Decoding “problem” behaviours in children with autism

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Written by Kim Rose & Michael McCann (Autism and Behavioural Science students at Mohawk College)

Is your child exhibiting “problem” behaviour in the home or at school? Perhaps you’ve been wondering why your child with autism is exhibiting these behaviours and what to do about them, or even how to explain those to your child’s school?

Today, we reveal three behaviours we frequently see in children with autism and give you some ways to handle them:

  1. The classic “stimming”: The term “stimming,” refers to the behaviours that children may be engaging in in order to bring themselves to a “happy place.” If a child is in a set of circumstances that he or she finds very uncomfortable, such as being in a room with people he or she doesn’t know, the child may start engaging in behaviour that will make him or her more calm, such as hand flapping or screaming. Stimming can also be seen when the child is very excited. This is not an attention-seeking behaviour, so much as a way to self-regulate and calm down; it is also a way of communicating about how we feel in a situation (overwhelmed, anxious, excited, etc.). It’s important for parents to learn how to ‘read’ those behaviours to know what step of action to take: reducing sensory input, letting the child calm on his own, or just plain letting him show he’s happy! These behaviours will evolve with time as the child learns alternative ways of self-regulating.
  2. Escape: We’ve all been there as children – not wanting to do our chores and misbehaving instead: we would do anything to avoid doing those chores. That is what we call escape behaviour. If you child is running away or displaying behaviours when request has been made, your child may be trying to communicate with you. Maybe what you’ve asked is anxiety provoking or your child is engaged in something else that he does not want to let go. In those instances, try to see what you child CAN do. Maybe you can reduce expectations (for example, instead of eating all of their portion of vegetables, only have 5 bites) and reward their effort heavily with praise. And remember, practice makes perfect, and this is true for escape as well. If you child manages to escape, know that your child has learned exactly what to do next time he does not want to eat his veggies.
  3. Desiring “preferred” items, and nothing else: We all have our preferences (our favourite jeans, our favourite food, etc) – if given the choice, we may want to have those all the time! However, most of us understand we can’t. However, children on the spectrum tend to be rigid in their preferences and be unwilling to try something else. This rigidity often leads to meltdowns, which then create chaos in the house (been there?). In order to increase flexibility, the ‘first, then’ method can be used. For example, if you child only wants to eat the white pasta on their plate, and refuses to eat the carrots he used to eat, ask that a bite of carrot be taken first, then a bite of pasta. And praise! Same idea if your child always plays with the same toy: give another toy first, and then give the preferred one. Flexibility can only be built with practice!

Always remember, no matter what the behaviour is, your child is trying to communicate with you on the level that he or she is capable of. If you’re having trouble finding what the function of a behaviour is and how to respond, make sure to consult with your child’s team!

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