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 Article of Interest - Behavior Modification

Modifying Inappropriate Behaviors Part 1: Why is my child acting like this?

Modifying Inappropriate Behaviors Part 2: Consistency is Key

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Modifying Inappropriate Behaviors Part 1: Why is my child acting like this?


We have all heard the praises of Early Intervention repeated again and again. We know that it works. We know that the earlier we begin working with an Autistic/PDD child, the better chance he/she will function like other children. Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics published new Early Screening Guidelines that help to identify children who may be in need of early intervention. These are helpful, but they don't answer the question on everyone's mind. What can I do at home to change the Autistic behaviors?

Everyone who has to deal on a daily basis with an Autistic/PDD child knows that from time to time behavioral modifications are necessary. There are some behaviors that Autistic children exhibit that are socially unacceptable and whether you are a parent, caregiver, teacher or have some other close relationship with the child, you wonder what to do. How to change these behaviors, however, can be a challenge.

Research has shown that there are things which can be done to help change behaviors and turn the behavioral patterns of the child to other behaviors, so that he/she can cope with the stresses of society. The first step is to identify the behaviors that are inappropriate. Find out details of what happens when the behavior occurs. Look at what happens before the behavior is exhibited. Is there a pattern or a "trigger" that starts the behavior? Look at the reactions of others to the behaviors. Do their behaviors toward the Autistic child lead to more inappropriate behaviors? Look at the consequences of the behavior. Is the behavior harmful to the child or others?

Next, attempt to discover the purpose the behavior serves to the child. All behaviors serve a function. They are not random. Whether it is to gain attention, gain a tangible object, escape from a consequence or release tension, each behavior is there for a reason. Sometimes the reasons are known only to the child, but in many cases they are able to be discerned, if you only look closely. Remember too that some behaviors are the result of other Autistic characteristics. For example, many Autistic children have receptive language deficits. To some people, a child not paying attention to what he/she is told to do, is a sign of rebellion or defiance. In reality, to the Autistic child, it may be a sign that he never processed the message to do the action in the first place.

Once the behavior is determined and its function analyzed, the next step is to identify alternate, acceptable behaviors with which you wish to replace the inappropriate ones. In Part 2, some strategies for teaching alternate behaviors will be presented.

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Modifying Inappropriate Behaviors Part 2: Consistency is the Key

The purpose of finding alternatives when dealing with inappropriate behaviors in the Autistic/PDD child is two fold. First, it is to create "socially acceptable" behaviors which can become the "normal" behavior of the child. Secondly, to find behaviors which meet the needs that the original behavior met. It does no good to find a new behavior if it doesn't meet those needs. It then simply becomes more of a reason for frustration.

The focus of an alternate behavior should not simply be to "control" the inappropriate behaviors, but to use the new behavior to increase the skills of the child. For example, if the child hits when he/she becomes overwhelmed, teaching the child to say or sign "break" when he/she starts to become frustrated might work. It would allow the caregiver or parent to know that the particular thing going on is causing a sensory overload problem, and to therefore change what is happening to lessen the stress on the child. Of course, as this is done, consistency must be maintained. The parent can not expect the child to learn that saying "break" will lead to a reduction in the stress caused by over stimulation, if it sometimes does and sometimes doesn't. Close observation of the child often can help the parent determine when a child is starting to have problems with sensory overload or frustration. Many children will hold their hands over their eyes or ears prior to acting out. When we find the "indicator" of the behavior, then we can intervene early and it presents an excellent learning opportunity.

Finding alternative behaviors is sometimes difficult. The child may not have the skills necessary to perform the new behavior. In the example above, if the child has problems with expressive language, he may not be able to say the word. This easily could lead to more frustrations than the were present before the new behavior was begun, and therefore backfire on the parent/caregiver. If the desired behavior is not something the child already has in his/her repertoire, then it must be taught first and integrated into the behavioral patterns of the child.

One key to teaching an alternative behavior is the development of a system of reinforcement. Rewards can be small things that the child has shown a desire to have, but they often do not have to be tangible. Autistic children, like all others, have an innate desire to please those with whom they are in close contact. Simple praise may be enough to help reinforce the appropriate behavior. One thing to keep in mind is that many Autistic children have difficulty "reading" body language and facial expressions. In order to avoid these problems, something that shows pride in what they have accomplished, but does not require the child to make a judgment on the meaning of an expression would be applause. When the child meets the expected behaviors, verbal praise accompanied by hand clapping is an excellent reinforcer.

Many people think that if a system of positive reinforcement (rewards) is used to teach a new behavior, then it must follow that a system of negative reinforcement (punishments) must go along with that when the child does not meet the goals. This is not true. The lack of a reward is a strong negative reinforcement. Usually, other means are not needed, if the system of rewards is established and followed consistently.

Identifying behaviors that need change, and teaching acceptable replacement behaviors is a time consuming process for both the parent/caregiver and the child. If used, however, this process has worked successfully for many people, both as individuals and in the educational setting. The keyword for working with this process is consistency. By consistently following a pattern of positive reinforcement, behaviors can be taught that will benefit the child in his/her efforts to meet social expectations.


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