Some Simple Strategies to Help You Go to the Park with Your Child with Autism

Many parents of children with autism run into barriers when taking their children out into the community. The park is one place where children typically enjoy their freedom and thrive, which can be a nice relief for many parents. Although, for parents of children with autism, this can be a stressful situation for many reasons. Children with autism may not have the social skills to play with other children and they may not interact in ways that are socially appropriate. Many children with autism also engage in observable self-stimulatory behaviors that may seem awkward to uninformed people. Other children may have difficulties with transitions and therefore, leaving the park is always a struggle for the parent of a child with autism, more so than that of a parent of a typically developing child.

Nevertheless, there are some strategies for parents of children with autism to practice to help relieve some of these stressors and make the park a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

First, if your child is not interested in other children but rather enjoys playing on or around the apparatus, be present if other children are around. Always be within a close distance so that any pushing or bumping can be easily and quickly dealt with. Attempt to block your child from running away and assist him with saying “sorry” or “hi” to the other child. Allow your child to leave and in a friendly manner, engage in a simple conversation with the other child such as “are you having fun at the park today?!” This way, the experience ends on a positive note instead of the memory of your child engaging in an aggressive behavior towards the other child.

Consider sparking interest in your child for other people, activities, toys, and conversations by pointing  these out in his or her environment: “Wow, those kids are going down the slide really fast, that looks fun!” or “That boy has a really cool race car, maybe you can ask to see it?” These are minimally intrusive ways to promote engagement with surrounding people, objects, and activities. With repeated exposure and positive interactions with people and activities at the park, your child’s positive engagement at the park may be reinforced over time. In other words, it may get stronger, more frequent, and trips to the park can turn into something he looks forward to.

Second, if your child engages in many self-stimulatory behaviors and they are difficult to avoid at parks, go to parks during less crowded times so you can allow your child to have fun without having to always remind him about keeping his “hands down”. If you can only go during highly crowded times, be sure to be present with your child, prompting him to engage in appropriate activities at the park such as monkey bars, swings, and slides to decrease the chances of him engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors. Keep your child “busy” with these alternative, appropriate behaviors so that engaging in undesirable or self-stimulatory behaviors becomes incompatible. It is difficult for a child to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors when he or she is having fun climbing a monkey bar, going down a slide, or playing with shovels and buckets in the sand.

Last, if transitions are difficult, let your child know from the time of arrival how much time he or she will have at the park. Have a visual countdown (e.g., boxes that are crossed off every 5 minutes) until it is time to leave. If your child prefers electronics and timers, start a timer on a phone or electronic device instead. Provide reminders when time is almost up, so your child is not “surprised” when it is time to transition. When time is up, it helps to have something positive that your child can look forward to after the park (e.g., frozen yogurt, pick up brother, dinner, or treat in the car).

We hope that these strategies may help relieve some of the stress associated with going to parks and both you and your child can enjoy and have fun!

What should you do IN RESPONSE to your child engaging in challenging behavior?

Remember those four reasons why people may engage in challenging behaviors discussed in the previous post?  People may want attention from other people, may want something, may want to get out of something, or may enjoy how the behavior feels.  If you haven’t already read it, we suggest reading the prior post so the information below is as useful as possible.

This post will focus on reactive strategies, based on the reason your child is engaging in the particular challenging behavior.  In other words, what should you do in response to your child engaging in the behavior?  This is probably the most stressful for parents as they may wonder if what they are doing is right.  They may wonder if they are hindering or helping their child.  Hopefully we can provide some guidance.

If your child engages in a particular challenging behavior to get something that he/she wants, it is important for him to learn that his behaviors do not lead to getting what he/she wants.  You should avoid giving them what they want when engaging in the problem behavior, and even after the behavior ends.  The child should only be allowed to get what they want if he engages in a more appropriate behavior, which we will discuss in a future post. This can be difficult for parents as giving the child what they want quiets them down and relieves much of the stress in the home or community setting.  The problem is that your child will learn this connection and continue to engage in this behavior in the future when they want to same thing. It will become a repeated cycle.

If your child engages in a particular challenging behavior to get out of something, such as homework or eating dinner, it is important to not allow him to get out of the situation until they engage in a more appropriate behavior.  If the child hits and screams while doing homework, it is important to follow through, require them to complete a few more problems without hitting and screaming, and then they can leave.  More appropriate behaviors to get out of doing things they don’t want to do will be discussed in future posts.

