How to Handle the 4 Most Challenging Autism Behaviors
Having a child with autism presents its challenges. Here, our experts have highlighted four of the most testing autism behaviours and advise you how to handle them.
Does your child scream if they can't wear their favourite shoes? Do they enjoy fondling materials of certain textures without regard for where or on whom that fabric may be located? Do they fear the toilet, the market, the dentist?
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If so, take note – they’re trying to tell you how they feel and what they need from you: behaviour as communication. Parents and carers have to be incredibly responsive and sensitive to children with autism regarding their behaviours. They need to pay close attention to behavioural cues to understand what their child is trying to tell them.
After speaking with experts and parents of children with autism, we have highlighted the most challenging autism behaviours and provide you with advice on how to best handle them.
- Sleep disruption
Children with autism tend to have incredibly sensitive nervous systems, meaning that even the slightest variation in their day can affect their sleep that night. It is important, therefore, for parents to do all they can to help their children get a decent night’s sleep.
Many parents find that creating a nocturnal oasis can help a lot. By using things such as room-darkening shades, a white noise machine, weighted blankets, you can soothe all your child’s senses, making sleep more appealing.
It is also important for you to teach their bodies that night time is sleep time. This means setting a schedule and sticking to it. For instance, parents should encourage their children to go back to bed when they wake up in the middle of the night instead of starting their day. One way to help with this is through visual supports: for instance, you could show them a picture of a clock and a picture of Mum and Dad and say, 'You can come into our room when your clock matches this clock.
Autism Speaks offers free downloadable toolkits, one of which is all about sleep.
- Food sensitivity
Selective eating habits are incredibly prevalent in autistic children; most are very limited in what they will eat. This is predominantly due to sensory sensitivity to certain textures and flavours. For the parents, this means a lot of trial and error when it comes to dinner time. It might mean that parents will have to cook one thing for their child with autism and something else for the rest. This might seem like a lot of hassle, but it means mealtimes can be much more relaxed and enjoyable.
You can get your child to eat a wider variety of foods through slowly expanding their tolerance level. For instance, start by introducing a new food to the rest of the table. Once the child begins to tolerate it, you can then move the food to their plate, then later you can ask them to touch it, and finally they may be able to tolerate eating it. This slow and gentle approach is an effective way to slowly expand their repertoire of food because it removes their fear and anxiety around food, transforming it into a sense of empowerment and control.
Meltdowns happen, that's a given. What matters is how prepared you are and how you can minimise their occurrence.
Don't put your child in a situation in which they are in over their head. If you know it's a situation where it's going to be really long or really difficult, you're just sort of setting them up for a meltdown. You have to accept that there are limitations that come with having a child with autism.
With a tantrum, the child is still in control, they want to get their own way. With a meltdown, they can't calm down and at that point either they've got themselves so upset or so overwhelmed they're no longer in control of the situation. Meltdowns can be difficult to judge. It's really important not to always give in to them because you're afraid of them. The basic thing is to hold them and calm them and wait until they can calm down themselves. I know some children have really egregious meltdowns, so it's important not to put them in a situation where you think they may have one but if they do, just keep them safe and soothe them in whatever way you know works until they can recover.
If a tantrum happens in public and unwanted eyes (and comments) are directed your way, you can curtail further scrutiny simply by handing out pre-made cards that say things like, "My child has autism," with a website listed for them to learn more.
- Aggressive behaviour
Aggressive and self-injurious behaviours are fairly common in children with autism. This is principally due to sensory overload or frustration with their inability to communicate their needs effectively. When people better understand the basis for the aggressive or self-injurious behaviour and then accommodate or support the person with autism, things can improve dramatically.
One way to figure out the basis for their behaviour is data tracking: keeping scrupulous notes about the child’s behaviours and other external factors in their day. When they act out, there’s usually a reason. Therefore, when you take note of what the child eats, how much they sleep or whether a parent is away, you can often identify the cause and prevent it from happening again.
However, when a child is going through an extremely violent phase, it might be a good idea to call in a behaviourist. A good behaviourist is purely there to analyse and understand and come up with positive solutions for behavioural issues.
When a child with autism is in the throes of aggressive or self-injurious behaviour, a parent must consider safety first. Move away; say very loudly and clearly, 'Stop' or 'No' and make it very clear with a very different, very strict tone of voice that what they’re doing is not okay.
- Something to remember
If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism. There is so much diversity in terms of how autism plays out with each child. The idea that everyone is the same is mythical. This uniqueness can be embraced as well as prepared for.
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