When correcting a child with autism, or any child for that matter, the specialists say that it is not a good idea to use negative words. For example; if the child hits someone you shouldn’t say, “Don’t hit!” This is the obvious answer, at least for me. When you see someone doing something wrong the initial reaction is to say, “Stop!”
In order to further understand this concept I talked with Joe’l Farrar, one of our speech pathologists, and she explained that this could be confusing to Konner. What most people don’t understand is that words are still confusing to children with autism. This is why we are currently working with Konner on the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. This concept is hard to understand, even for people who are around him for large amounts of time. This is because he’s a smart kid. Just because a kid has a high vocabulary and is really good at math and reading doesn’t mean he understands everything you’re telling him.
Joe’l explained it this way. “Just because a kid can run doesn’t mean they can compete in a marathon.” This makes sense if you think about it. Konner has the tools and the ability, but needs to train to be able to do the specialties. If I have a hammer, nails, a saw, and wood it doesn’t mean I can build a house. However, with some instruction from a carpenter I might be able fashion a livable dwelling.
So what do you do? This is a concept I’m still struggling with, but I’ll tell you some things that I’ve been told so far.
· Tell him what you want him to do: Instead of telling him not to do things, to stop, or no; tell him, “This is what I want you to do.” This is tough to grasp at first. What you should do is say something like, “You need to play nice with your brother,” or “We need to share,” instead of “Don’t take toys from others.”
· Give him choices: If he gets frustrated because he wants to do something he can’t you should give choices. For example (just an example), if he wants to play in the road instead of saying, “No you can’t play in the road,” you can say, “You can play in the yard, or in your room.” These choices may take some time, but once you make him understand that these are his only choices then it gets a little easier. With Konner we started the choices thing young and now it’s not perfect, but he usually understands that he only has two choices.
· Find out what he wants: Again, a difficult one, especially at first. This is one that we’re just beginning to explore, but it seems to be working okay. When a child acts out, especially on the spectrum, it is usually because they are frustrated because they want something, but can’t tell you what they want. This is where the communication skills come in. What you need to do instead of saying, “Stop screaming,” or, “Stop kicking things,” you should ask, “Do you need something?” This or, “Is there something wrong,” will work most times. However, I’ve found with Konner that just about any question about how he feels ends with, “Nothing’s wrong.” Again, this is a work in progress, and I’m only telling you my side of things. What works, or doesn’t work, for one child may be different for another.
· Get his attention: For this one I’m going to give you an example of something that happened at speech a few months ago. After a session was over Konner decided to take off running down the hall bolt out the backdoor of the health department. As Jennifer and Joe’l took off in pursuit he ran faster. The biggest fear was that he was headed for the road and into the parking lot. When they yelled, Stop!” he just continued to run. So Joe’l decided to distract him. She started clapping and yelled, “Yeah Konner you won!” Konner stopped and disaster was averted. This is just an example. You can try to tell them that there is something in a tree, or that their favorite cartoon character is around. Whatever gets them to stop will help in desperate situations.
· Pay attention to how you say things: I was told that I need to count how many times in a day I use negative speak in conversation with Konner. After about 20 times in two hours I lost count. I challenge you to do the same thing. How many times in a day do you say no or stop to your child? My guess is it’s more than you care to count. This is a change that will take time. I’m trying really hard, but it’s about as tough as it would be to quit smoking (I’m guessing; and without the shakes). However, it can be detrimental.
As I said, these are only suggestions. I don’t have all the answers. Who does? This has been a very frustrating lesson for me. As I’ve said in the past discipline is a very wearisome task. You can’t use conventional means. You just have to try to explain things the way they should be and have faith that they will begin to understand right from wrong.
Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.