Managing challenging behaviour in autistic children.
What is Autism?
Children whose behaviour is considered difficult or challenging may also display autistic tendencies. Autism is defined by a triad of impairments in social, emotional and cognitive development, and is generally understood to be wide ranging in its presentation. The autistic spectrum is generally called to mind when a child is displaying each of these characteristics:
- Impairments in or unusual development of social understanding.
- Impairments in or unusual development of communication.
- Rigidity of thought and action.
What this means in reality is that the child will often display a total disregard of others, be aloof, active but seemingly odd, and be visibly uncomfortable in the presence of other people. People are generally experienced by autistic children as objects that may be used to gain access to needs; so an autistic child may, for instance, take another persons hand and raise it above their head so to encourage them to reach something beyond their own grasp. The lack of verbal communication, the refusal to speak, is symptomatic of the autistic child's impairments. Further examples of communication difficulties would be suggested by the child bombarding another person with inappropriate language, repeating back what they have heard, (a behaviour clinically known as echolalia,) and the adoption of language from movies, cartoons and advertisements. Cognitively the child may also show a lack of imagination, and be obsessive about maintaining a routine. Their inability to process abstract concepts and their tendency to interpret things literally makes the learning environment a particularly difficult place for them to be.
Strategies for coping with Autism
Many strategies can be employed when attempting to manage an autistic child's development. As the disorder is recognised as a spectrum of behaviours from mild to severe the success of each technique will vary depending on the degree of autism the child displays. One basic strategy is to engage the child in social games that encourage appropriate eye contact. By gradually introducing the child to group activities and by encouraging sharing you may begin the process of improving the child's understanding of others. In school settings photographs are an excellent way to emphasise the relationship between people and so registers and group time can be organised by visual cues. Group time is also an excellent way to emphasise communication. Music and singing, and games which demand a response are also excellent ways to try to break through the carapace of autistic behaviour.
Supporting a child in school is perhaps one of the most important aspects of their care and development. Educators should be aware of the child's needs and prepare a number of clearly defined areas within the classroom that the child can access for different activities. An area for relaxation and calming down is most important of all. Such a compartmentalising of the space will enable the child to focus better and will provide comfort, especially if the child likes structure. Good use of symbols, visual cues, and reference objects are also useful ways to improve involvement and understanding. The avoidance of anxiety, such as discouraging any dramatic change of routine, will benefit those children whose learning would otherwise be disrupted.
The National Autistic Society suggest a number of simple guidelines based on three assumptions about challenging behaviour.
- There is a significant learned component in most forms of challenging behaviour and what has been learned may be "unlearned." Challenging behaviour may take many forms and autism does not reduce this fact; the type of behaviour an autistic child demonstrates will likely be the result of their environment and can be reshaped by the influence of other people.
- Challenging behaviour almost always means something. Whether the behaviour is habitual, a learnt behaviour with a particular outcome attached, or a reaction to an emotional state, it is always more helpful to believe in a root cause than to dismiss the behaviour as nonsensical.
- Understanding the behaviour as a code, and then attempting to decipher the code, improves the chances of developing a communication which could help change the situation.
The key to addressing challenging behaviour is therefore good observations, improving communication, planning for change and promoting new behaviours. The task is never an easy one but, with dedication and a real commitment to the child, it is possible to improve an autistic child's life chances even if it is not possible to cure their autism.