Managing Behavioural Difficulties in ASD Children
Behavioural difficulties are common in children who have ASD, but with the right strategies and support, they can often be mitigated through effective management. There are myriad reasons for these difficulties, such as issues with communication, sensory processing, social interaction, and balance issues which affect active play. It’s vital that parents and caregivers understand these behaviours are not their “fault”, they are merely symptoms of the underlying difficulties the child with ASD is facing.
Understanding the Causes
The root causes of behavioural difficulties are generally as follows:
Difficulties with communication: Children with ASD typically struggle with expressive language, understanding what is being said to them, and picking up on non-verbal communication cues. This can, understandably, become quite frustrating and provoke problem behaviours.
Difficulties with social situations: The difficulties presented by social situations for a person with ASD go beyond just communication; people with ASD also struggle to understand other’s points of view (inflexible in their opinions), and grasp the “unspoken rules” of social interaction that state when to, for example, end a conversation. Due to all of this, children with ASD may shun social contact, and they are more likely to experience bullying.
Difficulties with unstructured time: People with ASD have a hard time dealing with situations where there is no set schedule, as their brains have a hard time sequencing activities on their own. For this reason, children with ASD are more likely to act out during recess or other break times, as they feel confused and frustrated.
Difficulties processing sensory information: Those with ASD often have over or under-sensitive senses, leading to a tendency to get overwhelmed or to seek stimulation to a problematic degree. They may react strongly to touch, be very picky eaters, get overwhelmed by loud noises (or be unable to concentrate over background noise), etc.
Additionally, one should always remember that people with ASD do not easily adapt to change; always be on the lookout for things in their environment or schedule that have been altered, as this may trigger problem behaviours. Illness (especially seizures, which ASD individuals may be prone to) can also trigger acting out, as the child with ASD cannot easily vocalize his or her pain. Consider using diagrams to help children express where they are feeling pain.
Dealing with Problem Behaviour
It’s key to understand that the child is using these behaviours to try to communicate something to you, or to achieve some specific function. It’s vital to look under the surface of these behaviours so as to discover the unaddressed needs below. Try to asses what you child is trying to tell you, rather than reacting to the behaviour itself (resist “punishing”; few ASD children actually understand the cause and effect implied by it). It’s also advised to keep a “behaviour diary” or chart so that one can identify patterns in a child’s behaviour and from there, isolate what’s triggering the child’s episodes. One can then develop strategies to avoid or manage the triggers (be sure to introduce these slowly, as sudden changes in routine will do more harm than good). Likewise, expect the child to initially resist the change; stay patient and be consistent with it regardless, and make sure that other family members, teachers, and caregivers are also keeping consistent with it.
One should also develop supportive therapies to help the child shed his or her frustration; these typically include: exercise, brief time out periods in a quiet, darkened space, and relaxing activities. Set achievable treatment goals and don’t push too hard for rapid improvement, as people with ASD can struggle to integrate new knowledge and change behaviours.
To get the best out of a child with ASD, it’s often helpful to employ the following strategies:
- Speak clearly and precisely (and use short sentences) in order to work around the difficulties that arise with complex verbal communication.
- Use visual supports. Many children with ASD process visual information more easily than other forms of information. Timetables can be helpful to assist children in understanding schedules.
- Create “social stories”. These are brief descriptions (using words and images) of situations, events, or activities that help tell a child with ASD what to expect during an upcoming social situation.
- Help the child identify his or her emotions. This is often challenging to a child with ASD; use visual aids (such as “stress scales”) to help the child quantify what he or she is feeling and how intensely, and help the child learn via physical associations, such as showing him or her that anger connects to a reddening of the face, stomach pain, the urge to cry, etc.
- Help them learn to relax. Children with ASD find it hard to relax, and can be very “intense” and obsessive in their interests. Try to work relaxing activities or some quiet “alone time” into his or her daily routine.
- Make their environment more soothing. As children with ASD can become overwhelmed by sensory information, it’s important to ensure their environments are as free as possible of sensory irritants. Flickering lights, devices that give off background noise, scented candles, etc., should be removed.
- Give praise, in the form your child likes best. Praise is as important to an ASD child’s learning as it is to most children’s learning, but depending on their unique needs, praise may have to be modified to suit the child. For example, some may not like hugs, some may not recognize verbal praise. Often visual cues like stickers on charts or time doing a favourite activity as a reward are effective forms of praise. Praise should be as immediate as possible so that the child can assess cause and effect.
If your child’s behaviour is placing him or self at risk, or others at risk, you should seek professional help by a psychologist or psychiatrist, rather than trying to handle the situation on your own.
For more informal support, try reaching out to a parent support group for parents of children with ASD. Likewise, keep in mind that it’s important to remember your needs, too; contact your local social services department to get an assessments of your needs done and to see if you qualify for financial aid.
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jessica_digiacomo/5127102523