When you have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), challenging behaviour is a regular occurrence.
There are times when it is relatively easy to pinpoint what triggers the challenging behaviour, however, other times it may not be so easy to identify the reason, and it makes the child seem like a spoilt brat.
That is not so, as behaviours don’t just appear out of nowhere – they serve a purpose and usually, by identifying the purpose and addressing the need, the behaviour reduces in frequency and intensity, or even disappears altogether.
Some commonly encountered challenging behaviours in children with ASD include, but are not limited to:
- Meltdowns: There is a difference between a meltdown and a temper tantrum. A meltdown is caused by a sense of overwhelm, when the child cannot cope or control his emotions. The child has no interest in the presence of the parent, and the meltdown does not cease immediately. On the other hand, the temper tantrum is caused when the child doesn’t get what he wants. If they do throw themselves on the floor they are careful not to get hurt, and the child is very aware of the presence of the parent and their reactions – and the tantrum stops, the second the desired outcome is achieved.
- Self harming behaviour: Things like hitting their head against the wall/floor, slapping or scratching/pinching themselves.
- Aggression: Whether towards people or objects.
- Refusal: To follow instructions.
- Yelling: Shouting, screaming, etc.
All these behaviours are a way for the child to deal with their unmet need. The hallmark of ASD is that these children have impaired ability to identify and express their own emotions in a way that is socially acceptable. Of course, there is a huge variance to how much impairment we are talking about, as everyone is unique on where they are on the spectrum.
Age also plays a huge part in modulating how they express emotions – a three-year-old old is likely to be overwhelmed by intense emotions and have difficulty regulating them, regardless of whether they are on the spectrum or not.
Things parents can do to help prevent these behaviours
I’d like to emphasise here that these are general guidelines that may not work all the time and for all children, or even for the same child in different circumstances – because it is the unmet need that drives the behaviour.
- Keep it consistent: Routine helps your child know what is expected of them, and what is going to happen next. Routines are your best friends, both at home and at childcare/school.
- Notify your child of changes: Life happens, and even the best laid plans and routines will fail sometimes due to unexpected factors. In these situations, provide as much notice as you can to give your child the chance to get used to the idea. This does not apply only to major changes, like moving house, but also for smaller ones, like moving on to the next activity in their daily schedule.
- Pick your battles: Is what you are asking of your child really necessary? If not, perhaps allowing it will save a lot of headaches for everyone! The seat belt in the car must be worn – there is no negotiation there. But is there a problem if he only wants to wear Batman clothing? Or if he needs all his teddies in bed with him in a certain order? Probably not.
- Be mindful of his sensory needs. These may not be so easy for a parent to identify. However, if you know that your child gets easily overwhelmed by crowded environments, taking him to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve is probably not a great idea. If your child is triggered by loud noises, a pair of headphones may do the trick for both of you. Avoiding your child’s triggers is the best way to prevent meltdowns or other protective behaviour (like self harming). If the child must be exposed to situations he’ll likely be upset by, then there are ways of mitigating the risk: providing sensory breaks, allowing him headphones with music he likes, time on the iPad playing a game he enjoys. Also, allowing time on his own in a quiet place is very important, or, on the contrary, depending on his sensory needs, the chance to jump on the trampoline, go for a swing, or stretch in a body sock.
- Reducing anxiety: It is not unusual for children with ASD to suffer from anxiety. This may be due to a number of factors, but employing relaxation techniques will help them manage the symptoms whenever they occur – at school, in the shopping centre, the fair etc. Being able to do relaxation exercises helps them feel more in control. However, there may be times when the anxiety is so debilitating that these exercises won’t work on their own – again, this all depends on the cause. If for example, the child is anxious about walking into an environment likely to overwhelm them, then adjusting the environment, and providing your child with the tools needed to manage his sensory needs, may help.
- Seeking professional help. Each child is unique and their experience of life with ASD is just as unique. The intervention will have to address specific situations such as home and school, and take into account the child’s own sensory needs and emotional map. Sometimes a sensory profile will be needed along with a Behavioural Plan and/or a Functional Assessment, especially where out-of-home respite is needed.
- Explore the NDIS path. If your child already has a diagnosis of ASD, Global Developmental Delay, Intellectual Disability etc, it is advisable to register them with the NDIA. However you do not necessarily need a formal diagnosis. If your child’s symptoms are affecting his daily life and impacting on the family, you can definitely still approach the NDIA.
If approved, your child will get a funding plan that will allow you to access the therapy he needs, be that Psychology, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy etc.
Author: Alexandra Ellermann, M Psych (Clin), AMAPS.
Brisbane Psychologist Alexandra Ellermann has extensive experience in working with children, adolescents, adults and families with a range of challenges, including depression, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, intellectual disability and developmental delays, and trauma and abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Alexandra Ellermann, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) on (07) 3088 5422.