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Avoiding Power Struggles

Editor’s Note – This week’s article is provided by Amy Hobbs, Training Coordinator, for the Autism Society of North Carolina. Amy works out of the ASNC Asheville office and can be reached via email at ahobbs@autismsociety-nc.org or via phone at 828-236-1547.

Despite the welcomed summer break, after a few weeks without the structure of school many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) begin to get restless. Too much unstructured time can result in kids spending endless hours on the internet, watching movies, playing video games, or engaging in other favorite activities. This in turn can cause them to have a more difficult time and sometimes a struggle leaving or ending those activities to do other necessary things like chores, exercise, hygiene, outings, etc. Creating consistent routines, making plans, giving choices, using visuals and maintaining a positive attitude with individuals with (ASD) are important strategies that help avoid these types of power struggles.

Developing consistent summer routines can help individuals with autism complete daily chores as well as understand and accept new activities and demands. Start by creating a daily routine that stays the same as much as possible Monday through Friday. Keep roughly the same schedule on Saturdays and Sundays as during the school year. Within the M-F routine, establish set times for chores, hygiene, meals, exercise, work, skill maintenance, social opportunities and preferred activities. Whenever possible, include the individual with ASD in making choices within the schedule and be sure there is consistency with the times and activities that are planned. To incorporate new or different things there can be a time each day for “something new”. The individual can choose whether to try a new game, outing, food, exercise, park, etc. The favorite activities can certainly be a part of the day too. By scheduling them after other mandatory chores have been completed and for specific amounts of time with a clear ending time (like 4:00 or when the bell rings for example) will help with the transition away from the activity.

Remember that “seeing is believing” and making it visual helps the individual with ASD better understand and accept the expectations. Creating a chore chart is one way to give a visual representation and structure to completing chores. The chart could have 4 or so chores that need to be completed every day, 4 or so that need to be completed twice a week, and some on Saturday. The individual can choose the order in which they do specific chores for each day, the times that they do them, what days they do them, etc. Giving choices increases the individual’s sense of autonomy and control as well as their motivation for completion or follow through.

Having a “break time or nap time” after lunch can provide an individual with autism a much-needed respite in his/her room or another calm area of the house with low stimulation. Particularly with the heat that we are experiencing this summer, remember to encourage individuals to drink lots of water and plan activities that help them stay cool. Some ideas to consider are a community pool, a backyard pool or sprinkler, a mountain stream, air-conditioned library or book stores and walking at the mall. Another idea is to take a cool leisure bath during the day for an individual who likes water. You might add some bubble bath, low lighting or soft music depending on the person’s preferences.

The more thought out the plan, the better when it comes to avoiding power struggles. First, it’s important to make sure that the individual with autism understands the plan. Typically, using visual supports (whether written, pictures, or objects) can help ensure that the expectations are clear. Next consider how much of a notice the individual needs before introducing a new activity, vacation, trip, change in schedule, etc. The amount of time needed for processing a change or new plan varies a lot between individuals. Some do better if they know pretty far in advance so they have time to adjust to the idea whereas others will only become anxious and obsessive if given too much of a heads up.

Anticipate what may be hard about this new activity and think of what you can do to make it easier. For example, keep some favorite items like stress balls, dinosaurs, cars, music box, slinky, bubbles, and other soothing items close at hand in your back pack and bring them out when needed to help distract, redirect or calm.

If you are experiencing a recurring power struggle and you respond in the same manner each time, it is most likely time to change your response to the behavior. The power struggle has become a routine and it will be up to you to change it. Keep in mind that if the function of the behavior is to gain attention, it might be that even negative attention such as arguing may be rewarding. Think of an alternative response that will redirect the individual to another topic or another activity. If there are certain topics or situations that bring on power struggles, try to steer away from them.

Remember that the challenging behavior is most likely a result of the individual’s autism and it’s important to maintain a calm and clear response. People with ASD have difficulty communicating and understanding social interactions. They also have difficulties with self-regulation and can become overstimulated easily by factors in the environment that we may not even be aware of. Our job as parents, professionals or friends is to support them by keeping a positive attitude.

By thinking ahead and making a structured plan for the upcoming days left in the summer, you can prevent many challenging behaviors from occurring.

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