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How to improve behavior issues in Autistic Kids

One of the more challenging parts of parenting an Autistic child is behavior issues. While not all Autistic children develop hard to manage, unusual or extreme behaviors, when they do, it's disruptive for the whole family.

Advice for Autistic parents tend to be based on behaviorism. Behaviorism is a branch of psychology focused on the belief that our behaviors are shaped by our environment and can be altered through conditioning. This is the standard for schools, ABA therapy and what is often taught in parenting books: rewards and punishments. These don't often work for Autistic children who have different reactions to stimuli and have strong internal motivations.

Here are some ways to address behavior issues using a neurodiverse paradigm.

Adopting a low (or lower) demand lifestyle, as described here, is key for children who seem to be defiant in the face or completely usual requests like going to school, being asked to do hygiene tasks, being asked to do minor chores.

These children have a profile of Autism or ADHD that causes them to need autonomy. Here's the important thing to understand for these children: demands--perfectly reasonable ones--can cause a fight/flight response. The feeling that they must do something causes panic. The difficult behaviors from refusal to lying to aggression are to protect themselves from the threat their body is telling them exists.

I'm you think about the content of the words you say to your child in a given day, how many are demands? Get out of bed, eat the breakfast I made, brush your teeth, you can't wear shorts in the winter, please stop talking about Minecraft, help your brother find his shoes, take your lunch, grab your backpack, yes, you are going to school today, no, you can't watch YouTube on the way to school. That's just the first hour of the day. Each demand has the potential to be the last one the child can tolerate.

Reducing demands can mean letting some things go, it can mean doing a bit more for the child to avoid asking them to do everything they didn't remember. It can also mean changing the way we talk and react to our child. Try waiting to see if they remember something on their own. If they don't say something non-confrontational like "oh, I don't see your backpack." This statement will do the same job as "go get your backpack."

We make so many rules and demands for children that aren't always needed. For Autistic kids, we have to make accommodations for disability.

The world for Autistic people revolves around the senses and special interests. There's room for other things but these are the sources of joy and also strife. I've written about a neurodivergent lifestyle before as one that adopts lower demands and implements sensory protections and supports and indulges special interests. Some studies have found that aggressive behaviors are more likely to happen when Autistics are interrupted in repetitive behaviors. Repetitive behaviors are usually sensory tools to manage stress or relax. Encourage and support engagement in strategies that improve coping through sensory systems.

Special interests for Autistic people are more than passing fancies. They can be the building blocks for understanding the world and creating a vocation. Even if these aren't of interest to you or don't seem to have value, joy is a value for your child. Allow them to have that joy. I recommend taking an interest in the topic yourself in order to have meaningful connection with your child. You don't have to learn everything or talk about it endlessly--boundaries are ok--listening with interest to your child is a gift to them.

I've spent time in other posts discussing trauma and how to protect your child from abuse and the high risk of abuse for Autistic people. Trauma for Autistic people can become deeply rooted into their lives and experience. Everything becomes tinted by the lens of traumatic experiences and the difficulties in the world can become unbearable.

The weight of betrayal, guilt, shame, fear and uncertainty can control a child's behavior, thoughts, and dreams. Most children do not disclose abuse to parents or other adults. If you suspect abuse, I recommend working with a child therapist to help through the process of disclosure.

If your child is minimally or non speaking, continue to make communication a top priority.

If you know or suspect trauma-or even if you don't--I recommend adopting a trauma informed approach to parenting. Trauma informed approaches are collaborative, offer choice and avoid force or coercion, build trust, foster empowerment, and create safety. Some of the basics of traumaninformed approaches can be found here.

There is a problem in the medical community in attributing everything related to an Autistic child to Autism. However, Autistic children are complex and may have medical conditions, mental health or neurological conditions in addition to Autism that require diagnosis and treatment. If a child has troubling symptoms, advocate for them with their doctor for evaluation for other conditions.

Keep an eye on upcoming Autism research. I have a particular interest in the research around the known chronic neuro-inflammation in Autistic people that may suggest an auto-immune component to the condition or a related co-occurring condition. I suspect in the future, some Autistic children and adults will be treated for an autoimmune condition impacting the nervous system such as in children and adults with severe apraxia preventing them from speaking or having control of their bodies and impulses. Because I believe my child to be one of these children, I'm looking forward to more research discoveries.

How you feel impacts how you parent and how your child feels. If things aren't going well, focus energy on your own self-care and wellness because it will have an impact on how your child is doing as well. If your stress level is chronically high due to other factors, reduce your obligations. Yes, let some go.

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