Q: My six-year old son is autistic and I’m having problems with his behavior. What would you recommend I do to help him?

A: Behavior is a problem for many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Because children with ASD often cannot effectively communicate verbally, they may end up communicating by yelling, hitting, or running around. These behaviors can be hard to manage. With communication training and environmental supports, children with ASD can change the unwanted behaviors into appropriate communication.

Change the environment. Being uncomfortable is never fun. Think about being on a long flight. It’s loud, the lights blink, and the bumps are sudden—it can easily cause irritability and tax the sensory system that processes what we see, hear, smell, or feel. For children with ASD, the sensory system works differently, and even day-to-day sights, smells, sounds, or movements can be overwhelming. ASD children will often seek out or avoid sensory input.

Each child is different, so look for clues. Maybe your son reacts negatively when the microwave beeps, the vacuum cleaner roars, or the toilet flushes. He might not like the sounds. You can’t stop all noises from happening, but you can help with the sensory problems. For instance, providing headphones, preferred music, or a headband could help drown out the noise. Helping your child regulate the incoming sounds can help him be calmer and more ready to deal with the world.

Make a schedule. Everyone likes to know what is next—most of us would be lost without a calendar. However, people with ASD especially want to know the plan and stick to it. Consider adding a schedule or communicating your plans for the day. How you present the plan is important, because many children with ASD prefer to see the plan. Communicating the plan with the help of pictures, photos, written lists, or calendars makes everything clearer, and the picture helps your son take in all the information quickly.

Practice communicating and demonstrate. There are places that every parent wants to take a child, such as a favorite restaurant. You might have tried this, and it didn’t go so well. There may be great food, but there’s also a lot of waiting involved. Waiting is often difficult for children with ASD, as is ordering. You can build some skills to help. Make a story with pictures (or a video) from your favorite restaurant that shows you waiting, ordering, waiting, and then eating. Stories or videos can help explain to your son what to do in that setting.

Just as learning to ride a bike begins with riding a tricycle or using training wheels, it also helps to begin with practicing smaller behavioral skills. Start with what your son is good at or enjoys. To build restaurant skills, go out for ice cream first. The wait is shorter, and ice cream is a delicious summer treat. When you’re getting ice cream, you’re teaching the skill of ordering food and waiting for it to arrive. After that, maybe try a fast food restaurant before a dine-in experience. Building skills before diving into something new can help set expectations for the unfamiliar experience.

Learning communication should be fun and will improve behavior in the long run. Hopefully these suggestions can help. Your son’s classroom teacher may offer additional suggestions, and consulting a professional is always best for advice on your specific concerns—especially when things aren’t working as well as you’d like. A speech-language pathologist (SLP) is a great resource for improving communication, and a board certified behavior analysist (BCBA) can offer behavioral solutions, especially for more severe behavioral issues.

George Wolford, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a licensed, certified speech-language pathologist and clinical instructor for the Speech-Language Pathology Program at the Midwestern University Speech-Language Institute, part of the Multispecialty Clinic in Glendale. In clinical practice, he specializes in assessment and language therapy for pediatric clients with autism spectrum disorders and severe disabilities. The information contained in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, care, or treatment. Always consult a qualified healthcare provider with any questions regarding any possible medical condition. For more information visit www.mwuclinics.com/az/ms.






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