- Posted by Caravel Autism Health
- On July 30, 2018
- 0 Comments
Children with autism can react quite intensely to certain situations. Whereas a typical child might only be mildly frustrated or angry, a child with autism might react to the same situation with aggression or an emotional outburst. There are three main reasons for these outbursts, according to Caravel’s Eric Lund, Psy.D., ABPP, BCBA-D. Dr. Lund has worked with children with autism for 15 years. “Children on the autism spectrum can have extremely strong reactions when they are over-stimulated, are confused, or have an inability to communicate wants and desires,” explains Dr. Lund.
It’s not easy for a parent to predict whether a certain situation or environment will over-stimulate a child with autism, according to Dr. Lund. The wrong situation or environment, however, can quickly overwhelm a child, who may become very emotional. “When that happens,” explains Dr. Lund, “the only choice a parent may have is to remove the child from the environment. In doing so, unfortunately, the parent is rewarding the child for inappropriate behavior, which encourages the child to repeat that behavior in the future.”
“When a child who is on the spectrum becomes confused, the child’s first reaction is often fight or flight,” explains Dr. Lund. “If the child is at the tantrum or meltdown stage, parents need to remove the child from that complex environment. Doing so, however, reinforces the child’s perception that ‘fight or flight’ is effective. So it’s important for parents to work to understand their child’s limitations and to develop a plan,” according to Dr. Lund. “You want to develop a plan that teaches a child how to recognize and respond to confusion. You also want to give your child options to help decrease confusion in the moment. Although we may need to reinforce a behavior that we do not want to recur, this should spur a parent on to developing a plan to address the behavior so that you do not have to reinforce the behavior in the future.” Dr. Lund suggests exposing the child to situations that he or she is uncomfortable with in a systematic fashion. Make the uncomfortable situation predictive of something the child loves and teach the child about the situation and strategies that can be used in the situation to decrease discomfort.
Inability to Communicate
We all know how frustrating it is when we’re unable to communicate effectively with someone else. Since children with autism struggle with communication skills, they encounter this frustration with regularity. When a child needs something, wants something to happen, or doesn’t want something to happen, that child will respond. He or she may become emotional or aggressive. “The child is trying to communicate,” explains Dr. Lund, “but he or she is not able to accomplish that goal, which leads to the inappropriate behavior. Again, when a parent’s response is to remove the child from the distressing situation, the parent is inadvertently reinforcing the idea that a child will get what he wants if he behaves inappropriately.”
Instead of rewarding that behavior, Dr. Lund recommends investing time in helping children build skills. He suggests that parents spend time thinking about all of the following strategies:
- Learn the limits of your child’s ability to handle various forms of environmental stimulation
- Help your child learn how to recognize over-stimulation and confusion; then, help your child learn how to decrease over-stimulation and confusion
- Teach your child alternative ways to communicate; practice those alternative strategies for communication with your child
- Use trial and error to figure out what works best for your child
Learning how to soothe is one of the most rewarding skills a parent of a child with autism can master. By understanding how to recognize environments that may overwhelm and by working to build skills that will help children navigate through those environments, parents can reduce meltdowns and help their children thrive.