Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition affecting between one in eighty eight and one in one hundred children. It was recently redefined in the new diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) and many people are confused about how to understand the new criteria.
People with ASD must now show “persistent deficits” in two separate “domains”. These are (1) social communication and social interaction impairments and (2) restricted, and repetitive patterns of behavior. There must be at least two repetitive behaviors in addition to social communication deficits. These can include “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements”, “insistence on sameness or inflexible adherence to routines”, “highly restricted, fixated interests”, or hypo or hyper reactivity to sensory input.
Parents of children with ASD are familiar with the phrase that if you have met a child with ASD, you’ve met one child with ASD. The severity of the condition is so variable, that it is impossible to present any stereotype of an ASD that makes sense, but there is still good evidence that parents of children with ASD live with behavioral problems on a semi-regular basis. Learning to manage these behaviors can make parent’s lives much easier.
Change who’s in control by “Entering and Blending”
There is a concept in the marital art Aikido called “entering and blending” that shows great promise in managing the aggression that can occur with ASD.
By entering you step towards your attacker, positioning your feet so that they are slightly aside of the attackers path and then making “close and authoritative contact”. If an ASD child is pushing towards you, let their energy come at you as you move to the entering position, then firmly but gently, grasp their wrist or hand, and turn to go with them. In doing so, you are signaling your willingness to engage, whilst still providing yourself with a path to let the energy pass by without harming you. There should be no pain or aggression in this action.
By entering you have also blended with the child by coming to face in the same direction as they are moving, and most importantly, you are looking at the situation from their viewpoint without giving up your own viewpoint that their behavior is unacceptable.
Entering and blending can also be a verbal technique that allows you to avoid responding to every sentence your child says with a counter sentence and perpetuating the argument. By blending and entering we give a little, turn to see their viewpoint, and try to resolve the situation from that position using their words.
It’s a powerful technique.
Change the Stimulation Level
ASD may have a sensory component, and increasing or decreasing stimulation can be a useful way to control an explosive situation. There’s a lot of experimentation required, because not every ASD child will react in the same way. For some, turning the lights down may be intolerable and induce profound anxiety, whereas others will find the reduction of stimulation to be soothing.
One clue can be found in “stimming”; self stimulatory behavior where repetitive motions or sounds are made by the child in response to their sensory situation. Stimming can occur when children are happy or sad. My son likes to flap his hands when he’s having a great moment. He also kicks the floor in a particular way when he’s happy or angry. It’s important to watch well and keep notes about what triggers stimming.
Stimming can tell you exactly what’s going on – or completely confuse you – but it is at least some real evidence of what the mood of the day is. If you can find a “happy” stimming situation, try to adapt the current sensory input to match that situation. If there are only negatives then remove the triggers for these and see if the situation improves.
Change the conversation
One of the key elements of an ASD diagnosis is repetitive behavior or fixation on certain types of objects or concepts. My son has been through a range of such fixations. The first occurred at the age of two when we had to stop every time he saw a flag and take it home with us. This morphed into the world of drains, and he and I spent many a cozy day standing over a drain and discussing its most intricate life story. Then came sharks and we’ve finally settled (for now) on marines.
While it can be very difficult to maintain a conversation about drains for two hours at a time, I can rest assured that if I can shift the topic to something he is interested about then we can engage. Then I can direct the conversation and tease it around to the problem at hand. Patience is essential.
Change mood through exercise
The literature on the relationship between mood and exercise is extensive. If you can get the blood moving then endorphins will fire, and a euphoric feeling, sometimes called a “runners high”, can change your mood. Nowhere is this more true in children who have fewer filters and access to a more immediate response to endorphins.
You probably aren’t going to get your child to go for a run when they are really angry. Try instead for small gains; keep them walking around after you, even if that means a trip around the entire house four or five times. Chances are they’re so keen to yell at you that they’ll come without even knowing what they are doing. It’s a dirty trick, but it works.
Sometimes simple things like tickling work. It’s hard to be angry if someone is tickling you, but be sure that they aren’t so angry that you’ll just make it worse. Get down on the floor with them, wrestle, tickle and just turn a tantrum into fun. Sometimes they’re really just bored and a little physical engagement can do the trick.
Change the Scene
We’ve touched on the fact that some anger is a product of boredom, and one of the best antidotes to boredom is a change of scenery. Walk outside. Don’t ask them to come and they probably will anyway because they are bored. Sit down on the grass and start picking daffodils. Pass them carefully over and ask them to pick the petals off and place them in a pile. If they ignore you – fine.
Changing the scene is almost never something you want to ask the child about. Just do it, and you’ll ignore a load of negativity and pointless banter.
It’s important not to treat changing the scene as a reward for bad behavior. Do not take your child to the lego store because he had a tantrum. Instead have yourself or your husband make paper airplanes with him and try to get them all in the fireplace. Start a christmas list. The options really are endless in the modern day and age.
Don’t think that there’s a different, better child ‘hiding’ behind the autism. This is your child. Love the child in front of you. Encourage his strengths, celebrate his quirks, and improve his weaknesses, the way you would with any child. You may have to work harder on some of this, but that’s the goal. – Claire Scovell LaZebnik
Featured photo credit: Jonathon Kos Read via media.lifehack.org