Creating a Highly Effective "Behavior-Plan" for Children on the Autism Spectrum

"What are some of the parenting techniques that work best with children on the autism spectrum? As grandparents, we will soon be full-time parents to our 6 yo granddaughter (high functioning)."

Inappropriate behavior is common among many children with High Functioning Autism (HFA), especially when comorbid conditions exist as well (e.g., ADHD, OCD, anxiety). Knowing how to create and utilize behavior plans improves the home environment on multiple levels. 
The behavior plan is a great management tool for children engaging in unwanted behavior. It serves to teach and reinforce positive behaviors in the “special needs” child – and is a helpful way of documenting the success of the plan.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

Common behavioral techniques for parents of kids on the spectrum include:
  • Contingency Management: A child receives a positive outcome or reward if certain conditions are met.
  • Modeling: The special needs child observes siblings receiving rewards for appropriate behavior.
  • Planned Ignoring: The parent ignores the problem behavior to reduce negative attention-seeking behaviors.
  • Proximity Control: This technique involves placing the child closer to the parent (e.g., at the dinner table), or when the parent comes closer to a child who is at risk of engaging in unwanted behavior.
  • Signal Interference: This involves having a planned signal with the child as a reminder to redirect inappropriate behavior.
  • Social Reinforcement: This is the effective use of parent-attention and praise to promote appropriate behavior (i.e., catch the child in the act of doing things right).
  • Token Reinforcement: The child receives a “token” when a clearly defined target behavior is performed. Tokens can be exchanged for a wide variety of reinforcers (e.g., special privileges). It is easily administered with checkmarks or stickers. Tokens should be given immediately after target behavior is performed.

Creating effective behavior plans for kids on the spectrum:
  1. Describe the targeted misbehavior (be specific)
  2. Obtain a baseline measure of misbehavior (i.e., frequency or duration of misbehavior)
  3. Determine what causes the behavior
  4. Determine what is reinforcing to a child
  5. Consider additional supports that might be needed
  6. Define roles of those involved in the intervention
  7. Document everything
  8. Use positive recognition and incentives
  9. Clear and consistent house-rules and consequences are important and can improve situations and prevent many problems

Motivating the special needs child:

Successful behavior plans require the child to become motivated. A parent must first determine what motivates the child by interviewing him or her. Create a menu of potential reinforcers that you are willing to give, and allow the child to choose from the menu.

All parents want their children to be intrinsically motivated (i.e., reinforcement directly from performing a task). Unfortunately, some special needs children are not intrinsically motivated for a variety of reasons. Extrinsic motivators (i.e., reinforcement from outside the performance of a task) are often used to motivate a child to engage in a more appropriate behavior.

Some parents believe that children should not be rewarded for something they should be doing already. But, extrinsic motivators should be temporary. The goal is to motivate the child extrinsically until he or she begins to feel success, and then use intrinsic motivation when the behavior is changed. Extrinsic motivators should be phased out over time to best allow intrinsic reinforcement to provide the motivation.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

An example of extrinsic-intrinsic motivation used properly:

A behavior plan is created for a special needs child who usually completes her school assignments – but consistently fails to turn them in to the teacher for credit. The child is initially rewarded with extra computer time each day she turns in her assignments (as reported by the teacher). After a few weeks of success, she receives a weekly reward for weeks that all assignments are handed in. 
She turned in assignments for the reward initially, but grades came up. Mom and dad were excited and stopped complaining, they gave praise, and as a result the child began to feel proud of herself. She became intrinsically motivated and no longer needed an extrinsic motivator to be successful with turning in assignments.

Evaluating the behavior plan:

After creating a behavior plan, it is important to evaluate the outcomes. With good baseline data, it will be fairly easy to measure the behavior again and compare. If the plan is working like it should, gradually encourage more independence from your child. If it is not working like expected, determine what is at fault, and revise and monitor closely. Behavior plans that are implemented inconsistently usually fail.

