Here is the first in the series of Things NTs Say About Autistics. Sanchia Callender is the Services Director of NeuroDiversity Conulting LLC. Learn more here and also check out the intro to the series.
“He's just spoiled...”
"Are you sure he doesn't just need a little more discipline?"
"All that kid needs is a good (choose one) spanking, talking to, slap on the bottom, hard whack, time in the corner etc......"
Sanchia A. Callender
A key feature of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is the impairment of social skills; for these children simple social behavioral norms are mysterious and sometimes pointless endeavors. In addition to social skill impairments children with ASD often have difficulties communicating in a manner that makes sense to anyone but themselves without careful examination; add to this some stereotypical behaviors and movements and the tendency to be preoccupied with particular topics or activities and you have the perfect storm for challenging behaviors. Matson, Neal, Fodstad, and Hess (2010) define challenging behaviors as “intense and persistent culturally abnormal behaviors which are disruptive and destructive in nature (p.165).” Aggression, self-injury, property destruction, and non-compliance and stereotypies (stimming) are the most common “challenging behaviors” associated with ASD (Matson et al., 2010).
Challenging behaviors are often one of the biggest hindrances for children with ASD and the most common source of stress for parents and caregivers (Matson et al., 2010; Leone and Wiltz, 2006). Parents and caregivers of children with ASD report higher levels of stress than parents of children with other disabilities. Emotional burnout is common in this population and often results in decreased positive interactions and avoidance of social situations (Matson et al., 2010; Leone and Wiltz, 2006). Missed opportunities to participate in activities that would promote social learning through positive peer interactions can lead to increases in the challenging behavior that led to the initial avoidance.
Another difficult aspect of challenging behaviors in children with ASD is the functionality of these behaviors in meeting the child’s needs. As bizarre, problematic, embarrassing, and dangerous as some of these behaviors may seem they are at some level meeting a need for the child. It is important to understand the function of a behavior before modification can be considered. Even in situations with dangerous or injurious behavior understanding the antecedents or functions of the behavior are just as important to a child’s safety as stopping the behavior.
In the midst of a behavioral outburst, especially one taking place in a very public place, it is difficult to focus on understanding the function of the behavior and addressing it in a manner that stops the unwanted negative behavior and promotes more productive appropriate means of communicating. Many parents and caregivers often find themselves dealing with unwanted comments and negative assessments of their parenting skills. This makes an already stressful, uncomfortable situation even more difficult. Since it is likely that even with the most extensive well thought out public education initiatives could not curtail this unwanted and unnecessary commentary it just needs to be ignored until the pill for stupid hits the market. As a parent your focus and responsibility is to maintain your and your child’s mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
While there are many interventions that can be used to decrease or prevent challenging behaviors over time parents and caregivers will likely always have some behavioral issue they are dealing with. It is important to remember that parents and care givers need to extend the understanding to others that they would like for themselves and their families. It is important to be mindful of your child’s limitations and tolerance levels and to the best of your ability avoid placing them in situations they do not yet have the capability to navigate. For example if your child with an ASD has a history of breaking glass objects you should probably not take them to a friend’s home who collects expensive glassware. Having a child with ASD is kind of like telling a dirty joke; you have to know your audience and expect that even in the most receptive of crowds there will always be a few who just don’t get it.
Leone, L. L. S. & Wiltz, J. (2006). The impact of behaviour problems on caregiver stress in young people with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 50(3), 172-183.
Matson, J. L., Neal, D., Fodstad, J. C., & Hess, J. (2010). The relation of social behaviours and challenging behaviours in infants and toddlers with autism spectrum disorders. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 13(3), 164-169.