“If an autistic child doesn’t know how to read, write or swim, we teach”

“If an autistic child doesn’t know how to behave, we…….teach?……punish?”

“Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?” This brings me to the topic Autism and Challenging Behaviour.

What is Challenging Behaviour? Most people would automatically think of a child having a tantrum. Right?

Challenging Behaviour is any repeated pattern of behaviour that always interferes with engagement in pro-social interactions with peers or adults like physical and verbal aggression, non-compliance, prolonged tantrums, throwing things around, disruptive vocal or motor behaviour e.g. screaming.

In deciding whether a sort of behaviour is challenging, certain factors have to be taken into consideration like, is the behaviour harmful to the child, individuals or others around and does the behaviour negatively impact on the child, individuals or their overall quality of life/experience. However, some challenging behaviour is part of normal development of communication and self-regulation, which means not every cry or scream from a child is challenging behaviour.

The first thing to do is consider:

-How often does the behaviour occur?

-When is the behaviour most likely to occur?

-What makes it worse or calms it down?

-But more importantly, how do you react to such behaviour, because to some extent our reaction determines if the behaviour will escalate, diminish or stop.

Here are some things to consider with respect to challenging behaviour:

1. Triggers- These are the events that make it more likely that certain behaviours will occur, for example, when the environment is uncomfortable for the child (either too busy, hot, noisy or sensorially unpleasant), when a child is asked to wait, also, an unexpected change in: plans, usual route home or schedule for the day could result in challenging behaviour.

2. Outcomes- It is interesting to know that certain behaviours can function as a request to access something meaningful and the function of behaviour can also be seen as communication, which means that the child may be trying to say ‘I want or I don’t want…’. For a child who is non verbal, it can be very difficult to express his/her dislikes, often times challenging behaviour is the only way to communicate that.

3. Teach New Skills- Consider the skills that your child already has and teach alternative behaviour to challenging behaviour (must serve almost the same purpose), like instead of throwing random things that may cause injury, teach him/her to throw a soft ball, or punch a soft bean bag instead of punching a person when upset. Also, instead of screaming to get attention, teach ypur child to call your name but if the child is nonverbal, teach the child a sign or give a picture of yourself to the child, then he or she can bring that to you to get your attention. But teach those new skills throughout the day during times when the child is not having challenging behaviour and the next time the child uses the new skill, reward that behaviour positively.

4. Think About Your Reaction- As parents and carers, sometimes our reactions to situations can be detrimental to achieving the right result because often we over react when the child’s behaviour cause us embarrassment or “waste our time”. While it’s good to teach the child new skills to replace the challenging behaviour, we also need to teach ourselves how to react. Look back at your previous reactions to your child’s challenging behaviour and ask yourself: what would you have done differently? Plan for “crises” by creating a safety net of what to do when your child’s challenging behaviour starts, for example, distract the child, offer a desired reinforcer, offer the child alternatives, praise and remind the child to use the new skill instead and avoid rewarding the challenging behaviour, but respond in a way that does NOT maintain or escalate the challenging behaviour.

In summary, when your child has a challenging behaviour, don’t blow off the handle. First try to find out what your child is trying to communicate; is it hunger, pain, fear, difficulty in understanding set task, difficulty in sensory processing in the environment or is your child simply seeking sensory input? Always focus on the behaviour you’re trying to change not the child, hence, explain that to your child to avoid your child thinking he/she is not good enough. Help your child regulate their emotions and be consistent in the strategy you use and ensure you tell everyone who helps to care for your child the strategy you are adopting to avoid confusing him/her.

Finally, you need to be calm at all times and don’t forget to mind yourself as well.

As parents/carers we can do it!