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

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said... Having the same struggle at home and at school with 11 yr old son. Might have to try some if the suggestions
•    Anonymous said... I also homeschool and use gametime as incentive and reward for full day of school or whatever is required.
•    Anonymous said... I feel for you Tonya as we've had similar situations in our home with our 9 1/2 year old daughter. I've learned that work first before any video games or Ipod is the best result for us. We use that as a reward system instead of an entitlement and so far so good! Good luck!
•    Anonymous said... My son is 13 and he just acts like theres no one else that matters but him. He makes up reasons why he cant help us do anything..and just sits in his room playing his video games. If we do ask him to do something anything, he freaks out and yells at us. My husband is his step dad and thinks i should just spank him but i no that isnt going to work. Help how do i handle this.

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Our Best Picks: Cool "Calming Devices" for Kids on the Autism Spectrum


Activity-Shifting- Part II: Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum to Move Successfully from One Task to Another

Transition strategies are used to support children with HFA during changes in tasks, settings, and routines. These techniques are used before, during, and after the activity-shift occurs. The strategies increase predictability for the child, thus reducing meltdowns and tantrums.

Here are some examples:

Finished Box—

This visual activity-shifting strategy can be used before and during a transition. This is a designated location where children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) place items that they are finished with when it is time to shift to a new activity. When it is time to transition, it is often helpful for these young people to have an assigned location to put materials prior to moving on to the next task. The box may be located in the child’s work area or in any center of the classroom or room in the home, and can be labeled with the word or a visual cue to indicate its purpose.

Often, children with HFA may prefer to complete a task before moving on, and this may not be possible due to time constraints. In these cases, establishing a location where the child knows he or she can find the materials to finish up at a later time or date may be helpful.

Objects, Photos, and Icons—

Using a visual cue during activity-shifting can decrease challenging behavior and increase following “transition demands.” For example, photo cues can be used during transitions from one classroom activity to another, from one room within the school to another, etc.

“First/Then” Sequence—

A First/Then sequence of information may be useful, because the children can see what activity they are completing currently and what activity will occur next. This may help a child transition to a location that is not preferred if he or she is able to see that a preferred activity is coming next. The “First/Then” sequence should be portable and move with the child as he or she shifts to the next task.

Activity-Shifting Cards— 

Some children with HFA may find that longer sequences of visual information are more effective in alleviating activity-shifting difficulties. These children often benefit from the use of a visual schedule that is located in a central area in the home or classroom. In this technique, they have to travel to the schedule to get the object, photo, or icon that describes the next activity or location.

Using the visual cue regularly helps these young people predict the shifting routine. The visual cue will likely be more meaningful to the child than repeated verbal cues. Examples of activity-shifting cues can include visuals that read “Check Schedule” and match to a corresponding pocket above daily schedules, and a picture of Snoopy that serves as a transition cue.

Visual Countdown— 

Another visual strategy to use prior to activity-shifting is a countdown system. Like the visual timer, a visual countdown allows a child to “see” how much time is remaining in an activity. There is no specific time increment used. This tool is beneficial if the timing of the activity-shifting needs to be flexible.

It’s often helpful for children with HFA to “see” how much time remains on a task before they will be expected to shift to a new location or event. Concepts related to time are fairly abstract to kids on the spectrum (e.g., “You have a few minutes”), often can’t be interpreted literally (e.g., “We need to go in a minute”), and may be confusing for these “special needs” kids, especially if time-telling is not a mastered skill.

Visual Schedules— 

The consistent use of visual schedules with children with HFA can assist in successful activity-shifting. Visual schedules can allow them to view an upcoming activity, have a better understanding of the sequence of tasks that will occur, and increase overall predictability. Visual schedules used in classrooms and home settings can assist in decreasing transition time and challenging behaviors during the shift – and increase child-independence during the transition.


Activity-Shifting: Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum to Move Successfully from One Task to Another

"My child has a big problem with making transitions at home (school too). What methods do you use to help your child with autism (high functioning) to get accustomed to switching off one activity and on to another such as moving from a game to coming to the dinner table to eat with the rest of us?"

All children must switch from one task to another - and from one setting to another - throughout the day. At home and school, shifting naturally occurs frequently and requires children to stop one task, move from one spot to another, and begin a new task. Children with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have greater difficulty in shifting attention from one task to another and changing routines.

