What is impulsivity?
On MedicineNet.com, it is defined as:
Inclined to act on impulse rather than thought. People who are overly impulsive, seem unable to curb their immediate reactions or think before they act. As a result, they may blurt out answers to questions or inappropriate comments, or run into the street without looking. Their impulsivity may make it hard for a child to wait for things they want or to take their turn in games. They may grab a toy from another child or hit when they are upset.
What this would look like in school in our experience was my son blurting out a noise, walking up to something and knocking it down, bumping into someone, hitting his head on the desk, etc. This was probably the number one category of behaviors he repeatedly got in trouble for.
The teachers, the para professionals, the counselors, and the principal would always ask the same thing of him: “Why did you…? Why? What were you thinking?”
And he would always answer, “I dunno.” Sometimes he would giggle.
I got told the same thing over and over – that my son must have done whatever he had done on purpose, because he showed no remorse for his actions and refused to tell us why. They were infuriated. They would even go so far as to suggest for a behavioral blowup on a Tuesday morning that I punish him over the weekend by taking away TV and video games. Um… have you ever disciplined a dog 10 hours after he ate a shoe? How’d that work out for you?
Of course he doesn’t know WHY he did it. Of course he feels no remorse – he doesn’t understand that he did something wrong.
It is NOT a calculated action.
It is NOT a manipulative behavior.
It is NOT intentionally disrespectful.
As a parent, it takes a lot of reminders for me to remember these things in the heat of the moment. When he rides the puppy, sticks his foot in my face, punches me, knocks into me while I have a cup of hot coffee in my hand, blurts out a screeching noise close to my face… this is impulsivity. He doesn’t think, “Hmmm… if I do THIS, it will make Mom yell.” (that’s my daughter’s job, ha ha)
Now, before you start yelling that I am giving him a free ticket to be a butt whenever he wants, that is not the case. I am always striving to find the delicate balance of understanding his actions but teaching him that they are inappropriate. In order to communicate with him in a way he will receive it, I have to remember that he is not doing it on purpose to physically hurt me or irritate the living crap out of me. (Again… teen daughter for that Kidding! She’s awesome!)
I also have to remember that sometimes he is just being a boy. My world is submerged in the study of Autism and I can sometimes forget that little boys can be imps.
I wish I could tell you WHY impulsivity is such a huge part of Autism. In fact, I tried to write this blog last week based on the science behind it and it just wasn’t happening. It is what it is, and I’m sharing what we experience and what helps. That’s all I can do!
So what does help?
Create a separate room for “free behaviors”. One of my favorite things to say to my son when his noises and behaviors are at their peak in the common living area is, “This is the quiet room. You may go in the noisy room to scream, throw things, punch your pillow (or keep doing whatever it is he is doing). Out here you need to be quiet and respect the rest of the family.” I even do it with the dogs – send them to another place when they are severely disrupting things in the family room.
Redirection. Ah, the magic answer that comes up a lot… because it works! Changing the focus, getting out of the power struggle and into a silly joke, task, or game will almost always set the stage for peace.
Social stories. My son lacks empathy – he is not currently wired to experience theory of mind (putting himself in another’s shoes). I have actually seen some pretty exciting gains when it comes to this, but for the most part I have to remember that saying, “How would you feel if…?” never gets the answer I want. Not because he’s being a butt, because he doesn’t know. Social stories – observing a third party in a similar situation – help him make a connection.
I’ve always been amazed that my son could do high school math but would burn his hand on our stove and go back and touch it again. The cause and effect factor is completely missing. This helps me understand that coming up to me and knocking down something I’ve just built does not warrant the punishment a parent might normally feel the need to dispense. I have to stop and think, just as much as I am teaching my son to do.
What about you? What challenging behaviors do you see that you can attribute to impulsivity? What helps? I’d love for you to comment below or share your experiences on the SOA Facebook page!