Excellent Strategies You Need to Know for Handling Challenging ASD Behavior
Do you avoid saying ‘no’?
Do you only use the vacuum cleaner when your child is out of the house?
Are you dreading dinnertime because the supermarket ran out of the particular brand of chicken nuggets that you usually buy?
These are all questions often answered as ‘yes’ by parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Even the most simple of daily routines can cause sleepless nights and stress for parents, let alone the trauma that they cause for some children with ASD.
Although not all children with autism engage in behavior that challenges, many do, and many of the examples listed above cause considerable distress to many families’ lives. Managing this challenging behavior can be very difficult, especially when in public places and it feels like everyone and their dogs are judging every move you make and giving those well-known and infuriating ‘naughty child’ stares.
There are strategies that can be used to try and reduce and even prevent some of the challenges that you experience in these tricky scenarios, and these strategies can be employed in many different situations.
Here are some proactive strategies that can be worked on before the behavior occurs, and also some more reactive ones to use when that dreaded “meltdown” stage is in full swing.
Everyone does it; we just don’t realize we do! However, using this tool consciously will help your child realize the expectations and changes that may occur in a routine. Priming basically means letting the individual know that something is going to happen in advance. How far in advance that warning happens is dependent on the needs of the child. For example, if you say phrases such as “in 10 minutes we are going to go for a walk,” “the fire alarm is going to ring in two minutes,” “tomorrow you are going to wear blue trousers.” If used alone, this tool may be unsuccessful, but when joined with some of the other strategies below, it can contribute to a useful and effective behavior management plan.
Often parents feel that their child “controls” the household, or that as parents they are unable to make choices to change anything because of the behavior that may result from doing so.
We all think we offer our children choices, but realistically we often only offer them the choice when we don’t mind what they choose. Giving your child this control over simple decisions gives him/her some interaction with the daily routine changes, and can help to build self-management skills. Simple decisions like offering two different choices for dinner (before it is cooked), allowing the child to choose which supermarket to visit, providing visual options of which clothes he/she wants to wear or even giving a choice of different color toothbrushes can help manage expectations more clearly.
The Premack principle is often called “Grandma’s rule” and was developed by David Premack. This tool is based on the idea that we are likely to engage in something we don’t really want to do if we know it will be followed by something we do want to do. For example, “if you want to eat chocolate, first you must eat the carrot,” and we’ve all seen Grandmas use this technique I’m sure!
So these three simple proactive strategies can be combined in order to achieve compliance to complete a simple demand. Let’s combine all three in this example:
Demand: You need your child to get in the car because you need to pop to the post office.
1. Prime: “Rachel, soon we are going to go for a drive, you can play for five more minutes.”
You may want to set a timer at this point
2. Premack: “First we get in the car, then we get to buy some ”
3. Choice: “It’s time to go, do you want to go in Mummy’s car or Daddy’s car?”
Known problem scenario: The headteacher has informed the teaching assistant that there will be a fire drill practice at 3.05pm.
1. Prime: “The fire alarm is going to ring in five minutes.”
You may want to repeat this every minute leading up to the alarm
2. Premack: “When the fire alarm rings, you must leave the classroom and then we can have five minutes on the ”
3. Choice: “Do you want to wear your headphones or cover your ears?”
These three tactics are great to have in your toolbox when anticipating difficult situations, and even knowing that you have them can help to build confidence in what in the past has been a tough day!
It’s brilliant when you are able to prep your children for upcoming changes and difficult environments, but of course, that isn’t always possible, and sometimes we have to manage the situation when challenging behavior is already occurring.
So what do you do?
Keep calm and reach for the toolbox!
Identify why your child is likely engaging in the behavior. There are four functions for behavior:
1. to seek attention
2. to escape from the activity/person/environment
3. for sensory reasons
4. to access something, g., to get a toy/food
When you have been able to try and associate the behavior with one of these functions, it will make it easier to understand what to do.
It is important not to give in to the behavior. If you do, your child will learn that the challenging behavior works to get what they were looking for, and so in the future are likely to do the same thing. Instead, try these tools which can be useful for each function of behavior:
Access to something
- Prompt your child to ask for the item appropriately, allow him/her to copy you asking and then give the item to him/her.
- Do not give the item without communication occurring.
- As this becomes easier for your child, you can start to require him/her to request more independently by distracting him/her with something else after you have prompted that initial request. Then wait for the child to make the independent request before you allow access to the item. For example, your child wants a biscuit and reaches for it. You prompt the word “biscuit” (or via whatever communication method the child uses). You then ask the child to touch his/her head or ask a vocal question. Then wait (around three to five seconds) to allow the child to then make that same request again, without your prompt.
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- Sometimes children engage in behavior that challenges in order to gain a reaction from others. In this case, it is important not to give that reaction and instead, pay no attention to the behavior.
- As soon as the behavior stops, or a more appropriate behavior occurs, deliver attention… and lots of it!
- These are rarely effective and often serve as attention.
- AVOID using reprimands as much as possible!
- Try to provide your child with an alternative to the sensory seeking behavior that will provide the same or similar function. For example, for a child that bites his/her hand in order to seek feedback from the feeling, try offering firm hand massages, vibrating toys or tight grips to wear on your hands.
The reason for escape can be for many reasons; too loud, too hot, too difficult, etc.
- When the demand is too difficult, a useful strategy is to use a sequence of easy demands before presenting the difficult one.
- Research shows that these highly probable (easy) demands when presented before the low probability demand (hard), can encourage the child to have a go at the more difficult one.
- g., clap your hands, say “go,” stand up, sit down, then the difficult one “show me waving.”
- These easier requests build a momentum of correct responding and provide less time for the child to engage in less desirable behavior.
- Again communication is key (it always is!). It is important that your child is given the opportunity to escape from situations when they really need to.
- When appropriate, prompt the child to ask to go, leave, finish (or whatever vocabulary is suitable) and honor it. But that communication must happen before allowing him/her to escape.
Managing challenging behavior can be very difficult, and there is no quick or easy fix. But practicing these strategies and using them when needed can really help to feel more in control when you most need to be.
The key to all of these, and to any behavior management strategy, is CONSISTENCY. When you choose an approach to take, it is essential that you are consistent, you must stick with it, and you must communicate it to others who are around the child.
And if all else fails…call a behavior analyst!
Sarah Walker is a board-certified behavior analyst with over 7 years of experience in the ABA field. She graduated Nicholls State University with a Master’s Degree in ABA, and after spending some time working in the United States, she came back to the UK where she founded acornABA and is now an ABA trainer for parents and aspiring tutors. She is able to provide supervision to BCaBA’s and those who seek supervision hours towards their BCBA accreditation.
This article was featured in Issue 79 – Managing Everyday Life