There are lots of ways in which the behaviour of people with autism can be seen as challenging. The important thing to remember is how complex the condition can be.
Autism is sometimes referred to like an iceberg and the behaviour you see and experience when somebody had autism is like the tip of the iceberg. In order to understand the behaviour, which can often be challenging, we need to look at the size of the iceberg beneath sea level because that is the depth and complexity that the individual is dealing with in their life.
If you are repeatedly trying to communicate with a child who appears to be rude or inattentive, stop and think about the nature of their processing problems. If you stop repeating itself and remain calm and quiet the child may well become more attentive to what we have to say.
It a work situation, someone with autism may have got on well in a job role where the role is clear but perhaps a little repetitive. When the opportunity to vary the job becomes available the person with autism may become agitated or uncooperative. Once again the behaviour hides the levels of anxiety about the changes taking place.
In school a child may appear well-settled but is unable to handle special social occasions for example, they may be extremely challenging whenever it is somebody's birthday. This behaviour makes them seem rude but is actually their complete lack of understanding of how to behave in such situations. This can be frightening for them as well as those on the end of their challenging behaviour.
Sensory overload can be one of the main causes behind behaviour that we find hard to understand and challenging to deal with.
Reasons for challenging behaviour
There is usually a reason behind any challenging behaviour. The reason may not seem immediately obvious to us and we may need in deep exploration to understand why the child is behaving in this way. The next challenge is then what to do about it.
By developing an understanding about autism many challenging behaviours can be pre-empted, minimised or avoided with good preparation.
The first step when trying to establish why a child is presenting challenging behaviour would be to go back to basics:
- Education, health & care provision for children and young people with SEN including information about its quality and the outcomes and destinations of those who use it
- Has the child got a communication system in place?
- Could their behaviour be related to something they are trying to tell you?
- Is it due to the lack of social understanding?
- Could it be a sensory issue?
- Is it because the child is having problems with inflexible thinking?
It's important to bear in mind that there may be more than one reason behind challenging behaviour. Finding out why a person with autism is exhibiting the behaviour is a matter of trial and error. In the case of high functioning children, ask them first, they may be up to tell you straight away. It's important to use teamwork, involve those working with them as well as family members.
Don't forget that people with autism are often more anxious than people who do not have autism. If something becomes unbearable their anxiety may take over. If this happens they may do or say something to create a predictable situation which then lowers their anxiety. For example a child may try to hit someone because they know that every time they try to hit this person, someone will grab their arm and shout at them. Not only may the pressure itself be a comfort, but the predictability of the response is also comforting. With this type of behaviour it's important to try and understand what made the person anxious in the first place and devise anxiety reducing strategies which keep the person with autism from reaching the stage where they feel the need to hit somebody in order to obtain a predictable response.
Simple strategies to try:
- Remain calm (sometimes easier said than done)
- Keep a diary to record when behaviours are happening. This may allow you to spot a pattern or specific triggers to behaviour
- Use positive language - tell the child exactly how you want them to behave
- Don't tell them to ‘calm down’, give them guidance on how to calm down (for example tell them to take deep breaths in and out/sit down quietly here/look at me/use your relaxation techniques)
- Be consistent in what you say and do
- Make your expectations, rules and consequences clear
- Use reward systems to encourage the behaviour you want to see more of
- Get support from others to help you understand and manage behaviour
- Pretend to be confident even if you are worried about managing challenging behaviour
- Take one step at a time - choose the most challenging behaviour and tackle that first
There is a lot that can be done to help bring calm and allow a more balanced feeling for people with autism. If you can learn to think in an autistic way it can be extremely helpful.
Try to be aware of changes in the environment that may impact upon the person with autism. This may be as simple as the smell of new paint, or a staff member who was changed their hair colour/style. Structure and the need for predictability are quite often the key to successful relationships. It is always from a state of calm that changes can be prepared for without the need for a crisis.
People with autism find visual supports both helpful and reassuring. A visual image is more static and can be looked at over and over again even if it is the written word. Spoken words are very abstract and come and go so quickly that it can be frustrating when trying to follow their meaning. Frustration soon leads to challenging behaviour when the world around is so confusing.
When you don't understand yourself very well it can be difficult to understand the impact that your behaviour has on others. This is not an excuse for people with autism to behave as they like but it does mean that we have to work extra hard to help those with autism realise that their behaviour has an impact. It will take time for them to understand this and know that they can (with support) have more control over their behaviour.
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