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Child Crying

    Up for the Challenge

    Understanding Difficult Behavior in Kids with Autism.

    Your son who has autism loves videos—he’d watch all day if you let him. When he’s upset, the iPad always calms him down. But your son has gotten aggressive lately. He hits and kicks whoever has the iPad, be it you, your spouse, or his three-year-old sister. You’re worried that he’s so upset and worried he could hurt his sister, so you give him the iPad. Episode over. Or is it?

    Challenging behaviors aren’t uncommon among children with autism, especially those with limited verbal skills. Some children are aggressive, run away, or hurt themselves.

    If your child’s behavior is dangerous, seek professional help immediately. Otherwise, there are many ways parents can try to replace difficult behaviors in children on the spectrum with more desirable conduct. It’s important to understand a child’s motivation and what might be reinforcing the behavior, so you can provide better alternatives.

    Keep in mind that this isn’t a treatment plan. Each child with autism is unique and the results depend on many variables. A board-certified behavior analyst can customize a program for your child’s specific needs.

    What’s The motivation?

    The first step in changing a challenging behavior is figuring out what’s behind it. What does your son want when he hits and kicks? Is he trying to get something or avoid something

    The reasons for challenging behavior among children on the spectrum aren’t always obvious. Watching what comes before and after may offer helpful clues. In the example above, “what comes before” can be as simple as the child seeing the iPad on a shelf or someone else using it. What comes after his aggression is more revealing: The boy gets the iPad and calms down.

    Once you know what your child is trying to get or avoid with difficult behavior, you can create opportunities to show him a more desirable way to accomplish his goal.

    Unitentional Reinforcement

    Are you rewarding challenging behavior

    Probably, but it’s not intentional. The more often your child’s behavior gets him what he wants or avoids what he doesn’t, the more often he’ll act that way. Handing the iPad to an aggressive child makes perfect sense because it stops the hitting and kicking. Unfortunately, it also reinforces his aggression, which creates a pattern that’s likely to result in more episodes.

    Thinking about how you might be unconsciously reinforcing your child’s challenging behavior can help you respond differently—especially combined with showing him a better alternative.

    Replace, Repeat, Re-Learn

    Replacing difficult behavior with more desirable behavior requires creating a situation in which your child can get what he wants by doing something fairly simple. This may be easier said than done—and the results will differ for each child—but the basics are the same regardless of the behavior. Here is a process to try, based on the example situation:

    1. Choose new communication

    If your son is just learning verbal language, teaching him to say “iPad” is probably too ambitious. But how about pointing? Most kids with autism point to what they want, so it may not be hard to apply to a new situation.

    2. Stage the Learning Opportunity

    When your child is calm, sit down with him and put the iPad on the table. Show him what to do by pointing at the iPad. Then put your hand over his and help him point at it. Praise him and give him the iPad. You’ll need to do this at least five or six times a day for a while. Once he starts pointing to ask instead of hitting, you can cut back on the sessions and eventually stop entirely.

    3. Be Consistent

    Try to make sure the iPad or other desired object is visible only during teaching sessions. Otherwise, the challenging behavior is likely to continue and you’ll have to figure out how to calm an aggressive child without giving him what he wants.

    4. Reward Success

    Every time your child performs the new behavior, reward him with the iPad and lots of praise.

    Realistic and Workable

    Many kids with autism have more than one challenging behavior. Pick one so you can more clearly figure out your child’s motivation, the reinforcement, and a workable replacement. Start with the behavior that seems easiest to change and be realistic about what you can handle.

    Understanding and changing long-standing behavior can be tricky; the behavior may get worse before it gets better. Ingrained patterns are hard to change, especially because your child has learned that the difficult behavior works.

    Professional help is essential if you think there’s immediate danger. But don’t feel discouraged if you need help with any behavior issues. Board-certified behavior analysts specialize in creating customized treatment plans that use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to replace challenging behaviors with more desirable alternatives, as well as teach age-appropriate language, behavior, and social skills. They can also show you new ways to help your child.

    Remember that parents have options, and understanding is the key. Once parents understand their child’s motivation and reinforcement, there are many tools they can use to start changing difficult behavior for the better.

    Jade Beachy is a board certified behavior analyst with Autism Home Support Services (AHSS) in Denver, which has served more than 1,000 families in Denver, Ann Arbor, and Chicago, and offers in-home and center-based therapy around the country. You can reach Jade at



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