I have a question regarding my son who is nine-years-old and has high functioning autism. Whenever he gets frustrated, he uses inappropriate words. For example, he doesn’t like to take a bath. If I say, “You should go to the bathtub before the timer goes off,” he says, “I’ll break the timer.” If the bus driver says, “I will tell your teacher,” to stop his behavior, he says, “I’ll hit my teacher.” I am worrying a lot—could you please let me know how I can change this behavior? —Raja
I can understand why you are worried about your son. No parent wants to hear his/her child is threatening in any way. There is no one right answer for how to address these challenging statements and behaviors. Fortunately, there are professionals who can help.
I would recommend you connect with a psychologist who specializes in autism spectrum disorders or developmental delays. I would also recommend working with a play therapist and/or a behavior specialist.
Each of these disciplines offers a unique way of approaching challenging behaviors, and each one can provide you with concrete ways to address these statements the moment he makes them, as well as when the argument is over.
As an occupational therapist, I work with children who have said such things, and I have learned negative statements like these often come when a child is feeling threatened by something. As you stated, these statements occur when he is frustrated, which suggests the feeling of being frustrated may be overwhelming him.
He may also be overwhelmed by what he’s being asked to do, such as taking a bath, sitting still on a loud bus, following directions, sitting beside someone he doesn’t like, etc. He may be saying these things to protect himself and to take the focus off of what he is doing or what he is expected to do.
It is also possible he has feelings even stronger than frustration and that have nothing to do with the task at hand. There may be other things going on in his life that are overwhelming him. I can tell you that all behavior has meaning, so understanding what his physical and emotional experience is like in those moments may lead to figuring out how to help him.
I would reflect on or even directly ask him such questions as:
- What don’t you like about the bath?
- What is it like to ride the bus?
- Do you have any ideas that would make it easier for you to take a bath or ride the bus?
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I also know that sometimes offering structured choices can be helpful. You may already do this, but it’s a strategy that gives a child two choices without letting him/her avoid what’s being expected.
For example, “Do you want to take a bath before dinner or after?”, “Do you want to take a bath or a shower?”, “Do you want to take a bath by yourself or do you need my help?”, “Do you want to take a bath with or without the timer?”, and “Can you get to the bath yourself or do you need me to set a timer?” all offer two options that both result in completing the task. Each of these examples gives him the opportunity to feel more in control.
After offering structured choices, if there is resistance or refusal, you can respond with a validating statement such as, “Oh, I know you hate to take a bath. It’s a nuisance, and it means you have to stop playing your game. Yeah. That stinks,” or something similar.
Then follow that with a “You can” statement like: “You can keep playing your game when your bath is done,” “You can take a quick bath instead of a long bath if you’d like,” “You can have more game time if your bath gets done thoroughly and quickly,” “You can take a shower instead of a bath,” “You can wash your hair next time if that’s the problem,” or “You can get in the tub after I fill it up, so you don’t have to hear the noise of the water.”
These examples show how leading with the phrase “You can…” helps your son see what he is ABLE to do and offers even more choice without avoiding the need to do what was asked.
Also, sometimes children act in negative ways as an avoidance strategy and because they would prefer a power struggle over the task itself. Using structured choices and “You can” phrases helps you avoid getting into a power struggle with him.
There are some medications that can help with irritability and aggression, but it’s important to get to the root cause of the statements. Irritability and aggression can be indicative of any number of social or emotional challenges, and thus the need to work with a psychologist or play therapist who is trained to assess children with emotional challenges.
Statements of aggression don’t always mean a child will act on them, but you are wise to pay attention to the fact he is saying these things. It sounds like he is angry at something, and working with other professionals and other significant people in his life to understand why he makes these statements and what purpose they serve is an important part of figuring out how best to respond.
This article was featured in Issue 107 – Caring for Your Autism Family