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Challenging Behavior of Children with Autism

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

October 4, 2013

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Question

What are some beliefs about challenging behavior when dealing with children with autism?

Answer

Beliefs About Challenging Behavior

It is hard, but it is important.  Teaching children with challenging behaviors can be difficult as everyone has a different perspective on their behavior.  There are many people involved and the behavior can take place in many different environments.  It also takes time to work through the behaviors and figure out the root cause.  I have to remind caregivers that they are putting the time in any way.  They either put the time in up front and be more proactive, or be reactive and have more consequences.  Many times I will go into a classroom or a home and that is what it feels like.  They are so busy putting out fires that they do not really have time to sit and put all the supports in place to teach the replacement skills.

It is important for many reasons. It can impede the learning of students with autism and the students around them.  I saw this research study the other day on the PBIS website.  It said 20% of students in school have challenging behavior and it accounts for 50% of the discipline referrals.  Seventy percent of those children will be in jail after school.  They are not just talking about students with autism; they are talking about just behavior issues in general.  These are huge numbers and it is kind of scary if we do not address challenging behavior.  It also keeps children and families away from peers and community settings. Children and their families become socially isolated. Finally, it can be a huge stressor to staff and families.  Challenging behavior is probably the biggest reason for staff turnover and for family problems such as divorce. 

Most people are doing the best they can with what they have.   I feel like most people are doing the best they can with what they have such as resources and education.  The reason they often fail or have trouble is because they do not know what else to do.

In order to change behavior in children, we have to change.  This is the premise of everything that I do with challenging behavior.  It is thinking not just about what we need to change in the child, but what we need to change around the child.  How do we need to change in order to change the behavior?  We have to try a different approaches.

If you understand basic principles of challenging behavior, you can apply it to almost any situation.  It is a simple formula.  Behavior is behavior.  It is understanding the why that makes a big difference.

Children with challenging behavior do not like challenging behavior any more than adults.   I feel children are not any happier about it than we are.  But for some reason, this behavior is getting a need met.  We have to figure out what that need is. Often teachers will say, “It is just so frustrating.  He came up and scratched me.  He then looked at me, giggled and he ran away. He likes making me mad.”  I have to talk to them about how the emotions, of children with autism, do not always match how they really might be feeling.  They may not know how to share those emotions.  They might just think your face looks funny when they do that.   I feel they are not intentionally trying to get under our skin and make us mad.  It is just that they do not know what else to do.

It is the little things that count.  This is something I have to really work on with staff, especially the assistants in the school, and help them think about the little things that they are doing.  That can be hard and sometimes I think they feel like I am hounding them.  You told him "no" 20 times within a 5-minute period, and every time you told them no, it was more fuel on the fire.  It made him more and more frustrated.  We have to think about those little things like how we are responding when he gets something wrong on his math problem.  How are you telling him it is time to go to computer lab?  How are you telling him it is time to give up something they really like and it is time to do work?  It is those little things that count the most when you are talking about challenging behavior.

 


tara warwick

Tara Warwick, MS, OTR/L

Tara Warwick is an occupational therapist who graduated from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in 2006 with her Master of Science in Rehab Sciences. She received a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy in 2000 also from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She has spent her entire career focusing on improving the quality of services for children, primarily targeting children with autism. She currently owns an Oklahoma pediatric therapy practice called Today’s Therapy Solutions and is a consultant for Project PEAK through the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center – Child Study Center. She practices as an occupational therapist in home settings, clinic settings, and school settings. Her specialty includes working with children with autism and challenging behavior.


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