After we had Rob’s sensory needs diagnosed and addressed, we started to realize that part of the problem was that Rob often did not comprehend what we wanted from him.

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This was not due to a lack of intelligence, or inability to comprehend language. It was because he lacked the innate sense most kids have of what behavior is appropriate. So much of socialization is non-verbal, and learned by example, but autistic children have very specific cognitive deficits that make this process very difficult. These “theory of mind” issues have a profound effect upon the ability of autistic children to learn social skills from their environment, or to learn from their experience. This is a very complicated issue, and I am by no means an expert, but we noticed a few things that helped us understand Rob’s issues more fully.

Unlike most children, autistic children do not learn appropriate behavior by watching others, and do not know how to match their own behavior to what they observe.

In general, autistic children are unable to learn through imitation.  This inability affects the most basic social interactions, since most children learn social behavior through imitation. That is why so much of infancy and preschool are spent playing games: Simon says, mother may I, peek-a-boo, hide and seek, red light-green light: these games actually teach young children the building blocks of appropriate social behavior, such as following commands, waiting your turn, taking turns, making appropriate eye contact.  But autistic children are often unable to play these games, or do not understand what is expected. As well, autistic children do not easily regulate themselves by others’ behavior. That is one reason why their behavior can be SO outrageous at times: they have not learned through normal imitation what an appropriate range of behaviors consists of.

Autistic children have a very difficult time mentally putting themselves in the place of another person, so that they do not understand the motivation behind the behaviors they observe in others.

Autistic children often have trouble understanding the intention behind the behavior of others. That means they tend to see and predict patterns in behavior without understanding the meaning behind it. That taking turns means “being nice” is often beyond their comprehension.  They may not realize that their behavior is hurting other people’s feelings, or frustrating them, or making them angry. In general, autistic people tend to not assign emotions to others. They tend to believe that others know what they know, want what they want, and feel the same way they feel (or to put it another way, they tend to not think about the fact that others may be “of a different mind” about things). Some people have called this lack of empathy. In our experience, Rob could be very empathetic – it was just hard to get through to him the effect his behavior was having on others.

Autistic children are often attending to a different aspect of the situation than a normal child would, so they don’t learn the “proper” lesson from an experience.

I once read a description that helped me understand this problem.  An autistic child wants a pickle from a jar in the fridge. He gets get the jar out, and because the jar is slippery, he drops it. The jar breaks, and he cuts his finger on a piece of glass. What lesson does the child come away with?  Don’t eat pickles, because you may get hurt. Even older autistic children of high intelligence may make this mistake, because autistic children tend to over-generalize or under-generalize from their experiences.

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What do all these issues mean for discipline? They mean that disciplining the autistic child may take methods that seem unusual to bystanders.

  1. Break desired tasks into small chunks and teach those chunks. For example: telling your child to “pick up your toys” is probably too general. Even if you model it for him, he may not learn what you want by following your example.  A concrete command such as “put your legos in the basket” is likely to be better understood.
  2. Narrating the process for your child may help him to understand. For example, “Mom and Rob are putting the legos in the basket. Mom picks up a lego, and puts it into the basket. Now Rob has a lego. What will he do with it? Oh, he throws it. Mom picks up another lego and puts it into the basket. Now what will Rob do? He picks up a lego. Will he put it into the basket? Yes, he drops it in. That makes two legos in the basket. Will he put another one in the basket? ” There is no judgment here. You don’t show disapproval when he throws it, and you don’t show approval when he puts it into the basket. You just describe what is happening.  After doing this a few times, he knew what we meant by putting legos in the basket. So you phase yourself out. Maybe put one lego in the basket to start him off, and then just narrate the process of what he does. Eventually he will do it without the narration.
  3. Put commands positively rather than negatively if possible. Rather than telling him to “stop squirming,” tell him to “sit still.” Then you can narrate his progress. “Oh, Rob is sitting still. Wow! like a statue. Oh, now he’s wiggling again. Will he sit still? Yes, now he’s still again.”
  4. Help him make the correct inferences from his experiences. If another child grabs a toy from your child, say, “Troy wanted the toy, so he took it.”  Then suggest a proper response: “Maybe if we ask him, he will let you have a turn.” If Troy still doesn’t share, say, “Troy doesn’t want to share the toy right now. Let’s find another toy to play with.” If your child grabs a toy from Troy and gets hit, say “Troy didn’t want you to take the toy, so he hit you. He wants you to give the toy back. He was not finished playing with it. Let’s give the toy back.”  At this point, you’re not trying to teach right and wrong: you are trying to help your child understand the social context for his actions and their consequences. If the problem is grabbing (your child grabs toys from others often), instead of saying, “Don’t grab toys, it isn’t nice,” say “Do not grab. Grabbing toys makes other kids angry.”
  5. Help your child connect his emotional states with the states of others, and to understand that others don’t feel the same way he does in a given situation.  Autistic children often have trouble identifying their own emotional states, or the states of others, and they generally miss the cues that are obvious to most of us. They may not realize that a frown means disapproval, tears mean sadness, or that a scowl means that you are angry. So be sure to tell your child how you feel, and help him to verbalize how he feels. If he hits you and laughs when you cry, it may mean that he really doesn’t understand that he hurt you. He just thinks your facial expression is funny. Tell him, “I’m sad, it hurt me when you hit me. I’m angry because it hurts.” He may not understand at first, but if you are consistent with identifying your feelings and helping him to identify his own feelings,  it will help him.

Although we discovered these principles on our own through reading and trial and error, there is now a form of therapy called Relational Development Intervention (RDI) that teaches these principles in a very concrete, step-by-step fashion so you can implement them with your child. RDI works with children of any age. We have used some of these with Rob, and the residential treatment program he was in a couple of years ago also used it; and I think it really does help with the specific problems listed here.  Similar to SI therapy, which helps normalize the sensory processing system, RDI helps autistic persons develop the ability to socially relate and connect with others by breaking down the processes into very specific, discrete steps. It may seem overwhelming, but even a little intervention goes a long way if done properly and consistently. Start with the steps I’ve outlined above, and check out RDI as well.

Next: helping your child communicate in socially appropriate ways

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