Despite our struggles with it, Behavior Management is a very useful tool for motivating autistic children. We struggled with it for two reasons:

  1. Rob had so many challenging behaviors we were often overwhelmed

  2. We (mainly my husband and extended family and friends) struggled with the perception that behavior management is not “real” discipline

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Some of the more challenging behaviors we struggled with over the years:

  • aggression
  • destruction
  • wandering, especially in the middle of the night
  • fire-setting
  • obsession with throwing things and dumping liquids
  • obsession with knives and scissors and cutting anything he could get his hand on (we called him Rob scissor-hands)
  • obsession with electrical cords and outlets
  • trying to jump out of moving vehicles, or running into traffic
  • picking his own skin continually
  • refusal to eat or very picky eating
  • insistence on very rigid routines and tantrums if they were broken
  • pica
  • general non-compliance, especially in self-care
  • sleep issues
  • tantrums and verbal threats
  • constant annoying behavior (poking, prodding, pinching, grabbing, obstruction)
  • stealing

Despite all these behaviors, Rob was considered too “high-functioning” by DDD to provide much in the way of habilitation services. Given the number of very challenging behaviors, respite care was also very hard to find. There was no suitable facility for residential treatment.  We had to find our own way for many, many years. We discovered that it was best to focus on the two or three most pressing behaviors at any one time, and ignore the rest as much as possible.  Once those behaviors were more under control, then we could concentrate on others. Rob needed a constant schedule, very strict vigilance, and absolute consistency in a behavior program. We struggled to provide all these in our home.  We couldn’t child-proof the house enough or keep him safe enough. We couldn’t be vigilant enough. The structure of a school setting helped him, fortunately, so we had a little break during the day.

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Many of Rob’s behaviors were obsessive. Medication for obsessive behavior helped. So did providing safe outlets for obsessive behavior, to reduce anxiety. For example, Rob was obsessed with fire, and would start fires in his room or outside, or in the sink, whenever he could get matches or a lighter. We did not keep those things in our home, but Rob managed to find them on the ground often enough.  Once he discovered that he could light paper towels at the stove or the toster oven, there was no stopping him.  Fortunately, he seemed to rotate obsessions; he would be playing with fire for a few weeks, then switch to cutting things obsessively.  Of course, we had smoke detectors in every room of the house. What finally helped was that we told him that whenever he felt a need to play with fire, that he could light a fire (or a candle) in the fireplace, with one of us with him.  The rules were that he could ask anytime, and we would allow him – but only in that safe spot, and only with one of us with him. The knowledge that he could light a fire whenever he wanted to, and be safe, reduced the obsession. This also helped with cutting things and throwing things. We provided him safe places and ways to indulge his obsessions. But he needed to know that he could do those things anytime he wanted, with supervision. At first that was inconvenient, of course; but after a couple of weeks, his need to do those things lessened considerably.

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