First, recognize the difficulties the child brings to the situation as a result of a neurologically based disorder. Among the common characteristics of these children, which often lead to behavioral conflicts, are the following:
• Significant, atypical difficulties with understanding and using language, especially in group situations.
• Often, an overly reactive sensory system that makes ordinary noise, smell or touch irritating or intolerable.
• Problems shifting attention, or "transitioning" from one activity to another.
• Limited ability to recognize another person's perspective or opinion or to empathize with another's feelings.
• A need for predictability and routine, and a tendency to respond based on association and memory. These characteristics lead the child to repeat familiar behaviors even when they produce consistently negative results.
• Poor recognition of public vs. private behavior and lack of embarrassment or concern about other people's impressions of them.
• Emotional responses that are apt to be extreme and are often based on immediate events, leading to rapid changes from smiling to screaming. Recovery is often immediate once the problem is removed, but for some children irritability and secondary upsets can continue for hours.
• Considerable difficulty organizing themselves to do something productive in undirected play activities, in stimulating public situations or when waiting.
Remember, these are not the result of poor parenting or teaching, nor are they deliberate, willful or manipulative behaviors. They are simply common characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorders and they are nobody's fault. The child is probably doing the best he can to cope with an extremely confusing and unpredictable world, and usually his family and teachers are working hard to help him. However, these characteristics do result in problems of many sorts, including such diverse behaviors as poking another child just to hear her squeal, refusing to stay in circle group, ignoring or automatically resisting teacher directions, coming out of the bathroom with pants at half mast, becoming very upset by changes in routine, saying things that hurt people's feelings, and having tantrums in public places, to name a few.
Obviously, we want to help the child modify problem behaviors and fit into society better, but how?
Generally, I suggest first trying whatever methods the teacher or parent would use with other children, especially in a group setting where the expectations are the same for all the children. However, traditional methods often don't work for children with these issues, especially if the methods involve explanation, loss of privileges, discussion and reasoning or appealing to empathy, self-image or guilt. Time-out works sometimes, but it often becomes desirable to the child.
Rewards can be very helpful if they are clearly connected to a specific positive behavior that is well within the child's ability, but not if they are tied to a vague generality like "being good on the bus".
It's important to realize that adults will have to modify the environment and their expectations in addition to helping the child modify his or her behavior. Also, this child will not automatically generalize a new behavior to even obviously similar situations and will be unlikely to intuitively discover and interpret social expectations.
Keeping in mind that these are children who need considerable individualization in all aspects of learning, and that specific strategies must be designed to fit each child's situation, the following are some general guidelines that I've found to be helpful:
Talk less. Use demonstration, visual cues and physical prompts, shortening and simplifying language in stressful situations. Repetitive or predictable language is also helpful, such as "Five steps to the door; 1-2-3-4-5 -open!".
Use routine , structure, visible schedules and predictability to provide a comfortable, less alarming situation for the child, but keep including small variations to help develop flexibility.
Ease transitions by shortening the gap (present new materials as you remove the old ones, don't come to circle group until it's ready to start), providing transitional objects to carry from one place to the next (especially if the object is useful in the next activity), keeping language simple and familiar (“All done with , now it's time for ” ).
Distract and redirect the child to something more acceptable, such as a toy someone else isn't using, the sound of an airplane going over, or a small fidget toy in circle group or when waiting in line.
Change location or environment to remove yourselves from things that trigger or prolong the problem. If the cafeteria is too loud or smelly, eat somewhere else for a while, with a friend or two if possible. Move away from group situations when you see agitation increasing.
Prevent recurring problems that may quickly become negative rituals by changing the format, changing your language or behavior or temporarily avoiding the situation and gradually reintroducing it.
Teach rules that are clear, simple and concrete ("sit on the carpet square", not "sit nicely") and reward improvement toward acceptable behavior, even if it was brief or adult-assisted at first.
Teach competing acceptable behaviors such as appropriate self-help skills, communication skills like saying “I need to go now”, social routines, and cooperative play to replace problem behaviors.
Expect progress but not an immediate cure. Try to see the problem from the child's perspective and help him cope in ways that are more socially acceptable.