Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2006

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Behavior Is Communication--Yours, Mine, and Ours

By Ellen Notbohm

Behavior is probably the most discussed, debated, and perhaps misunderstood issue within autism. It's the concern that has launched thousands of parent-teacher meetings and as many medical and therapy consultations. And yet behavior is a greatly weakened enemy once we accept a simple truth: Behavior never comes out of nowhere. There is always an underlying trigger, an unmet need.

Once we identify a behavior trigger, we are three-quarters of the way to disabling it. Yes, it requires that we invest time and effort in sleuth work. But upfront investment of time and effort spent on behavior prevention pales compared with the draining, unproductive alternative of having to react over and over again to the same preventable behavior.

Relatively simple tools exist that make this job far less daunting than it seems. But first, a prerequisite for using these tools: In trying to pinpoint underlying reasons for a child's behavior, we must first acknowledge that our own behavior is information we impart to the child about his or her environment. We can't question what the child's behavior is telling us without also questioning what our behavior is telling the child.

Be no less gentle in your efforts to change your student's or child's behavior than you would reasonably expect of yourself. It strikes me as sheer lunacy how much we expect of children in the area of behavior modification when we as adults find it so difficult to accomplish ourselves. Every New Year, out come the same tired old behavior-modification resolutions: lose weight, stop smoking, spend less money, exercise more. By the end of January, it's usually all over but the shouting. What real right do we have to expect greater inner fortitude of a child living with perpetual neurological challenge than we are able to muster ourselves?

We set ourselves up for failure, because three or four New Year's resolutions are too many. It's so demoralizing to swallow the fact that we didn't keep any of those resolutions, didn't manage to change our behavior. How much better it would be to pick one battle at a time, to experience incremental success before moving on to the next battle? You are not a "fixer-upper" project, and neither is your student.

This may be the first article you've read that focuses not just on the child's behavior, but in equal part on adult behavior and the role it plays in the equation. Let's take a big-picture look at some factors that can influence behavior in the educational setting. And who better to explain his own behavior, and tell us how he perceives ours, than our child himself?

Look for sensory issues first. Many of my resistant behaviors come from sensory discomfort. One example is fluorescent lighting--the hum it produces can be very disturbing to my hypersensitive hearing, and the pulsing nature of the light can distort my visual perception, making objects in the room appear to be in constant movement.

Or maybe I need to sit closer to you. I may not understand what you're saying because there are too many noises "in between"--that lawnmower outside the window, classmates whispering, chairs scraping on the floor, the pencil sharpener grinding. Ask the school occupational therapist for sensory-friendly ideas for the classroom. It's actually good for all kids, not just me.

Provide me a sensory break to allow for self-regulation before I need it. A quiet, carpeted corner of the room with some pillows, books, and headphones allows me a place to go to regroup when I feel overwhelmed, but it isn't so far removed physically that I won't be able to rejoin the activity flow of the classroom smoothly. Or maybe I just need some movement--an errand to the office or a lap around the gym with my para-educator may be all it takes.

Keep a "behavior detective" log. Keep simple running notes about when and where my troubling behaviors occur. Include who's around at the time and what the activity is. Stop for a moment and try to become aware of the many sensory and social aspects of our surroundings. See. Hear. Feel. Smell. The things you may easily tune out may be the very things causing me discomfort, sometimes even pain. You will be amazed at how much this may reveal about the source of the behavior.

If you aren't getting through, try another way. My mom chuckled, then looked sad, when she read somewhere that the definition of insanity is always doing things the same way and expecting different results. If, despite your repeated efforts, my behavior isn't changing, maybe the behavior that needs to change is yours, not mine. You have no idea how bad it feels to know that adults think my behavior is willful, that I could change my reactions to my environment if I just wanted to badly enough. It isn't, and I can't. You haven't found the root behavior yet; please keep looking! When teaching isn't working, the burden is on the teacher to change the teaching.

Make sure your rewards are really rewards. Being rewarded for good behavior with treats I hate (ice cream hurts my teeth!) or toys I don't understand (I'm glad YOU like the Star Trek Monopoly game) will not inspire me to change my behavior. My interests are very specific, and what gets my attention may be quite the opposite of what all the other kids might want. If you want to know what rewards I find motivating, ask me. If I'm not able to tell you these things, be alert for other signs that indicate what interests and encourages me.

Be the change you want to see in me. Are you telling me to do one thing, yet modeling another yourself? Children with autism believe what we see long before we absorb what we hear. If you yell or ridicule when you are mad, we will too. If you are try to change self-stimulating "autistic" behaviors such as rocking, tapping, or twirling, you can't expect me to understand if you do it while smoking, chugging all those Cokes or lattes, cracking your knuckles, popping your gum, or jingling your keys. If you want me to learn to not interrupt and to pay attention to you when you talk, double-check to make sure you are giving me the same courtesy.

Choose one battle at a time. Multitasking does not work for kids with autism. And...

