- Posted by Dr. Eric Lund
- On October 5, 2016
- 1 Comments
In my presentations describing autism, I often describe a process where children, due to slowed information processing, turn away from social/verbal contact with the world and turn toward more concrete aspects of the world. Children often develop a number of simplification strategies for dealing with a world that they view as too complex. One of the major strategies is oppositional defiant behavior. I believe oppositional defiance is a symptom that indicates a child is drowning in a world that is too complex.
That sounds like a bold statement. I question if oppositional defiance can occur outside of, and unrelated to, significant problems understanding and relating in a complex verbal social world.
Let me describe my thinking.
From a behavioral perspective, all behaviors that do occur, occur because they are rewarded. In other words, behaviors that have worked in the past occur more often in the future. Moreover, people will rely on the simplest ways to accomplish their goals. When a child can make verbal requests they generally will not use a PEC or sign language.
We are all trying to accomplish our goals, experience what we want to experience and have our goals met. We generally enjoy accomplishing goals with people around us that help us to attain those goals – with people loving us or at least being happy with us when we attain the goal. We never set out to purposely make the goals harder to attain, with people trying to thwart our goals and hating us when the goal is attained. Why would we choose to do the latter if we could have the former?
I wouldn’t choose to attain my goal the harder way. So why does a child metaphorically bang his head against a brick wall trying to attain his goals and end up getting punished and being disliked at the end of the experience? From my perspective, the only logical reason anyone would choose the harder path is because they are not capable of the easier path. From a behavior perspective it makes no sense to be oppositional if you are capable of not being oppositional and still attaining your goals.
The message here is for you to consider the possibility that oppositional defiance is a symptom and not a disorder. If oppositional defiance is a disorder what is an effective treatment? Behavioral treatment and/or medication have historically not been successful. If oppositional defiance is a symptom, the problem is that the child is lacking higher-level skills. Skills can be taught. This reframes our thinking and provides tremendous opportunities for change.
Eric J. Lund, Psy.D., BCBA