Don’t you love lists? Here’s a short list of Key things to remember when interacting with your child. This is in no way a comprehensive list of things to “do” or “not to do” when interacting with your children, but they are often Key things that I mention during workshops or initial parent trainings. As well as, this list does not only pertain to a child with autism but to children in general.
DO! Think about what your child is trying to communicate (the function of the behaviour) before reacting. We want to understand why your child is doing what he/she is doing in order to intervene appropriately. Here are some helpful scenarios we’d want to learn from: If you are noticing that your child is engaging in challenging behaviour more often, we want to try and determine whether there is a pattern developing. If you notice your child gets upset every time you ask him/her to do something, then perhaps he or she is engaging in the behaviour to escape or avoid the demand. If they often get upset when you are having a conversation with one of your friends, then perhaps he or she is engaging in the behaviour to get your attention. Now, it may not always be as clear as the last two examples, but you can start to collect some data on the behaviour by tracking what happens directly before your child gets upset and what happens directly after (the consequence). After a few days, you should begin to see a pattern (e.g., right before the child gets upset, when a demand is placed and right after the demand is removed. This would mean the behaviour is being maintained by escape from the demand.)
DON’T! (as much as is possible), allow access to the maintaining consequence when challenging behaviour occurs. Once you have figured out what is maintaining the challenging behaviour (e.g., access to your attention, or escaping a task) you must stop allowing your child to gain access to it, when engaging in the behaviour. If he wants your attention, then DO NOT provide him with attention when he is upset. If he or she is trying to escape something you asked them to do, then DO NOT allow them to escape doing the task. Now, I know that this is easier to talk about than actually carry through with, but if you try to react appropriately when your child is upset, you will begin to see the behaviour decrease. You may also see an initial increase in the behaviour, but this is because your child is trying to push back and test his or her limits (what we call an “extinction burst” in our business). One way of thinking about it is, if you try to use a pen, but it just won’t work, you wouldn’t throw it away right away, you would try scratching it on paper furiously (the increase of the behaviour) until you would eventually give up and throw it away. If every time you picked up a pen you could not get it to work, you would eventually start using something else (i.e., a pencil) to write instead. Just as in the case of your child, he or she will stop engaging in the challenging behaviour to gain access to attention or escape a demand because it just doesn’t work anymore.
DO! Provide access to the maintaining consequence when your child engages in appropriate behaviour. Whenever you see your child behaving appropriately, especially during moments that can be more challenging for him or her, allow access to whatever they would like. If your child typically gets upset when you ask them to do something, and on this occasion they didn’t, tell them they can do the task later on if they would like. If instead of getting upset when he or she would like your attention, they tap you on the shoulder, provide them with even more of your attention. We want our children to learn what behaviours are appropriate and which ones will just not get what they want. When addressing the behaviour, think “is this something I wish my child did more, or less?”. If it is something you want them to be doing more often, ALWAYS provide access to the maintaining consequence.
DO! Catch your child “being good”. As parents and caregivers, we often find ourselves in situations where we are reprimanding our children for doing something inappropriate. We need to focus more on our situations when our children are engaging in “good behaviour”, and make them aware of it. For example, when your child waits for a snack after you asked them to without getting upset, reinforce the behaviour by saying “I love the way you waited so well for your snack! You can have an extra treat once you are done”.
DO! Follow Through! Whenever you ask your child to do something, be sure to follow through with your demand. We want to teach your child that when something is asked of them, they need to respond. If you do not follow through with the task or instruction you asked your child to complete, they will learn that they do not need to listen to you. Now being a parent or caregiver can be hectic at times, so if you feel that you do not have the time in that moment to follow through, then do not present the demand. Only present instructions or demands to your child when you know you have the time to follow through with what you asked. Choose moments throughout your day when you know you have more time to help your child when presenting the instruction. If it typically takes you child ten minutes to complete his homework, but you have to leave to pick up your other child in two minutes, then perhaps this is not the best time to ask him or her to complete their homework. If you need to help your child, it is best to use the “SAY, SHOW, DO Method” (I will explain this in the next point). When your child does follow through, remember to provide social praise to help encourage that behaviour.
DO! Use prompts. In order to help teach your child what is expected from him or her it might be necessary to use prompts. This means that when you ask your child to do something, allow a few seconds to respond and if they do not, use a prompt to help them complete the task. This could be a gesture towards the task, or a physical prompt. Now this does not mean you do the task for them, you can physically help guide them through the process. For example, if you ask them to put something in the garbage, you can help them pick up the item and then guide them towards the garbage can. You will want to also ensure that your child is not waiting for you to prompt them every time you ask them to do something. In this case, we would have to fade our prompts to help increase your child’s independence. Also, always remember to provide praise for responding to your instruction; with or without your help.
Do! Provide Choices throughout the child’s day. We want to try and increase your child’s independence and self worth. This can be done by simply providing him or her with some choices. Children often live in an adult-driven world and do not get as many opportunities to make choices for themselves, they typically have to go along with what is planned out for them. By allowing them to make simple choices, such as what clothes to wear in the morning, what snacks to put in their lunch boxes or what kind of worksheet they must complete, they feel like they have a little more control over what goes on throughout their day.
DO! Have fun! It is easy to focus on a child’s challenging behaviour, but we must remember to encourage appropriate behaviour and follow your child’s lead. Children love to be silly and have fun! Remember to engage with them during these fun times. Jump with them on the trampoline, have tickle fights or read books in silly voices. Try to incorporate these preferred activities into situations that you know your child finds more challenging. For example, start reading a book together and then ask your child to do something and once he or she has completed it, continue to read the book together.
Hope this list is one of the helpful ones!
Richard Kerhoven, MSc psychology, BCBA