How should we respond when kids with autism display challenging behaviour?
When a child displays a behaviour that challenges us, it is usually ten per cent what the child does and 90 per cent how the adult reacts that is really important. Adults have a difficult role because they are trying not only to keep the child safe but also to keep themselves, other adults and the other children safe. That is a lot of responsibility and it’s why de-escalating behaviour is usually hard work.
Our reactions can “wind up” a situation or person, or “wind down”. Clearly, it’s much better to try and wind it down. Think about how close we stand and the posture we present to a child who is in crisis, is confused or being aggressive. How do you feel when another person approaches you and stands too close, in your personal space? How do you react? Personal space is defined as the area between the elbow and fingertips of an outstretched arm. When the adult positions him/herself outside of the fingertips it creates a safer place to start talking and listening.
Almost every time a child displays a behaviour there will be an emotion behind it–a thought, feeling or perception. Usually, behind the emotion is an experience. If the experience is negative, the emotion will generally match their behaviour, as it will if the experience is positive.
The spiral of conflict
Most of our communication is done non-verbally, through facial expressions, posture and eye contact. This is very difficult to disguise. In my experience, roughly half of serious incidents with pupils with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) happen because the adult gets too close. This often prompts a physical reaction from the child, and staff can get hurt. By standing a good arm’s length away from a child who is being challenging or unpredictable, you can lessen their anxieties and ensure they feel less threatened. Standing sideways on is also less challenging to the child and allows them to feel more reassured.
When we communicate, it is not just what we say but also how we say it and the tone, volume, pace and intonation of our voice that is important. In potential crisis situations, the words we say may only form a small part of the overall message we are communicating. Words are important but, in my experience, they are the first thing that children start ignoring and switch off from. Adults often place far too much emphasis on the words.
When a child is in crisis, processing becomes more difficult. We have to adjust our voice and talk more slowly and in a lower voice to allow the child to process what we’re saying more easily. Sometimes, the adult simply needs to stop talking and start listening. Faster, louder voices tend to fire up children’s brains and cause them to become more aroused, leading to greater anxiety and stress.
Adults use far too many words when talking to children who are in crisis or are confused. Visualising language through symbols and photographs can help children with limited communication or those who struggle with comprehension, including many pupils with ASD. Some of the words we speak in a conversation are fairly meaningless because they do not add much in terms of meaning or clarification.
Consider which words carry important information in this sentence?
“We are going into assembly in a minute so I want you to walk quietly and sensibly down the corridor.”
Can we simplify this? The key words in this sentence are “assembly”, “walk” and “corridor”. There are words that are not necessary, such as “sensibly” and “in a minute”. While these words can add detail, they can also slow down processing because there is more information to deal with. Simplifying the language we use is a difficult skill and shouldn’t be under-estimated. It doesn’t come naturally to many of us. There are though, a number of language strategies that I find useful. Here are just a few.
The use of embedded commands is a subtle tactic to encourage children to follow a command without realising they are being given an instruction– for example, saying, “It would be a good idea to finish your work” instead of saying, “You need to finish your work now”.
When using embedded commands it is usually best to sound very matter of fact and use inflection at the end of the sentence.
It is often the easy option to tell a child to stop doing something they should not be doing, such as “stop talking”or “don’t touch that”. It is more useful, though, to turn it into a positive statement, letting the child know what you want them to do instead. If a child is running in the classroom, you could say, “don’t run”–leaving open the option to hop, skip or jump– or you could provide a more positive and informative response by saying, “walk in the classroom”. This could also be backed-up with sign language or visual cards, even if it becomes simply “Stop! Walk!”Some children do not understand what they need to do as an alternative, so the adult may need to provide one. This also helps to switch the brain’s way of thinking away from interpreting a command as negative and as blocking the child’s activity.
The use of presupposition can seem like a con trick, which perhaps it is. Essentially, it is about hoodwinking the child into deciding to do the next thing in the sequence in a positive way. With this intervention the adult is expecting the child to carry out the request or task: “Well done for sitting down in the chair”. The child had no intention of sitting down but suddenly finds him/herself doing it. The child has been led to believe that they have either already agreed to do it, or they are receiving praise at the start of the interaction so may feel like going ahead with the task. The manner of delivery can be very important when using such positive language. Children with ASD who have communication difficulties don’t have to respond, as there is no pressure or reason to do so. These children may need just the key information words (such as “[child’s name] sit, chair”), or a phrase like “good sitting”, followed by the appropriate level of praise.
Calmness and kindness
It is crucial that adults try to stay calm when de-escalating a child’s behaviour. This encourages the child with ASD to engage in flexible thinking, which is essential in enabling them to process and to reflect on the options and choices we give them. If the adults become panic stricken, fearful and confused, it is likely that the child will experience the same emotions. They are looking for us to be consistent and composed.
When adults become stressed, the strategies they use to manage children can quickly seem out of reach. A good tactic for staying calm and in control is to vocalise our thoughts. Children with ASD can struggle to understand how other people are feeling or thinking. They can be less able at predicting what needs to happen next and they may not understand what the adult is expecting. Vocalising our thoughts can help the child to recognise emotions and feelings and can assist with the child’s sequencing in terms of changing their behaviour. The adult can offer options or restricted choices through vocalisation. This type of communication is less threatening than a direct approach, such as issuing commands.
Autistic children often cannot readily read the adult’s red face, raised eyebrows or gritted teeth as an indicator of frustration or dissatisfaction. Visualising the options or choices helps to remind the child of them and encourages easier processing. This strategy can also help the adult to think through their ideas, while receiving feedback from the child and letting other staff know what they are thinking.
Steve Brown is the author of Autism Spectrum Disorder and De-escalation Strategies and is Senior Team Teach Tutor at Steve Brown Behaviour Support and Training: