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Behavior Therapy for Autistic Children



When an autistic child’s behavior turns disruptive, interferes with learning, or current therapies are not working, it might be time to pursue a behavior specialist. A specialist will analyze a child with autism across a variety of settings and activities during different times of the day. Specifically trained to work through traditional behavior therapy approaches, a behavior specialist evaluates the intensity and frequency of the problem, figures out new ways of dealing with it, and generates a functional behavior analysis report that helps her make suggestions for a more specialized intervention plan.

What is Behavior Therapy?

A behavior specialist is not a therapist. She functions as a consultant. The child’s intervention team carries out the behavior therapy. A behavior specialist observes the autistic child and his environment, interviews key individuals like parents and teachers, pinpoints truly problematic behaviors, and collects data that shows patterns: the antecedent and the pay-off the child gets from the targeted behavior. She then designs consequences that will bring about the desired change, and demonstrates for the parents and intervention team how to implement the behavior therapy plan.

While many behavior specialists use the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA) when designing and recommending new intervention strategies, a behavior specialist draws upon a wide range of behavior modification techniques – not just ABA. Behavior therapy focuses on finding out why the child engages in the inappropriate conduct, what triggers it, and what reinforces and maintains it. Armed with that information, the specialist can then target the specific observable behaviors.

Behavior therapy can look like a simple, common sense program easily designed by a traditional therapist, or even a parent. But an autism behavior expert has extensive experience in assessing development, communication, and social skills that often helps her catch things others on the child’s intervention team may have overlooked. She also directs when and how to withdraw reinforcements and rewards attached to the new response.

Throughout the entire intervention period, the specialist continues to observe and collect data. She documents the success of the plan, parent and educational staff responses to the child’s behavior, and notes when to change, delete, or add new goals or program steps. She also takes responsibility for indicating when and what new methods to try. A behavior specialist stays involved in the treatment plan until she finds a tactic that works.

How Data is Used in Behavior Therapy

Behavior modification treatment plans rely heavily on the data the autism behavior expert collects. This data allows the specialist to predict future behavior, as well as measure progress. For example, parents may have a tendency to deal with a public temper tantrum by enabling the child to avoid what he doesn’t want to do. Rather than give him adequate warning and transition time to adjust to the outing, or preparing ahead for possible sensory issues, many parents often wait until the child starts screaming, and then quickly gives in to his demands. The reward the child gets from throwing a tantrum will reinforce the action, and the behavior will continue.

Detailed data can help the specialist figure out what causes the undesired behavior, and how best to correct the problem. This is done through looking at what occurred just before the inappropriate action took place (the antecedent), as well as what happened afterwards (the pay-off the child gets from acting that way). While the stereotype explanation for tantrums is often that the child has a need, then screams because it will get his mother to stop her current activity and give him what he wants, the true reason for the tantrum may be more complex than a simple desire for attention.

An inability to accept the word “no,” smell sensitivity, a vertigo attack, too much background noise, tinnitus, or the child’s inability to communicate can all make him want to get out of the situation. When a child learns through previous experience that screaming works, and communication proves difficult, there is no reason for him to do things another way.

A behavior specialist can look at the data – what came before the tantrum, the tantrum itself, the effect the tantrum had on his mother, and what mother does in response to the screams – and then in accordance with patterns she sees from previous episodes, make suggestions depending on what she believes is causing the problem. For each child, suggestions will differ. However, the part a parent plays in carrying out the recommendations is critical to behavior therapy’s success.

Role of Consistency and Rules in Behavior Modification

Autistic children have problems adjusting to change, so altering their behavior will be difficult. For behavior modification to work well, children with autism need the structure of rules and consistent responses to their actions. This consistency must come from everyone in the child’s environment, not just the behavior specialist, and not just the parents. If the specialist sets up a particular consequence to an inappropriate action (such as taking away a favorite toy for the rest of the day), everyone who sees or experiences the targeted behavior must enact the same consequence.

Ignoring consistency because it is easier to give in, or if individuals on the child’s intervention team or extended family think they can break the rules occasionally, the behavior will continue – at least around those who show inconsistency. In fact, a nonconformist attitude can actually make the behavior intermittently worse; or even create a new problem. When an autistic child uses screaming to get his way, and it stops working for him, the confusion can escalate his behavior into hitting and kicking others, or even biting himself. So once a consequence is established, everyone in the child’s life must be willing to follow through and use the same method each time.

Sensory issues, lack of communication and social skills, immature brain development, and repetitive behaviors like stimming all contribute to the emotional impact that affects every person in an autistic child’s environment. Real life challenges can be painful, mentally draining, and feel like a daily battle. While no single autism treatment can solve every problem, a behavior specialist can often see through the frustration and anxiety to reasons why autistic kids do what they do. Armed with a functional behavior analysis report, she can then pave the way to better days through the implementation of behavior therapy.

  • References
    • 1. Klein, M. Diane., Ruth E. Cook, and Anne Marie. Richardson-Gibbs. Strategies for including Children with Special Needs in Early Childhood Settings. Albany: Delmar, 2001. Print.
    • 2. Ozonoff, Sally, Geraldine Dawson, and James McPartland. A Parent’s Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-functioning Autism: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive. New York, NY: Guilford, 2002. Print.
    • 3. Senator, Susan. Making Peace with Autism: One Family’s Story of Struggle, Discovery, and Unexpected Gifts. Boston, MA: Trumpeter, 2005. Print.
    • 4. Siegel, Bryna. Getting the Best for Your Child with Autism: an Expert’s Guide to Treatment. New York: Guilford, 2008. Print.

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