This difficulty is due to a greater need for predictability, challenges in understanding what task will be coming next, and emotional discomfort when a routine is disrupted. A number of supports to assist children with HFA during activity-shifting have been designed to prepare these children before the transition will occur - and to support them during the shift. When shifting techniques are used, children with HFA increase appropriate behavior during shifting, participate more successfully in school and community outings, reduce the amount of time to shift, and rely less on adults for prompting.

Shifting techniques are used to support children with HFA during changes in - or disruptions to tasks, settings, or routines. The strategies can be used before an activity-shift occurs, during an activity-shift, and after an activity-shift – and can be presented verbally, auditorily, or visually. The techniques attempt to increase predictability for children with HFA - and to create positive routines around task-shifting, and they are used across settings to support these young people.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Task-shifting is a big part of any school day, as they move to different activities or locations. Research has indicated that up to 25% of a school day is spent engaged in transition activities, for example:
  • coming in from the playground
  • gathering needed materials to start working
  • going to the cafeteria
  • moving from classroom to classroom
  • putting personal items in designated locations (e.g., lockers)

Similar requirements for task-shifting are found at home as well, as these kids move from one task to another, attend functions, and join others for meals and activities.

Most children with HFA have problems associated with changes in routine and changes in environments. They have a strong need for “sameness” and predictability. These issues may eventually impede the child’s independence and limit his or her ability to succeed in community settings. A variety of factors related to the disorder contribute to these issues during task-shifting (e.g., problems in understanding the verbal directives or explanations that a teacher, parent, or employer are providing).

When a teacher announces that a task is finished and provides multi-step directions related to upcoming tasks, students with HFA often do not comprehend all of the verbal information. Difficulty sequencing information and recognizing relationships between steps of a task impact the child’s ability to transition as well.

These special needs kids often do not recognize the subtle cues leading up to a transition (e.g., packing up their materials, a teacher wrapping up her lecture, students getting their lunches out of the refrigerator, and so on) -- and may not be prepared when it is time to move. Also, children with HFA often have restrictive patterns of behaviors that are hard to disrupt, thus creating difficulty at times of task-shifting. Lastly, they often have greater anxiety, which can impact behavior during times of unpredictability.

The ongoing task may be more reinforcing to the HFA child than the task he or she is moving to – or a second task may be more demanding or unattractive. The child may not want to start one task or may not want to end another. Also, the attention the child receives during the transition-process may be reinforcing or maintaining the difficult behavior. 

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Preparation Technique—

Cueing children with HFA before a transition is going to take place is a crucial strategy. In many settings, a simple 3 to 5 word “verbal-cue” can be used to signal an upcoming transition (e.g., “Time for a shower”, “Put your homework away”). This is the most effective way to signal a transition, because lengthy verbal information will not be quickly processed or understood.

NOTE:  Providing the cue immediately before the transition is “suppose” to occur may not be enough time for the child with HFA to shift attention from one task to the next. Allowing time for him or her to prepare for the task-shift, and providing more relevant cues that the youngster can refer to as he/she is getting ready to transition is much more effective. 

Along with developing predictable and consistent task-shifting routines, parents and teachers should also consider adjusting the activities that children on the autism spectrum are transitioning to and from if transition problems continue. Factors such as the length of a task, the difficulty level, and the interest level of the child all may contribute to transition problems.

Likewise, if an area is too crowded, loud, over-stimulating for some reason, these young people may resist transitioning to that location. An assessment of environmental factors that could contribute to transition problems is recommended here.

Furthermore, the sequence of activities should be assessed. Parents and teachers can benefit from reviewing the tasks required of the child throughout the day and categorizing them as (a) preferred, (b) non-preferred, or (c) neutral. If the youngster has difficulty transitioning, you can strategically sequence certain tasks so that he or she moves from non-preferred tasks to preferred tasks -- and from preferred tasks to neutral tasks.

Continually review how transitions impact the child with HFA. Depending on the task, environment, and his or her specific needs and strengths, a variety of transition techniques can be employed. Through the use of such techniques, children on the spectrum can more easily move from one task or location to another – and increase independence.

Several visual strategies used to support children with HFA in preparation for a transition have been researched and will be discussed in later posts (so stay tuned for more tips on this topic).

Click here for Part II of this article...

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