Improving Behavior of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Part 2

Parents and educators play important roles in helping children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) overcome educational and communication challenges. Last week, we shared how graphic symbols like pictures and line drawings, and gestures and signs can help children with autism spectrum disorder communicate more effectively while decreasing problem behaviors. This week we’ll put these communication methods into practice with helpful intervention strategies for parents and educators to use when working through problem behaviors and building communication skills.

Improving Behavior with a Cluster of Intervention Strategies

Teaching children communicative alternatives to challenging behavior will help them adopt more socially acceptable behavior and become better communicators. The first step is to identify which intervention strategy is best suited to the child (which may not be the same for every situation). Three groups of intervention strategies that can be used together include: communicative alternatives (see previous post), antecedent-focused strategies to enhance self-regulation, and consequences for both desired and challenging behavior.

Stop Problem Behavior Before it Starts

  • Antecedent-focused intervention strategies are used in situations where it is highly likely for challenging behavior to occur. These strategies are implemented before the child finds it necessary to engage in challenging behavior.

For example, when your child visits the dentist it may be helpful to minimize challenging behavior (i.e. fussing) by creating a picture schedule showing the dentist and “break time.” Show the child a picture of the dentist to let them know the dentist is working. At the same time, a timer could be set for a small amount of time. When the timer sounds, the child receives a brief break to watch a cartoon snippet on a cell phone while the dentist attends to a different patient. When the dentist returns, show the scheduled symbol of the dentist again. This process is repeated with the “dental time” increasing as the child successfully cooperates.

This brief example uses two antecedent focused strategies:

  1. Schedule. The schedule in this example was a chronological ordering of pictures representing what happens at the dentist. Using the pictures allows the child to know what’s going to happen. Additionally, if activities alternate across what the child likes and doesn’t like, the schedule will allow the child to engage in more challenging activities without fussing.
  2. Signaled delay strategy also lets a child know ahead of time what is going to occur and lets the child know the magnitude of work to be completed before taking a break. This concept can be illustrated by a common situation that many of us have encountered.  Suppose that you’re driving to a new location, the GPS dies and you know you’re going to be late. But then you see a sign that the street you’re looking for is coming up in one mile. The sign serves as a signal that if you “hang on” for a brief period of time, your anxiety will dissipate because you are about to arrive at your destination.

Similarly, for some preschoolers putting a puzzle together may be so challenging that the learner purposely throws it in order to end the activity. Begin with an amount of time for the puzzle that typically occurs prior to throwing. Signal that amount of time or engagement when the activity begins by saying, “Just do three puzzle pieces after I put in the first five.” Then, provide a break for the child. This way, the child can be rewarded for desired behavior – rather than the interventionist having to address problem behavior. Across successful puzzle activities, the number of puzzle pieces to be assembled prior to a break increases.

Reinforce Good Behavior; Don’t Reinforce Bad Behavior

  • Consequence strategy reinforces highly desired behavior that does not involve challenging behavior and does not reward challenging behavior.

For instance, when your family dog wants attention, it jumps on you and barks, which is not desirable. If you don’t respond, the dog learns that jumping up is not effective to get attention. However, it’s important to remember that when you first ignore undesirable behavior its magnitude may increase for a period of time (this is called an extinction burst). With some challenging behaviors, extinction cannot be used (i.e. physical aggression, self-injury). Eliminating the source of reward for the challenging behavior and at the same time rewarding desirable behavior can be an effective intervention strategy. In our example, play with your dog when he is behaving well. By doing these two things, the dog will more quickly learn what behaviors are successful in getting attention and which ones are ineffective.

With children, parents often wait until a child screams when they want something before prompting the child to use nice words. In this situation, when the child does politely make a request, it is likely that a chain of behavior (screaming followed by a polite request after prompting) will be established. Although the desired communicative behavior will be established, the challenging behavior will likely also continue. To avoid repetitive challenging behaviors, the parent should not reinforce it by giving the child what he wants. Instead, wait for the screaming to subside before prompting the desired communicative alternatives and reinforcing them.

The example provided above is fairly common. Often, parents and educators wait until problem behaviors occur before implementing an intervention strategy. Our example above combines a consequence (for the challenging behavior) with positive reinforcement. This combined approach produces the desired communicative behavior without the challenging behavior.

Stay Consistent and Be Patient

It is best to consider intervention strategies (communicative alternatives, antecedent-focused interventions and consequence strategies) as early as possible, before problem behavior starts. Consistency is a critical component for these intervention strategies to be effective. Consequently in home and school settings, it is important that as many people as possible are consistent with how and when intervention strategies are implemented. It’s also important to stick with a strategy once one is established. Often, people change strategies when they don’t see immediate results, which can be confusing for the child. It is more effective to stay consistent and try to be patient.

Because children with autism spectrum disorder have varying levels of disability and wide ranges of characteristics, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to helping them adopt more socially acceptable behavior and communication skills. By creating a customized package of strategies and tools that each child best responds to, parents and educators can significantly help children with autism spectrum disorder improve learning and become more effective communicators.

–Joe Reichle, Educational Psychology
University of Minnesota
College of Education and Human Development and College of Liberal Arts

Joe Reichle

About the Author

Joe Reichle, Ph.D.

  • Educational Psychology
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, College of Liberal Arts
  • University of Minnesota

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