Distinguish between behaviors that are harmful and ones that are just annoying to you. Behaviors that affect my health or disrupt the classroom or home should be our first priority. Then please give some thought to other behaviors you find inappropriate or negative. I'm sorry it bothers you that I twirl my hair or the strap of my backpack, but of what real importance is it with all I am facing? Focus your one-thing-at-a-time efforts where they will have the greatest benefit. And while you're at it, remember what your attitude communicates to the rest of the class.

Don't make a bad situation worse. I know that even though you are a mature adult, you can sometimes make bad decisions in the heat of the moment. I truly don't mean to melt down, show anger, or otherwise disrupt your classroom. You can help me get over it more quickly by not responding with inflammatory behavior of your own. Beware of responses that can prolong rather than resolve a crisis:
  • Raising the pitch or volume of your voice. I hear the tone, but not the words.

  • Mocking or mimicking me. This will not embarrass me out of the behavior. It just teaches me that I can't trust you, and it also teaches class bullies new tricks to use on me when adults aren't within  earshot.

  • Making unsubstantiated accusations. If you don't have concrete proof that I did it, you're just guessing. What if you're wrong?

  • Invoking a double standard. Forcing me to obey a set of rules or expectations that are different than for those around me not only makes it harder for me socially, it squashes my self-esteem and dampens my classmates' willingness to work with me as a peer.

  • Comparing me or my efforts to that of a sibling or other student.

  • Bringing up previous or unrelated events.

  • Lumping me into a general category. ("Kids like you are all the same.")
If you do use one of these responses, you can still produce a positive result by modeling how a responsible, compassionate, and fully human and fallible person issues a sincere apology. I need to learn that everyone messes up sometimes, even you, and that even when the mistake looks huge, we can still make things right and move on.

Be careful what you ask of me, or you might get it. Although children with autism do need constant social cuing, if you indiscriminately encourage me to "be like the other children," you shouldn't be surprised if I swear, complain about homework and chores, cheat, bully, beg for treats, or do something even uglier.

Functional Behavior Analysis

So now we have the assignment: Behavior doesn't change without addressing the root cause. And now here, as promised, is the starter tool kit for addressing undesirable behavior.

This is literally the ABCs of behavior. It involves identifying the antecedent, or trigger, of the behavior; the behavior itself that we see the child display; and the consequence or result of his or her behavior. Functional behavior analysis can be anything from informal observation to detailed assessment. Either is best done with the involvement of a person trained in behavior analysis. An Internet search of functional behavior analysis quickly reveals several excellent websites with overviews and suggested data collection forms.

Sensory profile. Occupational therapists will be familiar with the sensory profile, developed by widely respected occupational therapist (OT) Winnie Dunn. Parents or caregivers respond to 125 questions regarding the frequency or intensity of their child's responses to a range of sensory experiences. The results are scored by an OT and can be invaluable in pinpointing environmental stimuli that may be contributing to the behavior.

Sensory map/sensory diet. With the information gained from the sensory profile, an OT can design a sensory map and "diet" for the child. The map charts the child's day, identifies where sensory problems are likely to occur, and provides intervention suggestions, or diet. The diet may need to include both calming and alerting activities. Disinterest and lethargy can be symptoms of sensory disorder just as much as hyperactivity.

Food journal. Foods can wreak all kinds of havoc with a child's behavior. Food allergies or sensitivities, low blood sugar, dehydration, vitamin deficiencies, absorption issues--the list of how foods can affect behavior is quite long. Detailed notes on what and when the child eats, alongside notes on when behaviors occur, can be very revealing.

Sleep journal. Parents need to document the child's sleep habits at home. Chronic sleep shortage is a veritable prescription for behavior problems.

A clear, fair, meaningful plan for consequences. Your student's autism maybe the cause of some of her behaviors, but it can never be the excuse. No one would suggest that a child with autism always be spared the natural consequences of her behavior, but the huge qualifier here is to be very clear in making the connection between the behavior and the consequence.

Eyes, ears, and heart. Behaviors rooted in emotional triggers can be the toughest to detect, because your student with autism will probably not be able to easily identify his or her emotions and may not understand that, for most people, feelings are a matter of degree.

A child experiences many things outside of our range of awareness--teasing, bullying, frustration, disappointment. All of these can erupt into behavior. So we really need to listen with our hearts, listening and looking in places we can't readily hear or see.

And most critically, the child with challenged social-emotional and language skills will not be able to communicate what is wrong. The ongoing involvement of a speech, art, or music therapist is key. Many children can express themselves through drawing, painting, sculpture, or song when conventional words are not possible.

© 2006 Ellen Notbohm. This article is adapted from her new book, Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew (2006, Future Horizons). Ellen Notbohm is also the author of the award-winning Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, coauthor of the award-winning 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and a regular columnist for Autism Asperger's Digest and Children's Voice. Your comments and requests for reprint permission are welcome; please visit

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