It’s no secret that challenging behaviors and autism go hand in hand, and in the face of communication challenges, sensory processing sensitivities, an inability to express and understand emotions, poor impulse control, and problems with self-regulation, it’s hardly surprising that children with autism can sometimes seem like ticking time bombs.
Their worlds are overwhelming and frustrating 100% of the time, and unless you are able to understand the reason behind your child’s individual challenges and find appropriate coping strategies, you are powerless to help him or her.
And you know what?
That’s really difficult!
If you spend your days feeling as though you are constantly walking through a landmine, worrying someone or something will set your child off, it’s hard not to feel completely overwhelmed and all-consumed by it.
The good news is that the internet is filled with all kinds of tips and tricks not only on how to address challenging behaviors and autism, but on how to understand the root of the struggles your child faces so you can prevent undesirable behaviors from occurring in the first place.
Today I’m teaming up with The Eczema Company to share tips and strategies to help with some of the most common challenging behaviors parents with children on the autism spectrum experience.
Autism and Hair Pulling
- Look for reasons. Why is your child pulling hair? Is it as a way of getting someone’s attention or to express anger? Track her behavior over a period of time and look for consistencies so you can address the underlying reasons she is pulling hair.
- Use positive reinforcement. Once you know WHY she is pulling hair, find ways to redirect her to something more positive. For example, if she is pulling hair to get attention, teach her to tap someone gently on the leg instead. Once she understands the concept, ignore the negative behavior (hair pulling) and reward the positive behavior (tapping on the leg).
- Stay calm. If your child is pulling YOUR hair, any sudden movement could result in greater damage than if you sit quietly and try to loosen your child’s grip. The same applies when a child is pulling her own hair. The calmer you are, the more likely you can intervene and prevent serious damage.
- Keep long hair tied back. French braids, ballerina buns, and fish tail braids offer effective and stylish ways to keep long hair out of reach!
- Opt for a shorter hair cut. If your child is pulling out her own hair and refuses to sit still long enough for you to tie her hair back, consider cutting it short. While not ideal, it’s the more practical option and ensures minimal damage will be done when you are not available to intervene.
- Use scratch mittens. Wait, what? That sounds weird, I know, but hear me out. If your little one only pulls hair in certain scenarios (while engaging in something stressful, when sleeping, etc.), there are tops and sleepers with mitts that can help. This clothing was originally designed to keep kids with eczema from scratching, but they double as a great way to prevent kids from pulling hair! CLICK HERE to see the different clothing options available from The Eczema Company.
Autism and Scratching
- Keep fingernails short. I realize this isn’t rocket science, but we tend to forget the obvious things when we’re struggling. So, if your child is scratching, make sure to keep his fingernails short. If you find it challenging to cut his nails, consider cutting nails after a long bath when you know they are softer, use a nail file instead of nail cutters if your little one has sensory sensitivities, and try cutting nails while your child is watching his favorite show as a way to keep him distracted.
- Keep extremities covered. If your child is prone to scratching, make sure to dress him in long sleeve shirts and pants. The same applies to caregivers. You want to minimize the amount of exposed skin to reduce the risk of your child breaking skin when scratching.
- Keep a log. Pay attention to when your child is scratching so you can identify triggers. Is it a way of communication, taking out his anger, or does he have a skin allergy like eczema? Once you figure out the WHY behind your child’s behavior, you can implement positive reinforcement to reward appropriate behavior, and take steps to correct any skin conditions you might suspect.
- Use scratch gloves. While you are trying to get to the root of your child’s scratching behaviors and figure out a way to eliminate them, scratch gloves are a great way to keep injury to a minimum. While your child will still be able to attempt to scratch himself and others, he won’t be able to do much damage. CLICK HERE to learn more about scratch gloves and how they can help your child!
Autism and Picky Eating
- Focus on textures. If your child avoids purees, crunchy foods, or foods that are soft, there’s a chance she may have sensory processing challenges in relation to food. Make note of the things your child will and will not eat to see if you can spot any consistencies, and then try avoiding the type of food she finds difficult to tolerate.
- Limit snacks between meals. Ensuring your child is hungry at mealtimes can go a long way in getting her to try new things, so try and limit snacks and drinks. Just be careful not to go too long between meals as extreme hunger can have a negative impact on a child’s behavior, making her even less likely to try new foods!
- Always offer something your child likes. Creating a meal that is completely devoid of foods your child will eat is a recipe disaster. A better strategy is to offer 3 foods she likes and 1 or 2 things you’d like her to try without any expectations attached. The less threatened she feels, the better.
