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How to Prevent Discipline-Related Meltdowns: Tips for Parents of Kids on the Spectrum

“Are there some ways to prevent some of the discipline-related problems encountered with children who have high functioning autism, specifically meltdowns associated with receiving a consequence for misbehavior? I say ‘prevent’ because it seems that once my son knows he is going to be punished, it quickly escalates into meltdown, which by then is much too late to intervene. Is there a way for us to ‘predict’ and thus prevent a potential meltdown?”

Most parents of kids with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's wait until a problem occurs, and then try to deal with it by issuing a consequence. Consequences can be positive (gaining something desirable) or negative (losing something desirable).

Sometimes, consequences are discussed prior to an event, but usually in terms of a motivator: "If you do this, you will gain (or lose) that." Too often, parents use consequences in the middle of a behavior problem (e.g., "If you don't stop that, you’re not going to play your computer game tonight!”). 
 

Statements such as this are made when the behavior is out-of-control. The parent may have given many warnings up to that point - and is now acting out of frustration. But, warnings issued in the heat of the moment rarely lead to positive change in the short or long term.

With children on the autism spectrum, it’s far better to anticipate the occurrence of a behavior - and then plan for it. How? Well, many behavior problems are repetitious, especially in the same situation. Even when they don't occur EVERY time, they may still be frequent enough to make the parent’s “red alert list” (i.e., a list of events that result in problem behaviors that tend to occur frequently).

For example, one mother made note that nearly every time her son was instructed to bathe, he insisted on finishing his video game first (in order to stall). The mounting meltdown had little to do with the video game, rather it was related to avoiding an unwanted task.

A good rule of thumb is if a behavior repeats itself at least 50% of the time, moms and dads need to prepare for it. So, if homework, dinnertime or bedtime have been frequent problems in the past, chances are very good they will continue to be so in the future.

With a “red alert list,” parents can predict the future to a point. They gain the opportunity to forecast what is going to happen in an upcoming situation because of its constant re-occurrence. When parents have a good idea about what is going to happen, they can prepare their youngster for the event prior to its occurrence by discussing what usually occurs and what needs to occur. 
 
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with HFA and Asperger's

For example, let’s say that “going shopping” is often a problem-time. In this case, the parent can talk with her youngster (prior to the event) about what normally happens, how he acts, how she is going to respond, and how he is going change his behavior based on her response. Then the parent can follow that up with a discussion to see if she can get a firm commitment from her youngster that he is going to follow through with these new behaviors. 

If the child responds in a positive way, the parent has an increased likelihood that things will go better when they go shopping – especially if this preparation step is practiced over and over again through the course of several weeks or months.

If parents happen to miss the opportunity to prevent a problem, there is often a small "window of opportunity" in which they can still salvage the situation. In the example above, suppose the parent forgot to say something prior to going shopping. As the child’s behavior begins to deteriorate, the parent has a very brief period of time (only a minute or two) before she will be in a tricky situation. The parent should seize this opportunity, because it may be the last best one in that specific time and place.

In summary, create a list of events that - at least half the time - result in your child acting-out. Prior to each event, discuss (a) what normally happens, and (b) what you expect the new outcome to be. Then try to get your child's approval on the new outcome. Lastly, practice this sequence until it becomes a habit.

==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with HFA and Asperger's

Informal Quiz for Parents: Does My Child Have High-Functioning Autism?

“We suspect that our 6 y.o. son has autism (the high functioning end of the spectrum). I know you can’t diagnose a child with an autism spectrum disorder via the internet, but is there an informal quiz or test that will give us a hint as to whether or not we should pursue a formal assessment? And where do we go to have him checked?”

Of course, parents will only know for sure if their child has High-Functioning Autism (HFA) by getting a professional diagnosis. Having said that, if you answer “no” to most of the questions below (1 - 21), seeking a formal assessment would be warranted:
  1. Are people important to your child? 
  2. Can your child easily dress him/herself?
  3. Can your child easily tie his/her shoes?
  4. Can your child keep a two-way conversation going?
  5. Can he/she ride a bicycle (even with stabilizers)?
  6. Does your child care about how he/she is perceived by the rest of the group?
  7. Does your child enjoy joking around?
  8. Does he/she enjoy sports?
  9. Does your child find it easy to interact with other children?
  10. Does your child have friends, rather than just acquaintances?
  11. Does he/she join in playing games with others easily?
  12. Does your child make normal eye-contact?
  13. Does your child mostly have the same interests as his/her peers?
  14. Does he/she often come up to you spontaneously for a chat?
  15. Does he/she play imaginatively with other children, and engage in role-play?
  16. Does your child prefer imaginative activities such as play-acting or story-telling, rather than numbers or a list of facts?
  17. Is it important for him/her to fit in with a peer group?
  18. Is your child good at turn-taking in conversation?
  19. Is your child’s reading comprehension appropriate for his/her age?
  20. Was your child speaking by 2 years old?
  21. When your child was about 3 years old, did he/she spend a lot of time pretending (e.g., play-acting being a super-hero, or holding teddy's tea parties?
 __________

If you answer “yes” to most of these questions (1 – 17), seeking a formal assessment is also warranted:
  1. Does your child appear to notice unusual details that others miss?
  2. Does your child try to impose routines on him/herself, or on others, in such a way that causes problems?
  3. Does your child do or say things that are tactless or socially inappropriate?
  4. Does he/she have an interest that takes up so much time that he/she does little else?
  5. Does your child have an unusual memory for details?
  6. Does your child have any unusual and repetitive movements?
  7. Does he/she have difficulty understanding the rules for polite behavior?
  8. Does your child have odd or unusual phrases?
  9. Does your child like to do the same things over and over again, in the same way all the time?
  10. Does your child often turn conversations to his/her favorite subject rather than following what the other person wants to talk about?
  11. Does he/she sometimes lose the listener because the listener gets bored with what your child is talking about?
  12. Does your child sometimes say "you" or "your child" when he/she means to say "I"?
  13. Does your child tend to take things literally?
  14. Has your child ever been diagnosed with a language delay, ADHD, hearing or visual difficulties, or a physical disability?
  15. Have teachers ever expressed any concerns about his/her development?
  16. Is his/her voice unusual (e.g., overly adult, flat, or very monotonous)
  17. Is your child’s social behavior very one-sided and always on his or her terms?

High-Functioning Autism can be hard to diagnose. There are a number of reasons for this: 
  • Kids with HFA are, by definition, of average or above average intelligence.
  • The “high-functioning” child may develop a means to hide, manage, or overcome the symptoms associated with the disorder.
  • He or she may do well in school, communicate effectively, and pass an IQ test with flying colors.
  • The child’s language skills may mask certain symptoms.  
  • Due to the fact that HFA carries with it a lot of strengths, the child’s strong points may carry him or her through early elementary school with only minor behavioral and/or social issues.
  • When told often enough to “make eye contact” or “stop talking about the same things over and over again,” kids on the spectrum are often able to either hide, control, or even overcome the need to present obvious symptoms.  When this occurs, the overt signs of HFA are not present, making a diagnosis difficult.
  • With girls on the autism spectrum, certain behaviors associated with the disorder may simply be considered "feminine" rather than problematic (e.g., shyness, discomfort with public speaking, difficulties with motor coordination, confusion over social communication in situations such as team sports, etc.). Also, girls with HFA behave differently than boys with HFA (e.g., they tend to be less aggressive, more imitative, and more likely to work hard to "fit in").

Your child’s doctor can make a referral to a professional who specializes in autism spectrum disorders. This is the individual who can cut through the haze and come up with a proper course of action.


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