I have worked with many families of children with autism and ADHD over the years and there is one thing that they all struggle with.
How do I know which behaviors are typical child behaviors and which are beyond their control?
In other words:
Which of my child’s behaviors are developmental and which are related to their diagnosis?
Parents feel a tremendous amount of guilt around figuring out when they should set behavioral boundaries and when to respond with acceptance and accommodations to meet their child’s sensory or attachment needs. If you enforce a boundary there is the fear that you’ve punished your child for a behavior beyond their control, and if you accommodate there is the concern that you may have let your child get away with a behavior that will not serve them well in their relationships and may escalate. Unfortunately, difficult behaviors associated with the neurotypical stages of child development and those related to the way your child’s diagnosis presents intersect in such a complicated way that it is likely to be impossible to sort them out. So there answer is to sidestep the difficult decision of whether to dig in your heels or accommodate by using these five steps:
Step 1: Validate
Begin by acknowledging and validating your child’s emotion without any qualifiers.
“I can see that you are angry/frustrated/sad right now.”
This helps your child recognize their emotion and models the expressive language to share their feelings.
Step 2: Offer Bounded Choices
Tell them what they CAN do. Offer two choices, one of which is the preferred behavior and the other which is an acceptable alternative that honors their sensory needs.
“You can either play the game with the group, or you can sit here in the shade and cheer them on.”
Step 3: Reinforce
Look for the opportunity to offer positive reinforcement for your child’s choice. Model language in a way that helps them to process the interaction.
“I appreciate that even though you are hot and tired you stayed with the group and cheered everyone on and then rejoined when you felt settled.”
Step: 4: Logical Consequences
If your child understands, but has not chosen either the preferred behavior or accommodation, there is a good chance you are dealing with a good ol’ behavioral issue. In this case your child may be looking for boundaries and it is important to provide them in a logical way.
Step 5: Give Yourself a Break
Unless you are a mind reader of exceptional ability there is no way to be sure you have reacted perfectly to your child’s needs. What you can do is follow your instinct, keep looking for new ideas, and learn from past experiences. Relax. You’re doing the best you can.
By doing your best to stay calm and following the steps above, you can help improve your child’s behavior on the autism spectrum and decrease tantrums and outbursts.