One of the most perplexing characteristics of Autism that manifests in my son is his lack of ability to put together cause-and-effect connections. Because he is so ridiculously brilliant and advanced academically, it is easy for me to overlook typical actions such as burning his hand on the stove and then touching it again without pause, or messing with the dogs, getting snapped at (or even bit), and then repeating the behavior minutes later. He is perpetually surprised by a repeat consequence and often has no idea that he caused it.
Here is a normal evening scene in my house: I’m in the living room working on the computer, my daughter is on the couch drawing, and my son is in his room designing video games on his laptop. Suddenly he gets a surge of energy that MUST be burned off immediately, comes running down the hall and stops an inch and a half from my ear, then lets out a screaming phrase at his loudest volume.
I have had an array of responses to this, trying my best to reprogram the behavior and teach a lesson without losing my composure. I’m not very good at it. From the gentle, “Sweetie please don’t do that” to “That hurts Mommy” to the futile “How would you like it if…”, I have not gotten through to him that it is not acceptable to emit sounds at close range that exceed 125 dB. (I’m being facetious here, but according to this Decibel Chart pain begins at 125 dB!)
What usually occurs with these repeat offenses? I try the calm and logical approach first. And second. And tenth Then it escalates. Especially when I’m exhausted and have a work deadline to adhere to. Sometimes I plead with him (mistake). By the umpteenth time, I unload. It’s not right, but it happens sometimes. Most of the time it has the same effect as any of my other tactics: nothing. Zoom. Over the head. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t care, he is doing what he needs to do.
Lately, since the onset of precocious puberty, yelling has started to evoke a reaction of sadness and embarrassment. Of course I don’t capitalize on shaming him in any way, but something has been getting through. This is a golden window of opportunity, as his mind is temporarily freed from the pattern and he is able to hear what I am saying. After the last incident, I immediately took him somewhere quiet and talked about what just happened. I started with an apology for yelling. He retreated into, “You hate me” and “I’m stupid”. I then explained that I love him ALWAYS – no matter what – but I don’t LIKE his yelling in my ear. I calmly and appropriately told him why I didn’t like the behavior, and asked for his help in coming up with a new rule that we can all live with. We now call the living room the “quiet room”. He is welcome to make loud noises in the back half of the house, but in the quiet room we speak in normal tones.
Something happened after that conversation. Five minutes later, he had another power surge and came running down the hall screaming. He stopped in the doorway of the living room, walked up to me, and said, “Hi, Mom” in a nice, respectable tone.
What did I do? I told him I was very proud of him, did I high five, and made a big deal out of his conscious new behavior. You might think that makes me a foo-foo, new-agey, namby-pamby mom that celebrates when their child merely shows up for something. No. This is Autism. This is a connection. This is a MILESTONE.
I am not advocating that you perpetually get to the yelling stage and then backpaddle out of it like I did. But in this case I believe it shook something loose and got his attention. When I yell, I never say ugly things, by the way. It’s always matter-of-fact and focused on the behavior, but it IS yelling nonetheless.
What I learned
Instead of getting to the explosive stage, like I did, how about doing something to break the pattern? Something that would have the same affect but without the negative connotation? Try ringing a bell, using a radically different vocal tone, standing on your head, or anything unexpected. This will redirect the current behavior and get your child’s attention.
Explain briefly what the offensive behavior is (your child often has no idea what they are doing wrong), and why it is not okay. This must be spoken in clear, concise terms, not emotionally or vague in any way. Avoid our human nature to ask, “How would you like it if…”. It is common for children with Autism to lack the necessary wiring to experience empathy naturally – the question will go nowhere.
Ask for your child’s help to come up with a fun new rule that would make everyone happy. Make it clear that everyone must follow the rule. Bonus if you express a behavior that you are going to work on doing better as well!
This practice in my home has led to an increase in my son’s ability to start reading situations. Just the other day he came into the room and started bothering the dog, who immediately growled. For the first time ever he walked away and said, “Maybe he doesn’t like that.”
What about you? What helps your child make connections? Share your thoughts by commenting below or posting on the Spirit of Autism Facebook page!