As every parent knows, your child likes to be the focus of your attention. For children with autism, though, this natural inclination can lead to unwanted behavior, from simple tantrums to potentially destructive outbursts. Putting a stop to this behavior can be incredibly difficult, but there are some simple strategies that can help you and your child cope.
In our own practice, we find that focusing on the function of the negative behavior, rather than the behavior itself, leads to the best results. In this case, the function of the behavior is to get your attention. (For more details on functions of behavior, read this blog post.)
Officially, this is called “socially mediated positive reinforcement” – quite a mouthful! By dealing with the factors that cause the negative behavior, you can nip the behaviors in the bud while still giving your child what he or she needs – your loving attention, delivered in a positive and healthy way.
Teaching the Child to Verbalize
One of our preferred strategies is functional communication training, or FCT. With FCT, we teach the child how to appropriately verbalize what he or she wants.
We recently leveraged FCT with a child in our practice. This child demanded his teachers look at him all the time. If they didn’t, he would make disruptive noises and occasionally even strike people.
We therefore focused our efforts on teaching him to use words to explain what he wanted: “Look at me.” The teachers would only look at the child when he used those three words. If the child engaged in silly noises instead, without looking at the child, the teachers would remind him to say the three words. Only when he did so would the teachers look at him.
When dealing with any child who is acting out to get attention, it’s important to be aware of the power of eye contact. Any attention is attention, so be sure to withhold all attention from the child – even eye contact. This is called planned ignoring.
With planned ignoring, you simply ignore the behavior you don’t like. It’s not necessarily about ignoring the child; rather, it’s about studiously ignoring the unwanted behavior. You don’t even need to acknowledge the behavior you’re ignoring; either engage the child to do something entirely different, or resume the task you were working on before. Either way, you send the child the message that the unwanted behavior does not get the child what he or she wants.
The “planned” in planned ignoring is critical. You need to know ahead of time the negative behavior (or behaviors!) you’re going to ignore. You must also be very clear on what behaviors you want to replace it with.
The key here is that your child can’t perceive the ignoring as random, or else he or she won’t connect it with their behavior. This requires you be consistent! Intermittently giving your child attention will undermine all of your efforts!
Often, you can redirect the child before a scene erupts. For example, if you know that your child will misbehave to get your attention when Dad’s favorite TV show is on, do something special with the child to “fill his bucket” before the TV show starts – potentially heading off the negative behavior altogether and meeting the child’s need for attention in a much more positive way.
And finally, don’t engage in planned ignoring for behavior that is potentially dangerous. Safety must always come first.
If your child still misbehaves even with planned ignoring, it may be time to consider a time out. This is not necessarily the traditional time spent in the time out corner. It’s simply time away from your attention. As with so many aspects of parenting a child with autism, the most important piece of this strategy is to have a consistent time out routine.
For example, if you and your child are in a restaurant and the child is banging on the table to get your attention, calmly let the child know, “You’re not behaving appropriately. I’m going to do something else for two minutes until you can use your words to talk to me.” This removes your attention and gives your child the motivation to get what he wants by not hitting the table.
Stay tuned for a full discussion of time outs in a future blog post!
For now, these three strategies should help with more constructive approaches to dealing with a child who acts out in order to gain your attention. For more help with challenging behaviors, feel free to contact our office and schedule a consultation. We are here to help.