July 14, 2012

Autism “explains” behavior, but does not “excuse” behavior!

Many of the past posts have focused on understanding, accepting, and validating the child, before attempting to change their behavior. One of the basic premises of this page is “assume the children is doing the best that they can, given the situation they are in, and their current skills to deal with the demands.” Consequently, when the child is struggling, we need to lower the demands to better match their skill level, and/or provide greater assistance to support their performance. Hence, when things go wrong, we often have placed the child in situations for which they cannot handle. We need to take responsibility for overwhelming them.

Now, in this premise, where does the responsibility lie with the child? Autism presents many challenges (sensory issues, information processing, emotional dysregulation, social relating issues, etc.) that overwhelms the child, and explains “why” they may melt down and act out. However, autism must not “excuse” the behavior. Of course, when the child is overwhelmed and disorganized, we need to recognize, understand, and validate how he is “feeling”, but not necessarily accept how he is “behaving.” All children need boundaries, rules, and expectations. We must communicate understanding when upset, but not accept physically attacking others, destroying property, and serious self injury. Autism is not an ‘excuse” for aggression. The child needs to learn that there are a variety of ways that they can express frustration (even screaming, hitting a pillow, etc.), but attacking others or breaking property are not acceptable.

We as the supportive adults need to ask “how do I want the child to express frustration?” Working with the child, identify a couple of ways (coping skills) for the child to appropriately express their anger and frustration (using their words, physical exercise, ask for help, engage in regulating patterns- rocking, jumping, etc.). From there we need to help the child practice these alternatives so they can adequately express their anger. However, we also must establish strong expectations of no aggression, and have appropriate consequences, including making amends, for aggression. Boundaries and expectations need to be very clear, with consistent consequences, so they are concrete and easy to understand. The child needs strong, black and white rules and expectations to make sense of the world, and understand what is acceptable and what is not allowed. Just like we need to understand and respect them, they also need to learn to respect others.

Strong boundaries, with clear expectations, and consistent consequences, implemented in a posture of understanding, acceptance, and validation allows us to respect the child, while changing their behavior. By focusing on teaching, practicing, and heavily reinforcing the positive alternative behavior, natural consequences for unacceptable acting out can be effective. However, before dealing with the behavior, acknowledge and validate the “feelings” underlying the behavior. Implement the consequence without degrading the child, so he views the consequence as the result of his behavior. Make sure the child knows and practices how to react appropriately, and always review what the consequence is before using it. This way, when you implement the consequence, it is understandable and predictable. Every child needs strong boundaries and consequences for his actions. Don’t let the diagnosis excuse the behavior. At the same time, when the outbursts occur, we more than likely placed the child in a situation that they could not handle. We still have the responsibility to re-evaluate the demands, and provide greater assistance and support to decrease the likelihood of the situation occurring again. By doing so, we decrease the frequency of these unacceptable behavior by better matching the demands to the child’s abilities, and teaching the child acceptable ways of dealing with anger and frustration.


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