- Write a social story. Created by Carol Gray, Social Stories are written descriptions of everyday situations and events told from a child’s perspective. The intention behind Social Stories is to give a child something to rehearse so she’s prepared once the situation described actually takes place. This can be an excellent tool to help encourage a picky eater with autism to try new foods. Here are 21 templates and apps to help you easily write a Social Story for your child.
Autism and Sleep
- Be consistent. Research shows that children thrive best when they are on a consistent schedule, and if your little one finds it difficult to fall asleep – and stay asleep – it’s important that you maintain a predictable routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every single day. Period.
- Get regular exercise. Physical activity isn’t just effective in helping us sleep better, but it also helps us enter a deeper sleep, so make sure your child is getting ample exercise throughout the day.
- Adjust your child’s diet. Removing caffeine and sugar from your child’s diet is another great strategy to help improve autism sleep patterns. Can’t cut it out completely? Try limiting it after lunch so your child is calmer by the time bedtime rolls around.
- Remove sensory distractions. If your child is sensitive to external stimuli, like light, sounds, and textures, take steps to remove them from his sleep environment. Purchase black out blinds to block out sunlight, invest in a white noise machine to drown out nighttime noises, make sure her PJs and bedding are made of comfortable fabrics and devoid of tags…you get the idea.
- Use sleep tools. There are lots of fabulous tools that may help your child get a better night of sleep. Weighted blankets provide pressure and sensory input while also triggering the release of serotonin, which aids in sleep; When-then schedules and sticker charts can be fabulous motivators when used correctly; and you might even consider building a ‘tent’ over your child’s bed so he feels safe and secure in his own cave during the night. And, if your child is prone to scratching or hair pulling, you may want to consider scratch gloves or a sleep top with scratch mittens built into it to keep challenging behaviors to a minimum.
Autism and Aggression
- Have a plan. Autism and aggression can be extremely difficult, and before you can tackle it, you need a plan. If there are other children in your home that may be in danger when your child with autism experiences aggression, make sure you have a plan to get them to safety when needed. Practice this plan over and over again to ensure they know what to do when needed, and give them a ‘safe word’ so they know when to act. Make sure you also have a plan for your child with autism. Create a safe place for him to take out his aggression without hurting himself or others. Keep a calm down kit handy with tools he can use to calm himself. Having an action plan to keep the whole family safe ahead of time can help minimize emotional and physical damage when an emergency situation arises.
- Take care of yourself first. Once you have a plan in place, make sure YOU are taken care of. You know how they tell us to put our own oxygen masks on first so we can help our children? Well, the same applies here. If your child is known to have aggressive meltdowns, make sure you do something each and every day to fill your own cup so that you are ready and able to cope when needed. This could be as simple as drinking a cup of coffee by yourself in the bathroom before your spouse leaves for work in the morning. It doesn’t need to be HUGE, but it needs to be part of your daily routine.
- Look for consistencies and identify triggers. Keep a log of your child’s behavior patterns over several days and see if there are any consistencies. Make sure to record things like sleep, diet, bowel movements, changes in routine, sickness, etc. as all of these things can negatively impact behavior.
- Identify Triggers. Once you start seeing similar patterns of behavior, you can try to work around them. Make sleep a priority, keep him home from school when he’s under the weather, use visual schedules to prepare him for changes in routine, and find ways to manage sensory overload.
- Use positive reinforcement. While both positive and negative forms of reinforcement can be beneficial in terms of regulating emotions and behavior, research tends to suggest that positive reinforcement is the most effective. Behavior charts and reward charts can be fabulous motivators when used correctly.
- Teach self-regulation. Children with poor self-control tend to exhibit more behavioral problems than their self-disciplined peers, which makes teaching children how to self-regulate more important than we might think. We’ve written an entire post about self-regulation (read it here), which touches on 6 main strategies:
- Be clear about rules and expectations
- Follow a predictable routine
- Give regular reminders
- Use positive reinforcement
- Follow through
- Be a positive role model
Lana David once said, ‘Behavior is communication. Change the environment and behaviors will change’, and while I can’t promise these tips and tricks will be the answer you are looking for when it comes to challenging behaviors and autism, I hope they at least inspire you to think outside the box.
Instead of focusing on the behavior your child is exhibiting, try to dig deeper and figure out WHY he or she is pulling hair, scratching, refusing to eat, waking up multiple times a night, or having meltdowns several times a day. It will take time, but once you figure out your WHY, you’re halfway closer to your goal of helping your child.
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