- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Avoiding behavior problems in autistic children
Many behavior problems can be avoided by implementing structure into the child's life. Children with autism thrive on a routine even more than most children. They often have a hard time remembering orders of events and feel lost and confused if they do not have a schedule to follow. Structure provides them with emotional stability and gives them confidence in knowing what will happen next. This helps them transition from activity to the next, helping avoid meltdowns.
Many behavior problems with autism are based in the inability to properly communicate. Some children are unable to speak, causing them to rely on sign language, picture systems, mime or the care giver's ability to figure out what it is they want. This can lead to extreme frustration, causing the child to act out. Other children on the higher end of the spectrum can speak just fine, but lack the ability of understanding how to use language to effectively communicate their needs. For example, they may be irritated that they were given a red jacket instead of a blue one, and not understand how to verbalize this frustration in a way the caregiver will understand. While stating "I don't want the red jacket" or "I want the red jacket" seems pretty simple for adults or typical children, those words may not come so easily to a child with autism. This frustration may cause the child to meltdown in one form or another. Helping the child learn how to communicate relieves the stress of not expressing herself, easing behavior problems such as tantrums, self-injury, destroying property or lashing out at someone else.
Many children have dietary problems that can contribute to their behavior problems. It's common for children with autism to have problems processing gluten or casein. Although science does not support these findings, many parents have found that removing gluten and casein from their children's diet improved many issues, with behavior problems being at the top of the list. Casein is found in milk, meat, fast food and baked treats and processed foods. Gluten is found in products such as grains, baked snacks, pasta, meat or cereal. Because these foods make up a considerable amount of the diet for most kids, it's easy to see why diet can drastically affect a child on the autism spectrum.
These changes may not help every child because each child is an individual that does not respond to stimuli exactly the same as his peers. Some children don't appear to be affected at all by gluten or casein, but may have sensitivities to preservatives or food coloring. Regardless of scientific studies, making simple diet changes may help the child even if it is just removing unhealthy, sugary foods.
Problems with processing sensory stimulation is a root factor with many behavior problems. The brain misreads information gathered from the senses and tells the child he is in physical danger if he touches a certain fabric or eats a certain texture of food. He may develop a phobia of wearing socks or being around loud noises. Some of things may actually hurt the child, or at least that's what the brain is telling him. Working through sensory issues is one way to avoid behavior problems. Teaching the child that the world won't hurt him through continuous exposure to the things he's the most afraid of helps desensitize him by helping the brain learn to properly process information. This is accomplished through sensory integration therapy, physical and occupational therapy. It is presented as a play session, gradually exposing the child to things that scare him a little at a time, building up his tolerance.
There are many types of social therapies that are often worked into the therapies mentioned above. Social therapy teaches a child how to read social cues and respond appropriately. It teaches the child dialogue to use to express needs or desires and how to share. She may learn whether someone is joking or not. She learns how to deal with her anger or frustration in ways that are socially acceptable without causing damage or injury to herself or others. The child learns how to be with other people without being fearful or self-conscious. Even if a child never enjoys being with other people, learning that they are not in danger and how to be around other people will help relieve the child's anxieties and decrease behavior problems.
Sometimes, despite the parent trying all of these techniques, the child still struggles with behavior problems that may escalate as the child gets older and enters puberty. When nothing else is working, many parents find themselves resorting to medications to help calm the child's behavior. Some children find relief from selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-psychotic prescriptions or medications that help stabilize the child's moods. However, sometimes these medications may make the problems worse or create negative side effects. Therefore, this is a choice to carefully consider with the advice from a physician specialized in autism.
While not all behavior problems can be avoided, reducing the ones that be helped by working with the child makes life much easier for everyone involved. Due to problems processing social cues, sensory stimulation and language, life for a child with autism can be extremely frustrating. This often results in problem behaviors that may not always be intentional.