3 Ways to Improve the Behavior of Kids With Autism

Hitting or biting can take the place of using words to express needs and wants, particularly for children with autism. Here, two experts from A&C Behavioral Solutions in Livonia offer advice for improving behaviors.

“I want candy.”

“I don’t want to wear my socks.”

It’s easy for typically developing children to use words to express needs and wants. But for children on the autism spectrum, who are often nonverbal, getting their point across is a lot more complicated – and can result in some bad behavior.

“We really believe that behavior is a form of communication,” says Lauren Miller, the director of clinical services at A&C Behavioral Solutions, LLC located in Livonia. “A child that should typically have 200 words isn’t speaking or they are only saying a few words – but it’s not to ask what they want or things like that.”

For example, a child who wants candy but cannot say “candy” might hit mom or dad to get what he wants.

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It can be frustrating for families, but there are ways to help. That’s where the team at A&C Behavioral Solutions comes in – to provide applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy to kids with autism to improve a number of behaviors, including hitting, biting, head butting and elopement (or running away from situations).

Understanding barriers

In order to determine what a child is communicating with a certain behavior, the team conducts an assessment.

“We determine where a child’s skills are, but we also determine something that we call ‘barriers,'” Miller says, which are things that hinder a child’s ability to learn a behavior.

It’s important to tackle these behavioral issues early, because children who don’t have the skills to manage behaviors won’t successfully navigate a classroom setting.

“Behaviors can obviously create barriers for their progress in schools,” Miller says. “A lot of schools are not equipped to have either the staffing or the education behind how to manage these behaviors properly, so it really will hold them back socially, because they don’t get as much access to their typically developing peers.”

That’s why the team at A&C Behavioral Solutions is dedicated to working with children with autism – and their families.

Collaborating with families

Parent involvement – and training – is key, says Kelly O’Neill, assistant clinical director at A&C Behavioral Solutions.

“We help the families through weekly parent meetings, where we do a lot of consultations with the parents that will help with understanding what we do here, how to transfer it to home, working in the community and sibling and social interactions,” O’Neill says.

Parent training looks different for every family, because each family has a different understanding of autism and has children at different ages.

“Parent training is really to focus on, first of all, what the parent goals are,” Miller says. “It’s really important for us to establish exactly what the parents are looking for, and usually those things are communication and feeding, toileting, that kind of stuff.”

They break down exactly what the behavior looks like in each setting – whether it’s school, home or the clinic. From there, the team gives parents strategies to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Tips for improving behavior

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to therapy, there are some things parents can do to help their child improve his or her behavior. Here are three tips.

1. Catch appropriate behavior. “Look for when your child is engaging in appropriate behavior,” O’Neill says. “A lot of times it is really easy for parents to only give that negative attention or attention when the child is doing something wrong or something dangerous.”

Instead, seek out appropriate positive times to interact with your child and reinforce what they are doing well. For example, if your child is playing quietly in the corner, acknowledge his behavior – and, at the same time, O’Neill says, “jump in and push those skills a bit.

“Gain eye contact, praise them for the skills they are doing in a moment rather than waiting for them to throw a toy across the room and yelling at them for doing that.”

2. Offer rewards. Rewards, or positive reinforcement, are different for each child depending on his or her area of interest. For some, that might be a sticker of a favorite character; for others, it could be a chance to play a video game.

“If we know that they are only saying words once or twice per day, and they want the iPad, then we’re going to give them the iPad,” Miller says.

3. Stick to routines. If mom does it one way and grandma does it another, the child won’t progress as quickly. That’s why consistency is key. “Routine is super important across all their environments,” as O’Neill puts it.

Make sure everyone in the child’s life is teaching an appropriate alternative behavior and that there is consistency in every aspect of the child’s life.

“If a child was communicating something in one way and now you’re requiring them to do it a different way, you will sometimes see those behaviors you previously saw,” Miller says, “and they might get a little bit worse before they get better.”

For example, if you have a child who is hitting instead of using words, the hitting might increase for a bit of time. But if you’re able to maintain consistency, you can see behavior changes in days or weeks, in some cases.

“Some things take months and years, but it depends on how long that child has had that behavior happening,” Miller says.

During the process, O’Neill adds, be sure to celebrate successes. “It’s important for parents to think about ABA in that light – and sending their children to a place that values every bit of progress.”

Brought to you by A&C Behavioral Solutions, LLC. For more information, visit developingchildhoods.com.

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