Communicating Behavior Change Information to Your Child with Autism

Autism/Aspergers, is, as you know a complicated disorder. Each child with Autism presents in similar, but very different ways and interventions created for them work at different levels for each one.

Today, I am going to present one small piece of information for working with your child/student who has Autism.

Autism presents a social disorder which presents challenges for children to interpret proper social behavior and interaction for certain environments. On top of this challenge, the person inside, the person the person with Autism IS, understands the world at a very different level of interaction than the typical person. While a typical person can interpret nuances in social behavior and expectation and choose non-reaction or a complicated set of social expectation for response, the person with Autism, very often does not have the set of tools for application of the same complex social response interactions.

That all sounded very complicated in and of itself. You are correct in thinking you didn’t understand exactly what I was saying, it’s messy.

Let me see if I can make it clearer;

EXAMPLE: In a typical social interaction (and I will do a seemly easy one), a person meets and greets another (say a checker at a grocery store) and the checker says, “Hi, how are you doing today?”

In a typically understood response, the normal and natural thing to do is say, “Fine. How is your day?” To which the other person, also responds with a pleasant and easy, “Beautiful day.” or “Fine” or “Doing well, thank-you.”

While the whole question and response is typical and just a pleasant greeting most of us use, to the person with high functioning Autism, the interaction is much more confusing.

Truth is, the interaction is one which goes on the “Bullshit we say for no reason” typical interaction timeline. When we are the checker, we don’t really care how your day is going, we are just doing our jobs to make the customers feel welcome and like we work for a friendly store. Some people may come through our line for whom we have a real interest and attachment and, for them, the question holds a greater meaning, but on the whole, it’s just an expected social interaction for that situation.

This is the truth that the person with Autism either sees, or does not see. If the person with Autism sees it, they may confront the checker rudely, “You don’t really care how I’m doing and if I went into the whole story of how I’m doing, you would probably have me arrested.”  (haha, just one possible response.)

Or the other response might be, “I’m not doing too well, I couldn’t sleep last night. My dog kept me up and I have a late homework assignment.”

Either response sets off alarms in the checker’s head that this person is not typical and they will continue to try to be polite which may have them listening to a long stream of conversation from the person with Autism.

That’s just one tiny example of how complicated our social interactions are, and a small one at that, so you can imagine how complex it gets eventually, with longer or different social interaction expectations.

Who is right? The person with Autism. They are the social honesty gurus. They react in the perfect way for a totally honest and open society. Problem is, we don’t live in that society.

So how do we teach them the set of social skills they will need in any situation? That also becomes complex, but I do have a place to begin. At least for those with high functioning Autism…and have no doubt about it, students with low functioning Autism, also need these techniques, so try them often with your child and see if it helps.

When confronted with any inappropriate or abnormal social situation, most people respond to students with Autism the way they respond to typical students. “Don’t do that, stop doing that, you can’t do that.”

This technique is DESTRUCTIVE to the interaction skills with the person with Autism.

Talking to the person with Autism needs to be done in a way that does not trigger the person with Autism to think the speaker is lying. Triggering that response in the brain of the person with Autism will have the person will Autism on a loop that will make the unwanted behavior occur MORE.

EXAMPLE: The person with Autism is touching another student on the back.

The teacher or parent says: “Don’t do that, you can’t touch so and so”

In the brain of the person with Autism, the honest response is, “Yes I can touch so and so, see, I’m doing it, see, see, see” while they repeat the unwanted behavior over and over and over and over. By repeating the behavior, they are proving that “Yes, they can touch so and so.”

So, how do you tell them to stop touching so and so? YOU GIVE THEM GENERAL SOCIAL INTERACTION INSTRUCTIONS THAT DO NOT INCLUDE THE WORDS  ‘you’ and ‘can’t.’

The proper way to instruct them to cease unwanted behavior, is a long conversation which you will have to repeat and repeat until they have the words in their own head. I.E. “People respect other people’s private space. People keep their hands off of other people when they are standing in line.”

Notice two things about this form of conversation, I did not write, “People don’t touch other people.”  The person with Autism would search their memory banks and come up with a billion examples of why this is not true.

Is this difficult to do? Yes, but it is one (just one) of many tips I have learned when working with students with Autism.

I have an example of how it was applied:

The student was a senior boy. He had a high level of Autism. He had a one on one. He was integrated, for a large part of his day, in the regular education classrooms.

One day, I’m walking down the hall and his aid comes running up to me. “So and so’s teachers just yelled at him because he has been quacking like a duck all day in class (he did this on a regular basis). I told the aid to pull him out of class and have a conversation with him that went like this, “When people are tired (quacking like a duck was something he did when he was tired) they sit up in their seats and pretend they are not tired. When people are tired, they do their best to pay attention and when they get home from wherever they were, that they could not nap, they take a nap.”

The student went back into the classroom after the instruction and sat through the lecture trying to pay attention. No more quacking.

Notice two things about the conversation.

1) I did not reference the poor behavior or discipline the student for the poor behavior.

2) I gave him specific instructions on what people do when they are tired at school. I did not say ‘you’ in the conversation.

This is crucial to your student/child with autism.

Disclaimer is: this works with many students, but as is the case with all things Special Education…each student is an individual and individual rates of success will apply.

Good luck and Thanks for listening!

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