If your child engages in a particular challenging behavior to get attention, you should avoid providing attention to them until the behavior is not occurring or he engages in a more appropriate behavior to get your attention.  Providing attention only teaches them that this bad behavior leads to what they want.  This connection needs to be disconnected and the child needs to be taught more appropriate ways to get attention.

Last, if your child engages in some challenging behavior because it feels good, such as head banging, it is important to block this behavior so that this particular behavior does not provide the sensory satisfaction that your child is receiving (in addition to preventing them from doing harm to themselves).  You can physically block the behavior or there are many devices created for this purpose.

Stay tuned for a future post providing suggestions for what to teach your child to do instead of engaging in the bad behaviors they currently know will get them what they want.  Just reacting how we have described above will not teach new, appropriate ways to get what they want.  Teaching a new, more appropriate behavior is the key to decreasing challenging behaviors.

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Teaching alternative behaviors to decrease or stop inappropriate challenging behaviors

Implementing a behavior intervention plan to decrease or stop a challenging behavior is one thing.  Teaching an alternative to the challenging behavior is another.  Imagine this: your child climbs on the kitchen counter to reach for a jar of cookies way up in a cabinet.  Can you implement a plan to decrease or eliminate the behavior of climbing on the counter?  Yes, but there is also a chance that your child will just learn another challenging behavior to get him the same result.  In practice, it is always best to teach and alternative behavior.  Teaching the alternative behavior, in a way, can make the “unlearning” of the challenging behavior much faster.

There are four reasons why children may engage in challenging behaviors: either to get something she or he wants (access), to get out of doing something they don’t want (escape), to get attention, or because the behavior itself feels good or pleases them (self-stimulatory/automatic).  The general theme that you will see throughout this article is that the alternative behavior that you should teach your child should still lead to your child getting what they want (i.e., one of the four reasons).

Let’s say your child screams and throws objects when they are done with their dinner.  Your child is trying to get out of something—the dinner table.  What might you teach your child to do instead of throwing and screaming?  You can possibly teach your child to “properly” communicate when they are done whether it be signing “all done” with their hands, saying “all done,” giving an “all done” laminated picture to an adult at the table, or some other mode of communication based on your child’s repertoire of skills.  At first, assist your child when you begin to see the signs of them being all done by guiding them through the physical movements of communicating (i.e., exchanging a picture or signing), or modeling the words they should use.  Gradually fade this assistance until they are doing it on their own, without engaging in the challenging behaviors.

The same strategies should be utilized for the other “functions” of behaviors, or when your child engages in challenging behaviors for other reasons.  When they want a cookie that is out of reach in the kitchen, teach your child to ask for the cookies using whatever mode of communication is appropriate for your child to replace the climbing on the counters.  It is important to give your child cookies every time they ask when they are first learning as this will be the key to decreasing the challenging behavior of climbing on the counter.  As your child gets used to this process, you can start giving him what he wants once in a while—this is a way to guarantee that the new behavior becomes stronger over time.

For attention-based challenging behaviors, one way to tackle this is to figure out what you think your child should be doing instead of the inappropriate behavior.  Of course, considering your child’s repertoire of skills first is important when figuring out what replacement behavior to teach.  Let’s say your child somehow finds the time you spend with him getting a “lecture” from you reinforcing, maybe one thing that you can do is stop or at least minimize the amount of time that you spend lecturing him and spend more time with him when he is behaving appropriately.  While doing that, also you can also do your best to spend more time with your child when he or she is behaving well (e.g., spending some time to play a favorite game, watching a favorite tv show, about talking about school/anything).

Lastly, when your child engages in challenging behaviors because it feels good, a little more thought has to be put into the alternative behavior.  It should be something that is not harmful and something, preferably, that you can control.  For example, if your child engages in repeating words/phrases or just vocalizing sounds that are not socially appropriate, allowing your child to engage in these behaviors in a particular environment (e.g., their bedroom) and teaching them to ask for “talking in my room” or something similar may help to gain control of where they may engage in this behavior.  When your child engages in this behavior anywhere else, he should be required to use the communication phrase and then go to the specified location.  Self-stimulatory behaviors can be very difficult to address on your own—more so if the behavior is also self-injurious in nature.

It will help you as a parent to practice on these concepts; however, should you continue having difficulties as to how to address you child’s most challenging behaviors, it is a good idea to reach out to a trained professional such as a BCBA as soon as possible.

What approach should caregivers take with challenging behaviors?

