frequent target of school bullies.
  • They suffer from “mindblindness,” which means they have difficulty understanding the emotions others are trying to convey through facial expressions and body language. Mindblindness often gives parents the impression that their HFA child is insensitive, selfish and uncaring.
  • They may have other issues like ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
  • They may have anxiety about a current or upcoming event (e.g., the start of school).
  • They may fixate on their own interests and ignore the interests and opinions of others.
  • They may become so obsessed with their particular areas of interest that they get upset and angry when something or someone interrupts their schedule or activity.
  • They may be unable to resist giving in to their obsessions and compulsions.
  • They may be reluctant to participate in an activity they can’t do perfectly or an activity that is difficult.
  • They have trouble expressing their own emotions and understanding the feelings of others. 
  • They have difficulty understanding rules of society.
  • They have difficulty transitioning to another activity (this is especially hard if the current activity is not finished).
  • They don’t understand social cues.
  • They don’t understand implied directions.
  • They don’t know how to “read between the lines.”
  • They don’t “take in” what is going on around them.
  • They can’t fully appreciate what impact their behaviors have on others.
  • They can be extremely sensitive to loud noise, strong smells and bright lights. This can be a challenge in relationships as they may be limited in where they can go on, how well they can tolerate the environment, and how receptive they are to instruction from parents and teachers.
  • The parent or teacher changes a circumstance or rule that has been established.
  • Social conventions are a confusing maze for these “special needs” kids, resulting in an inability to tolerate the little frustrating things that come up throughout the day.
  • Low self-esteem caused by being rejected and outcast by peers often makes these kids even more susceptible to “acting-out” behaviors at home and school.
  • Due to trouble handling changes in routine, a simple variation in schedules may be enough to cause a meltdown.
  • Because they struggle to interpret figures of speech and tones of voice that “typical” kids naturally pick up on, they may have difficulty engaging in a two-way conversation.
Any or all of these triggers can result in certain behavioral patterns that “look like” disobedience (e.g., arguing, tantrums, refusing to listen, etc.). However, their responses to these triggers often have more to do with anxiety and rigidity than their need to defy authority.

So, what can parents do to help their HFA child to cope better? Do some investigation and create a plan:

The Investigation— 

1. Keep a journal (or if it is a frequently occurring behavior, keep a chart) for noting every incidence of the targeted behavior (e.g., the child getting angry when asked to stop playing video games and start doing homework).

2. Include the time of day the behavior occurred.

3. Think of what might have happened directly before the behavior, and also earlier in the day.

4. Think, too, of what happened during and directly after the behavior, and whether it offered your child any reward (even negative attention can be rewarding if the alternative is no attention at all).

5. Ask yourself the following questions. Does the behavior tend to:
  • occur when things are very noisy or busy?
  • occur when something happens - or doesn't happen?
  • occur when routine is disrupted?
  • occur in anticipation of something happening?
  • occur during transitions?
  • occur after a certain event?
  • be more frequent during a certain time of day?

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

7. 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 your child acts-out because “being good” gets him or her no attention.
  • Maybe your child explodes over something inconsequential because he has used up all his patience weathering frustrations earlier in the day.
  • Maybe your child begs for punishment because going to her room feels safer than dealing with a challenging situation.
  • Maybe your child balks at math when he or she sees too many problems on the page.

8. Once you have a working theory, make some changes in your youngster's environment to make it easier for him or her to behave appropriately. For example:
  • Recognize situations your child feels challenged by, and offer an alternative between compliance and disobedience.
  • Instead of being happy that your child seems to be handling frustrating situations, provide support earlier in the day so that his patience will hold out longer.
  • 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.
  • Give your child lots of attention when she is being good - and none at all for bad behavior (other than just a quick and emotionless timeout).

 ==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder
You may not always guess right the first time, and not every change you try will work. Effective parents 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, and your youngster will feel safer and more secure. This alone often cuts down on a lot of “misbehavior.”

The Plan—

The basic idea in developing a behavior-management plan for an HFA youngster is to try many different strategies and find the management techniques that work best for him or her. This is an ongoing process. As working strategies are identified, they can be added to the plan and used when the child starts to get upset.

Some kids refer to their behavior-management plans as their “toolbox” and the specific strategies they use to control their behavior and emotions as their “tools.” This analogy may be very helpful. You can take this even further by creating a physical box for your child to put the strategies in (written on pieces of paper). And you could be really creative and have the pieces of paper shaped like various tools.

Again, it’s important to identify the specific behavior-management strategies that work best for your child. These strategies should be put down in a formal plan for referral when he or she encounters an aggravating event. It is also important to explore how different techniques may be used at different times.

Referring back to the toolbox, a screwdriver can be very useful, but not for pounding in nails. Application: An HFA youngster may feel better after running around in the yard, but this may not be possible when he or she is getting upset about something in the classroom. Strategies need to be in place to handle the different situations that may arise.

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