Coping with Behavioral Problems in a Child with Asperger's Syndrome
Children with Asperger's Syndrome nearly always exhibit behavior problems, but it's not a symptom that the experts talk about a lot. Instead, the focus is more on the child's social issues, obsessive interests, and their lack of flexibility. But as a parent, the behavioral issues may be the most challenging aspect of Asperger's Syndrome. Before my son was diagnosed at age 8, his behavior was baffling and exasperating to me. The traditional methods of discipline didn't work on him, even though they worked just fine with my older son. For years I thought that I was doing something wrong, or worse, that my son was simply a bad person. When we got the diagnosis and I started to learn more about Apserger's, everything changed. Below are some things that worked for us.
Seek First to Understand
After my son was diagnosed with Aspergers, I read everything I could get my hands on about his condition. I read books, scoured the Internet, and talked to doctors and psychologists. For the first time, I felt like I understood why he acted the way he did. Instead of assuming that my son was just giving me a hard time or being stubborn, I started to look at his tantrums and behavioral problems differently. I began to ask myself, 'why is he upset?' or 'why did he do that?' What I realized was that nearly all of his behaviors were driven by extreme fear and anxiety.
For example, I got a call from his school shortly after his diagnosis. They told me that he had 'stabbed' another child in the stomach with a marker during a math game. I absolutely don't condone this type of behavior and I made that clear to the school and to my son. But I also asked my son and his teacher what had led up to the incident. I found out that he had been partnered with another child and that he was having trouble solving the math problems. The other child was laughing at his frustration. My son asked him to stop but he didn't. That's when he stabbed the other child with the pen. My son had anxiety about performing during the math game. He has high expectations of himself and wasn't able to realize them.
Now that I knew why he had acted that way, it was easier to talk through why this isn't an appropriate reaction and to arm him with alternative behaviors such as telling a teacher he doesn't understand the math or that the other child is laughing at him. In the past I would have been a harsh disciplinarian, perhaps taking away his favorite toys for a day or two, without even trying to understand what happened. Now, I was able to make it clear that the behavior was wrong but to discuss what he could have done differently. Over time, my son realized that I was on his side and he became more apt to listen to me and to work on his behavior problems.
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Children with Asperger's Syndrome thrive on routine. In order to reduce anxiety, it's imperative to establish a predictable daily schedule and to preview any upcoming changes to that schedule. I found with my son that unexpected changes to his routine often triggered a meltdown. I asked his teachers to let him and I know ahead of time when there would be a substitute teacher or other changes to the normal school day. I also started to provide advance warning before transitions. For example, if I know that my son will need to start his homework within the hour, I'll let him know about an hour before and then periodically after that so it's not a complete surprise to him when the time comes to get to work. I also tell him ahead of time about planned social functions and talk to him about what to expect. This has been very helpful to him.
Use Positive Reinforcement
Once I established myself with my son as a person who understands him and provided transitional warnings, things got easier. He still had behavior problems but now I was able to talk to him about the underlying issues. I told him that lots of people have anxiety and I helped him realize that some of his fears weren't rational. Gradually, over time, he let these fears go.
The next step was to develop a program to encourage positive behaviors. My son needed this encouragement to learn to complete his homework independently, to help around the house, to learn to be more flexible, and to spend more time with friends. With the help of wrap-around services, I implemented a reward system using a small jar and dried beans. I coordinated it with the behavior chart he has at school so for every ten points on his school chart, he receives one bean in the jar. He also receives beans for cleaning up after himself, completing his homework, being flexible, and attending social functions. At the end of the week, if he accumulates enough beans to meet his goal, he gets $5. He's motivated by money so this works very well for him.
Behavior problems in children with Asperger's Syndrome are often driven by fear and anxiety. Seeking to understand the root cause of the behavior rather than simply doling out punishment, is the key to changing it. The child needs to be taught replacement behaviors and these can only be taught if you understand what's driving the issue in the first place. Once you're established as a problem solver in the eyes of your child, you can implement more formal programs to encourage positive behaviors. This has worked extremely well for my son. He no longer has long temper tantrums and is much more likely to try to please the adults around him.