Managing challenging behaviors can be quite stressful.  Most of the time, parents just do what they can to get through the situation with as little fuss and fighting as possible.  Unfortunately, this often times involves strategies that may be counterproductive, increasing the chance of these behaviors occurring in the future.  If the goal is to decrease these behaviors in the long run, there are specific strategies to use based on why the behavior is occurring.  Not all behaviors should be treated the same.  These strategies that we will discuss below and in future posts may not always be the first strategy a parent would think of, we do recommend consultation with a behavior analyst who can provide a treatment plan and provide support for you and your family along the way.

In general, it is important to plan for a) alternative behaviors to teach your child to engage in instead of the behaviors they currently engage in during specific situations, as well as b) how to handle behaviors in the moment when they are occurring.  When planning for these strategies, it is crucial to always think about why your child is exhibiting the particular challenging behavior.  There are four reasons that people engage in maladaptive behaviors, to get something they want, to get attention from someone, to get out of a situation, and to get sensory feedback from the behavior itself.  We will briefly review these four reasons in this post.

Children often engage in maladaptive behaviors to get something they want.  For example, a child may want a cookie out of reach in the kitchen, so he screams in the kitchen, hitting his head until someone comes in the kitchen and offers what they can until he or she gets what they want.  The child learned that screaming and hitting his head is an effective way to get a cookie.

Children also engage in maladaptive behaviors to get attention from others.  Have you ever been talking with your partner and your child starts screaming or engaging in other bad behaviors?  This may be because he or she wants your attention, for you to pay attention.

A very common reason why children engage in challenging behaviors is to get out of things.  Imagine a child eating dinner and he starts throwing his food and hitting their caregiver.  The caregiver says, “okay, okay, all done,” and allows the child to leave.  The child learned that throwing and hitting is an effective way to get out of eating.

Lastly, children diagnosed with autism engage in challenging behaviors sometimes because they like how the challenging behavior feels.  Screaming, pinching their bodies, pulling their hair, banging their heads on hard surfaces are all behaviors that may serve some sensory need.  It is important to distinguish this from any of the other reasons previously discussed before determining how to react and what to teach instead.

Take some time to think about your child’s challenging behaviors and why he or she may be engaging in them.  Stay posted for future posts outlining strategies for how to react to these behaviors and what to teach your child instead, based on why they are engaging in the behavior.

What have been your specific challenges?

How To Make Long Car Rides More Manageable With Children With Autism

Taking a long car ride anytime soon?  It’s time to start planning how to keep your child busy and how to make the long drive as enjoyable as it can be.  Some children with autism may do really well on car rides as it provides them with time for them to do enjoyable things such as looking out the window and watching the trees and other cars go by.  Some may enjoy listening to the music in the car, or even sleeping throughout the trip!  Other children may not do so well and parents may run into troubles such as crying, screaming, kicking seats, and even trying to get out of seat belts.  Regardless of how easy or how difficult your car rides are, some of the below strategies may assist with make the ride a bit more enjoyable.

First, remember to switch on the child lock so that the rear door cannot be opened from the inside. If your child is someone who tries to get out of the seat belt, then you may consider getting covers or locks for the buckles in the backseat. Also, make sure that the child’s car seat is installed correctly.  You can also make the car seat more comfortable for the long car ride by adding more padding under the seat cover.

Providing visuals can be another great strategy in making long road trips more manageable.  Use schedules, maps and even photo albums to help understand where you are going and whom you will see. Any type of visual support will reduce anxiety and increase interest.

Your child may need to take some regular breaks and be able to get out of the car to stretch or run around.  Look for signs that your child may be anxious, such body language, and take pit stops as needed.

Planning out the mileage of the trip and divide that mileage up into small chunks can be very helpful. If you are driving 300 miles, break this up into 10 chunks of 30 miles (or even 20 chunks of 5 miles, depending on how often your child may need positive rewards for good behavior).  Every 30 miles that your child behaves well (define this for your child such as sitting nicely, no screaming, and no kicking) he or she is allowed to pull a prize out of a prize bag that you have prepared ahead of time with treats, small toys, and special items that your child will enjoy.  Children with autism often dislike uncertainty and that uncertainty often creates overwhelm and behavior problems.  To avoid this, draw out squares on a piece of paper so he knows how many squares are left until you arrive at your destination.  Possibly make the half way point a very large prize, if he or she earns it.

Prepare a snack bag as well as a toy bag ahead of time so you have food when your child is hungry and toys when your child is bored.  Toys such as drawing boards, electronics (iPad or similar device) on which the child can play games or watch movies, travel games such as perfection, and books may work well to keep your child occupied.

The theme is to plan ahead so you and your family can be prepared for the long trek ahead.

Have fun and Bon Voyage!