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Top 10 Tips for Understanding and Managing Your Autistic Child's Behavior

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Updated: August 5, 2006

Children with autism are LESS likely to misbehave intentionally than typical children. Their apparent bad behaviors -- such as bolting from the room, whacking a peer, refusing to take part in circle time, climbing the fridge -- are often caused by external problems that can be solved by calm, creative parents. These hints and tips, provided in part by About.com readers, may make for a calmer family life.

1) Know Your Child

Few autistic children are intentionally "bad." Many have difficult behaviors. So what's going on? Each child is different, and knowing your own child is key to taking action. Is your child extra-sensitive to sound and light? Does she need lots of sensory input? Is he likely to misunderstand a close approach? The more you know, the easier it is to troubleshoot a situation.

2) Modify Your Expectations

Your mother may have expected you to sit still through a full dinner hour. But that's not a reasonable expectation for most children with autism. Consider starting with a smaller goal -- sitting still for three minutes, eating with a fork, or whatever you think he can handle -- and building toward the larger goal of sitting through a full meal.

3) Modify the Environment

Safety is key. And for autistic children, creating a safe environment is a challenge. Since so many of your child's behaviors may have the potential to be dangerous, it's important to take precautions such as bolting shelves to the walls and floor, putting a dead bolt on the front door, and latching cabinets securely. One About.com reader even put plexiglass on the fronts of bookshelves to keep her child from climbing.

4) Consider the Possible Sources of the Behavior

Many children on the autism spectrum either crave or over-respond to sensory input. Some alternate between the two extremes. Very often, "bad" behavior is actually a reaction to too much or too little sensory input. By carefully observing your child, you may be able to figure out what's setting him off.

5) Remove Overwhelming Sensory Input

If your child is over-reacting to sensory input, there are many ways to change the situation. Of course, the first option is to simply avoid overwhelming sensory settings such as parades, amusement parks and the like. When that's not an option, consider ear plugs, distracting sensory toys, or plain old bribery to get through difficult moments.

6) Provide Sensory Input

If your child is crashing into couches, climbing the walls or spinning in circles, chances are she's craving sensory input. You can provide that in any number of more appropriate ways. Some people recommend bear hugs; other suggest squeezing youngsters between sofa cushions, rolling them up like "hot dogs" in blankets, or providing them with weighted vests or quilts.

7) Look for Positive Outlets for Unusual Behaviors

While climbing the entertainment center may be "bad" behavior, climbing at a rock gym can be a great way to build muscles and friendships at the same time. While spinning at the grocery store may be odd, it's ok to twirl on a tire swing. What's a problem in one place may be a virtue in another!

8) Enjoy Your Child's Successes

We were the only parents on the block to cheer at our son's first intentional fib. We're thrilled when he says "yes" to a playdate, completes a full sentence, or kicks a ball back and forth a few times. He's not likely to captain the soccer team -- but he is successfully becoming himself.

9) Worry Less About Others' Opinions

Your child is really doing a fine job in the grocery store. He may be flapping a bit, but it's no big deal. Until you catch the eye of the mom with the perfect little girl -- staring at your son. Suddenly his flapping seems like a very big deal, and you find yourself snapping at your son to "just put his hands down!" It's not easy, but it's important to remember that he's autistic -- not intentionally embarrassing!

10) Find Ways to Have Fun Together

It's not always easy to associate autism and fun. But if you think about it, rolling your child up like a hot dog, bouncing on a trampoline or even sitting and cuddling together can be a lot of fun. Instead of worrying about the therapeutic value of each action, try just enjoying the silliness, the tickling, the cuddling...and the child. At least for a little while!
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