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A New Year, A New Approach to Challenging Behaviors


Editor’s Note – The following post was written by Louise Buchholz Southern, M.Ed., BCBA, Training Specialist for the Autism Society of North Carolina (ASNC).

As professionals working in the field of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) intervention and as parents of individuals with ASD, it’s likely that we have all experienced challenging and persistent behaviors. These behaviors come in many forms including aggression, property destruction, non-compliance, and self-injurious behavior, to name a few. When we experience these behaviors in an individual with ASD, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, “What is the individual trying to communicate with this behavior?” What want, need, confusion, or fear is the individual trying to express? As one individual with ASD stated, “You can’t not communicate. Everything you say and do or don’t say and don’t do sends a message to others.”

Some behaviors take us by surprise, and seem to appear without any cause. However, if we operate under the assumption that there is always a reason for the behavior, we are more likely to take the action necessary to change behavior. Changing someone else’s behavior always requires a change in our own behavior first. So as the New Year begins and as we continue to face challenging behaviors, let’s assume that behavior is always meaningful and let’s ask ourselves these questions:

  • Does the individual have a way to communicate his/her wants, needs, and choices all of the time and across contexts? In order to teach an individual the power of communication, we cannot compartmentalize their communication to certain parts of the day or to certain locations (e.g. only when the instructor directs the individual to a choice board that is affixed to the wall).
  • Even if the individual is “verbal,” does s/he functionally communicate? For example, some individuals script from TV shows, or they repeat back what they hear rather than responding. Some individuals are nonresponsive to anyone other than people with whom they are very familiar. Some individuals use language that does not seem to make sense given the context. Some individuals label everything, but don’t use language to express wants or needs, or to respond to questions and statements. In all of these examples, while the individual is “verbal,” we need to explicitly teach and reinforce functional communication.
  • Note: ASNC’s Training Department is preparing to launch a functional communication training workshop this spring. In addition, the Autism Internet Modules website http://www.autisminternetmodules.org offers a range of free trainings on evidence-based practices such as functional communication training and the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).
  • Have we identified a behavior that we can teach and reinforce to replace the behavior that we don’t want to see?
  • Are we effectively reinforcing those behaviors that we want to see? Are we applying consequences that are actually reinforcing /motivating to the individual? Are we reinforcing the appropriate behavior consistently, and are we making sure that the individual understands the connection between behavior and consequence (reinforcer)? Are we attending to (and reinforcing) those behaviors that we want to increase significantly MORE than we are attending to those behaviors that we want to reduce? Are we missing opportunities to reinforce the individual when s/he is doing what is expected?
  • Are we delivering instructions/information in a way that the individual with ASD can understand?
  • Are we visually structuring academic, leisure, and work activities so that the individual understands what to do, how much to do, when finished, and what next? Many individuals with ASD experience significant anxiety and frustration when they don’t understand the expectations, the “rules” of the game, or when the activity will be finished.
  • Has there been a change to the routine or has something unexpected occurred? How can we better prepare the individual for these inevitable events?
  • Does the individual have a strategy in place to regulate his/ her sensory needs? What self-calming activities do we need to explicitly teach? How does the individual indicate that he needs a break?

For more information about support services available to individuals, families and professionals through the ASNC Training Department contact Louise via email at lsouthern@autismsociety-nc.org.

For titles related to challenging behavior please visit the Autism Society of North Carolina Bookstore located at www.autismbookstore.com.

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