Children on the Autism Spectrum Disorder may display narrow focused, obsessive behaviors that they have difficulty controlling independently. These repetitive behaviors can interfere with social relationships as well as school success and eventually employment success as adults.
It can be difficult to stop ASD children from becoming stuck in their obsessive behaviors once a periodic episode has started. Through therapy students can begin to recognize and regulate these behavior patterns to fit into their environment appropriately. Until they learn self-regulation skills, parents bear the burden of early recognition and intervention to alleviate undesired and unwanted behavior patterns.
Connie Hammer on her website Parent Coaching for Autism offers some ways to feed any child’s passion but balance it with everything else that needs to be done and attended to.
1. Expand your child’s horizons. It is always good to broaden a child’s focus beyond his or her immediate environment and interests because one never knows when a parent will discover the key to unlock the special gift he or she has been blessed with. If a child’s talent is already apparent, exposing him to the greater world can help parents channel his amazing skill onto the most appropriate path.
2. Use distraction. When a parent notices their child beginning to engage in a repetitive behavior give the child something to do or start a conversation. When people are bored, we all default into behaviors that we are not even conscious of doing. So just in case the trigger is boredom, get the child physically active – engage her in exercise or some other activity she can chose from.
3. Create opportunities for social interaction. This is a great distraction tool and will help prevent the possibility of a child becoming isolated from peers. Children with ASD struggle enough with social skills and when a child’s focus is too narrow, it becomes even more difficult to meet and make friends. Finding like-minded or other minded peers can be a challenge so parents need to take the time to explore social situations, groups, clubs, activities that will not only make a child hone his social skills but may introduce him to other interesting topics as well.
4. Pay attention. AS children can easily withdraw into their own world. Paying attention to the default mode parents may tend to fall into when your child is ‘occupied’ and not demanding their attention is crucial. When a child is requiring very little from a parent it is sometimes tempting to allow the behavior to continue. Parents must be careful not to allow the child to hyper-focus in any one direction. Remain hyper-vigilant and always ask, “In what way is the behavior the child is engaging in right now helping her become the person she can be?”
5. Use realistic prompts. Prompts can be verbal and direct or nonverbal and indirect. Identify in advance a variety of prompts that will help modify a child’s behavior. Prompts should be taught ahead of time so the child understands what they mean. Direct, verbal prompts are good to use when first addressing a behavior. Verbal prompts give direction and information that helps shape behavior. Parents should eventually move towards the non-verbal and less direct prompts in order to encourage dynamic thinking. Children with Autism eventually need to become proficient problem solvers on their own. Encouraging a child when developmentally appropriate to have input into prompts will not only increase the likelihood that they will work, it will also help him become more self-directed. Gradually weaning to indirect, nonverbal prompts will hasten this process.
6. Be proactive. Seek to understand the function of these behaviors. Most undesired behaviors are unconscious and occur involuntarily to some degree, especially in the beginning. However, once a child realizes the rush or relief it brings to her senses and how it helps her cope, the behaviors become more intentional and are easily reinforced into a habit. As long as a behavior is deemed appropriate it can become a functional way to comfort and entertain oneself but if it is seen as dysfunctional and not channeled in the right way it can easily spiral out of control. Ask what function this behavior is serving and seek to introduce another activity – a more appropriate substitute – that will provide the same results.
7. Focus on the child’s positive behaviors. Concentrating on appropriate behaviors and explaining the function they serve and why they are acceptable can reinforce more of the same. “I like the way your hands are being quiet. It makes it easier for you to pay attention to what is going on around you.” Then the focus can turn to redirecting the inappropriate behaviors and substituting them with more suitable outlets.
8. Schedule time for the behavior. No one can stop a behavior cold turkey, especially if it has been meeting a physical, psychological or sensory need and there is nothing much to replace it with. Schedule times and places throughout a child’s day when she knows she will be able to engage in the behavior one is trying to modify. Allocating time for this behavior into a child’s visual schedule will comfort her to know it is not completely banned and will also teach appropriate time and place. Think of it as a gradual weaning process – as one decreases engagement in the negative behavior one slowly increases exposure to a more positive substitute.
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