A common cause of problem behavior in children with autism is the effort to avoid or escape something the child doesn’t like or doesn’t want to do – such as doing homework, cleaning up toys or brushing teeth. The official name for this type of behavior is “socially mediated negative reinforcement,” but in our practice we often call this “escape” behavior. Since so much of parenting involves teaching your children how to take care of themselves and be a helpful family member and citizen, escape behavior can be particularly frustrating for a parent.
We’ve explored other functions of behavior in this post. Here, we take a deeper look at how to handle situations when your child acts out to avoid something negative. There are several approaches that can be especially helpful.
Encourage Communication. Children with autism often need to be taught how to express their feelings about a particular task. For example, you can teach your child to ask for a break every time a task feels overwhelming, which helps to alleviate the pressure on the child and allows the child to react in a positive way. This is called “functional communication.”
Break It Down. It can be useful to present your child with a task in small chunks instead of all at once. This also gives you the chance to mix in some easier pieces with harder pieces, to prevent the child from being overwhelmed.
Allow for Choice. Letting your child have some control over the situation can be helpful. This could include giving her a choice about which order to perform tasks, or whether to start with the hard part or the easy part.
Offer to Help. Especially with more complicated activities, your child might respond well to a calm offer of help. For example, if your child struggles with buckling a seat belt, it can be soothing for you to say, “Would you like me to help you get buckled?”
Set a Time Frame. Particularly aversive tasks like cleaning or homework can easily become too much for a child. Help these jobs seem less threatening by setting a time limit: “Let’s clean up your toys for five minutes, and then we’ll take a break.”
Use Pictures and Checklists. One great way to guide your child through a task is to offer written checklists or a series of pictures depicting a task being completed – or even both in combination. For example, if hand washing after visiting the bathroom is a problem area, you might place over the sink a laminated sheet illustrating a child completing the five stages of hand washing.
Reward Good Behavior. One method, called “differential reinforcement,” is to reward positive behavior. You might say, “Johnny, you get a reward because you told your sister you were mad instead of hitting her.” Or, use a time frame: Tell your child that if she can pet the cat nicely for two minutes without pulling his tail, she will get a reward.
Be Prepared. Parents usually know which activities will cause their child to misbehave. For instance, if you know that math homework often leads to tantrums, proactively tell the child, “If you can calmly ask me for help, I will sit down and help you with this problem. If you throw a book at me, I can’t help you.” You might also take steps to make it hard for the child to react negatively – for example, by removing any nearby books if you know your child tends to throw things.
Demand Fade versus Escape Extinction. Escape extinction involves ignoring the child’s misbehavior and refusing to allow the child to get out of performing the aversive task. Certainly, there are situations where this is required – such as cases of safety. However, the risk is that by demanding too much, the child will become aversive to every request.
At Positive Behavioral Connections, we prefer to use “demand fade” when possible, particularly if it appears that your child is becoming increasingly aversive to tasks that used to pose no issues. Demand fade involves limiting the demands you make on a child at first (particularly the most aversive tasks), and then gradually reintroducing them over time. This will often decrease the power of the child’s trigger. Think of it like dealing with a food allergy: If you give your child high exposure to the trigger all the time, the child will become very sick. But if you introduce it slowly and in small doses, the child often is able to successfully withstand it.
A Note About Follow-Through
Too many demands on your child can lead to power struggles, but it’s impossible to avoid every demand. Remember that when you do tell your child to complete a task, you must always follow through and ensure that the child does it, even if a full-blown tantrum ensues.
We hope these tips help you find the most successful path to helping your child overcome escape behavior. If you’d like to read about additional techniques to handle escape behaviors we suggest this article: Function-Based Treatments for Escape-Maintained Problem Behavior. It’s a scholarly article written in a very clinical style, but the content contained in the article is excellent.
For more information or to schedule a preliminary conversation with a therapist, please contact our office today!