Dealing with Difficult ASD-related Behavior: Critical Tips for Parents

"I need some advice on how to handle behavior problems in my child with ASD, such as how to use the right discipline, dealing with his obsessions, sibling issues, sleep problems, school-related problems, and acting-out behavior in public. Thanks!"

Disciplining kids displaying ASD-related behavior will often require an approach which is somewhat unique to that of "typical" kids. Finding the balance between understanding the needs of a youngster with ASD - and discipline which is age appropriate and situationally necessary - is achievable when applying some simple, yet effective strategies. These strategies can be implemented both at home and in more public settings.

General Behavior Problems—

Traditional discipline may fail to produce the desired results for kids with ASD level 1 ("high-functioning autism"), primarily because they are unable to appreciate the consequences of their actions. Consequently, punitive measures are apt to exacerbate the type of behavior the punishment is intended to reduce, while at the same time giving rise to distress in both the youngster and the mom or dad.

At all times, the emotional and physical well-being of your youngster should take priority. Often this will necessitate removing your youngster from a potentially distressing situation as soon as possible. Consider maintaining a diary of your youngster's behavior with a view to ascertaining patterns or triggers. Recurring behavior may be indicative of a youngster taking some satisfaction in receiving a desired response from peers, moms and dads, or teachers. 
 
 
For example, the youngster may come to understand that hurting another classmate will result in his being removed from class, notwithstanding the associated consequence to his peer. The solution may not be most effectively rooted in punishing the youngster for the behavior, or even attempting to explain the situation from the perspective of their injured peer, but by treating the root cause behind the motivation for the misbehavior (e.g., maybe the ASD youngster can be made more comfortable in class so that he will not want to leave).

One of the means to achieve this may be to focus on the positive. Praise for good behavior, and reinforcement by way of something like a Reward Book, can assist. The use of encouraging verbal cues delivered in a calm tone are likely to elicit more beneficial responses than the harsher verbal warnings that might be effective with "typical" kids. If necessary, when giving directions to stop a type of misbehavior, these should be framed as positives rather than negatives (e.g., rather than telling a youngster to stop hitting his brother with the ruler, the youngster should be directed to put the ruler down).

Obsessive or Fixated Behavior—

Almost all kids go through periods of development where they become engrossed in one subject matter or another, but kids with ASD often display obsessive and repetitive characteristics, which can have significant implications for behavior. For example, if an ASD youngster becomes fixated on reading a particular story each night, she may become distressed if this regime is not adhered to, or if the story is interrupted. Again, the use of a behavior diary can assist in identifying fixations for your youngster. 
 
 
Once a fixation is identified, it is important to set appropriate boundaries for your youngster. Providing a structure within which your youngster can explore the obsession can assist in then keeping the obsession within reasonable limits, without the associated angst which might otherwise arise through such limitations (e.g., tell your youngster that she may watch her favorite cartoon for half an hour after dinner, and make time for that in her routine).

It is appropriate to utilize the obsession to motivate and reward your youngster for good behavior. Always ensure any reward associated with positive behavior is granted immediately to assist the youngster recognizing the nexus between the two.

A particularly useful technique to try to develop social reciprocity is to have your youngster talk for five minutes about a particularly favored topic after he has listened to you talk about an unrelated topic. This serves to help your youngster understand that not everyone shares his enthusiasm for his subject matter.

Bridging the Gap between ASD and Discipline and Other Siblings—

For siblings without autism, the differential - and what at times no doubt appears to be preferential - treatment received by an ASD sibling can give rise to feelings of confusion and frustration. Often, they will fail to understand why their brother or sister apparently seems free to behave as they please without the normal constraints placed on them.

It is important to explain to siblings of ASD kids and encourage open discussion about the disorder itself. Encouragement should extend to the things siblings can do to assist the ASD youngster, and this should be positively reinforced through acknowledgement when it occurs.

Sleep Difficulties—

ASD kids are known for experiencing sleep problems. Kids with the disorder may have lesser sleep requirements, and as such are more likely to become anxious about sleeping, or may find they become anxious when waking during the night or early in the morning.

Combat your youngster's anxiety by making her bedroom a place of safety and comfort. Remove or store items which might be prone to injure your youngster if she decides to wander at night. Include in the behavioral diary a record of your youngster's sleep patterns. It may assist your youngster if you keep a list of her routine (e.g., dinner, bath time, story and bed time) in order to provide structure. Include an image or symbol of her waking in the morning to provide assurance as to what will happen. Social stories have proven to be a particularly successful tactic in decreasing a youngster's anxiety by providing clear instructions on how part of her day is likely to play out.

At School—

Another autistic characteristic is that kids will often experience difficulty during parts of the school day which lack structure. If left to their own devices their difficulties with social interaction and self-management can result in anxiety. The use of a buddy system can assist in providing direction, as can the creation of a timetable for recess and lunch times. These should be raised with teachers and implemented with their assistance.

Explain the concept of free time to your youngster, or consider providing a separate purpose or goal for your youngster during such time (e.g., reading a book, helping to set up paint and brushes for the afternoon tasks, etc.).

In Public—

Kids on the spectrum can become overwhelmed to the point of distress by even a short visit in public. The result is that many moms and dads with ASD kids simply seek to avoid (as much as possible) situations where their youngster is exposed to the public. While expedient, it may not offer the best long-term solution to your youngster, and there are strategies to assist with outings.

Consider providing your youngster with an iPod, or have the radio on in the car to block out other sounds and stimuli. Prepare a social story or list explaining to the youngster a trip to the shops, doctor, etc. Be sure to include on the list your return home. Consider giving your youngster a task to complete during the trip, or having him assist you. At all times, maintaining consistency is a key concern. It pays to ensure that others involved in your youngster's care are familiar with your strategies and techniques and are able to apply them.

Lastly, don't hesitate to seek support networks for parents with ASD kids, and take advantage of the wealth of knowledge those who have dealt with the disorder before you have developed. The assistance you can gain from these and other resources can assist you in developing important strategies to deal with problems in a manner most beneficial to your youngster.
 

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