Q&A Expert Advice on How to Manage ASD Behavior Without Yelling
My grandson has mild autism and is doing well after going to therapy. But I wanted to know, do we have to shout at the child and scold him when doesn’t follow our instructions? His doctor said if he is not scolded he will not be corrected. Is it true? Sometimes I feel so sad that his parents shout at the child so harshly— Agatha
Correcting and scolding are two different things, and I encourage you and your grandchild’s parents to ask your child’s therapist for suggestions about how to correct him in ways that don’t involve yelling, as that will increase the odds of him listening to you. Children with autism may not be able to process language in the same way typically developing children can. They may not be able to “listen” the same way typically developing children can.
Children with autism may have behaviors that are beyond their control. For these reasons, it is important to learn strategies other than yelling to correct a child with autism. Additionally, yelling may seem to be effective in the moment but it doesn’t typically change behavior long-term, and because all children (including children with autism) learn by watching what their parents do, your grandson is likely to learn that yelling is okay. Here is a resource that you can read or listen to about discipline: http://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/disciplining-children.aspx
Children with autism may not express their needs or wants in ways that make sense to us. It can be confusing for parents and caregivers to understand why a child is acting the way he/she is. This is why I recommend talking to your grandson’s therapist in the hopes of getting a better understanding of why he may be acting the way that he is. All behavior has meaning, and understanding where the behavior comes from is one way parents and caregivers can develop strategies that will help with the behavior long-term.
I applaud you and your grandchild’s parents for wanting to teach your grandson how to behave. It is stressful when our children do not behave in ways that we expect. Four things that will help you manage and teach your grandchild are:
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As I’ve said, learn more about the behavior and why it is happening and ask professionals about strategies other than yelling that might be helpful.
Manage your own stress
We often yell when we have strong emotions about something and when we are under stress or feel helpless, scared, or upset. This is our nervous system reacting to something, and we will be much better teachers and be much more effective at correcting a child’s behavior if we have less emotion ourselves. Thus staying calm will have much better outcomes when trying to change a child’s behavior.
Model positive behavior
Even children with severe autism watch what parents and grandparents do. Children may seem like they aren’t paying attention, but they take in much more than we realize. By demonstrating over and over what we DO want, the child is more likely to learn how to do that expected behavior vs. the negative one.
Praise positive behavior
Giving your grandson attention when he is doing something positive and talking to him in a friendly happy way when he is doing something positive will likely help to change the negative behavior. Yelling when he does something negative, gives extra attention to the negative behavior so the yelling may actually be reinforcing the negative behavior. Removing the yelling at the time of the negative and adding praise to positive behaviors may help overall.
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Directive statements are one verbal strategy for helping to manage negative behaviors. Telling a child what he/she CAN do, i.e., what you expect, is one way you can correct him/her without getting upset and without reinforcing the negative behavior.
Some examples of directive statements are:
- Food stays on the table.
- Put the toy car on the race track it is not for throwing.
- Hitting is not safe. We don’t use hands for hitting.
- Other people were talking. Please wait for a pause and say excuse me before you speak. You can wait. Toys go back in the bin. You can choose one.
Each of these aforementioned statements explains to the child what behavior was acceptable AND what is expected in each situation. It doesn’t draw attention to the negative behavior.
Another strategy is using visual supports and “first then” language. This strategy tells children what is expected first before they get what they want and the visual picture helps children who may struggle with processing language and verbal instructions. It is a way of setting limits without yelling and is often simple enough for children with or without autism to understand.
Some examples of first-then language are:
- First dinner then playtime.
- First brush teeth, then books
- First shoes then play.
As adults we don’t typically speak this way, but when children are not motivated to do the activity we want them to do, stating the activity we want first followed by what we know they want, will help them to know their desire is coming and they may be more motivated to follow along with what we want. This strategy also helps to avoid focusing on the negative behavior that may be happening and reinforces the positive behavior we want.
Here are two resources:
In summary, you are not wrong for wanting to correct your grandchild, and neither are his parents. However, yelling is not often an effective method for correcting or of teaching a child the behaviors we want him/her to demonstrate. Modeling what we DO want and not reacting emotionally to negative behaviors will help parents to become more effective teachers. Two teaching methods are directive statements and first-then language. Finally, I recommend that you seek to understand the cause of the behaviors and learn management strategies by asking therapists and those professionals who know your grandson so that they can help everyone to learn strategies that don’t involve yelling. Children want to please their parents even if they don’t seem like they do, and the fact that your grandson does well after therapy means there are likely non-yelling solutions that can work for him!
Kelly Beins, OT, is a seasoned therapist with more than 23 years of experience in occupational therapy. Kelly received her BA in psychology and her bachelor of health sciences in OT from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. She received her specialty certification in sensory integration in 2005 and has an extensive clinical background combining OT and sensory integration with behavioral health interventions. Kelly is a newly published children’s author of a book series about a young sheep with sensory processing disorder (https://www.otc-frederick.com/ovis-the-sheep/), and she approaches her work with an intuitive, empathic, and playful style while implementing the most current evidence-based interventions available. Kelly also owns and operates her own group private practice in Frederick, MD, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. You may learn more about her practice, books, and unique approach to therapy by visiting her website.
This article was featured in Issue 80 – Conquering Challenges With ASD