A question we often hear is “Why is my child so challenging to parent?” Many parents have raised several children and find that parenting a child on the autism spectrum is significantly more challenging.
Children on the autism spectrum often take over as the leader of the household, which often results in everyone else scrambling around trying to prevent tantrums. To some degree, all children control their parents through what psychologists refer to as “negative reinforcement.” Negative reinforcement occurs when a child creates a difficult or distressing situation for parents by crying or throwing a tantrum. The parent scrambles to solve the problem for the child. The parent is rewarded when the child stops the distressing behavior, but the child is rewarded for a behavior we do not want them to continue.
When a child is distressed, he or she may cry, fall to the floor or throw a tantrum that results in concern and confusion for those around them. The natural tendency for a parent is to soothe the child by taking away whatever is distressing the child. By doing this, the tantrum behavior has been reinforced for the child because it elicited soothing behavior from the parent. In the future, the child
continues to solve problems by crying, falling to the floor or throwing a tantrum because this behavior helped them in a previous situation. The child has been taught to throw a tantrum to get what they want and the parent has learned to solve the child’s problems when he or she throws a tantrum.
For typically developing children, this usually only occurs for a short period of time when the child is very young. They quickly learn alternative ways to get their needs met. Children move on to talking and negotiation to get what they want and only fall back on tantrums when the negotiation does not work.
Children on the autism spectrum, however, have a difficult time processing and understanding the complex verbal and social world. Talking, negotiating and understanding other people’s motivations do not come naturally. It is not as easy for a child on the autism spectrum to move on to using language and negotiation to get what they want. As a result, they continue to rely on what has worked in the past. Tantrums become the main way they get their needs met. Parents need to be careful not to reward behaviors they do not want to continue.
When dealing with a child with oppositional or aggressive behavior, we need to recognize that this behavior is the best solution the child has identified. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy helps children better understand the complex verbal/social world and how to relate to others around them to get their needs met. When children can seamlessly understand and live with others in the complex verbal/social world, they begin to learn the value of these relationships. As a result, they want to be with other family members and with other children their age. They begin to value human connection and friendship. Their behavioral patterns begin to evolve.
At Caravel Autism Health, we help parents and other family members understand the implications of a child’s difficulty in comprehending the complex verbal/social world. We help the child build those social skills and move towards more successful behaviors that increase interaction with the people around them.