A question parents and educators often ask is "How can you tell whether a child with ASD's misbehavior is intentionally malicious or related to their condition?" That is a very complex question to answer. All behavior responses (positive and negative) are influenced in some way by our nervous system, experiences, thoughts process, and preconceived attitudes. Also, since our mind and body do not operate in a separate vacuum, each of these areas can influence the other. Since nervous system differences can influence how people expeience of life events, think about those experiences, and form attitudes towards them, you can say that for a person with Autism that all of thier behavior is influenced by their condition in some way. That does not mean that the behavior was unintentional. Most behavior outisde of reflexes and certain bodily urges are intentional. For people with ASD, what may not be intentional are the consequences of the behavior.
For example, someone with ASD might leave or withdraw from a party because the music was too loud or the room was too crowded. The intention may have been to escape the overstimulation. The unintended consequence, however, may be offending the others in the room. A person with ASD might refuse an assignment becasue it is different, too large, or require too fast of a response. The intention is avoidance of anxiety and frustration, but the consequence is the preception of rudeness or defiance. A child with ASD may see someone on television make a rude comment or act aggressively and get laughs. They associate the rude comment or action with being funny and try it on other people. Even when a person's actions are intended to cause another frustration or harm, it is often because people with ASD believes that they have been wronged and they lack the communication skills, emotion regulation, and impulse control necessary to resolve conflict in a more diplomatic way.
I believe that the hidden meaning behind that question is "When the child misbehaves, should I provide traditional discipline measures or should I refrain from providing consequences?" In my experience, the answer to that question is neither. Everyone needs to understand the consequences of their behavior, even the unintended consequences. On the other hand, traditional punishment based discipline techniques have proven to ineffective and detrimental for people with ASD. The emotional pain form the negative consequence is often so great that it overrides any potential learning from the conequence. Also, many people with ASD may not see the relationship between their behavior and the negative consequence or understand why they should be punished for an unintentional consequence.
So what is a parent, educator, or employer to do? Using the principles of Positive Behavior Support, providing a consequence based disciplinary approach for people with ASD comes down to four basic elements:
1. Preparation - Review appropriate versus inappropriate behavior with the person prior to the start of the day/activity including the consequences (positive and restitution) for the different actions. Making a list the person can see will aid in remembering.
2. Reinforcement - All appropriate behavior should be followed by some type of reinforcement. It does not have to be expensive or elaborate, but the person has to find the reinforcer enjoyable and they have to understnad why they are receving the reinforcer. Simple praise that identifies specific actions can be very effective. "I like the way you're waiting your turn." "Our customers like it when you look at them and smile."
3. Restitution - When an undesired behavior is observed, explain to the person with ASD why the behavior is undesirable. Then, as a consequence, instead of an unrelated punitive measure, have the person with ASD engage in an activity that helps improve the situation. For example, if the misbehavior wasted another person's time, then the person with ASD would need to make up the wasted time in some way. If the misbehavior led to hurt feelings, then the restitution should inlcude making that other person feel better.
4. Alternative Behavior - Sometimes the misbehavior occurs because the person with ASD does not know another way to respond. Other times, the person may not know how to provide restitution. Either way this can be remedied by demonstrating and having the person with ASD practice new behaviors that can help them achieve their intended consequences in more effective ways. Examples inlcude teaching someone to request a break rather than leaving without communicating or giving someone the words to express their emotions verbally when they are upset or want to provide comfort.
In conclusion, people with ASD often look oppostional or defiant when they are not intending to be and even when this type of behavior is intentional, it is typically because the person does not know a better way of handling the situation. By viewing this as an opportunity for education and not for discipline, the chances of future misbehavior will be reduced signficantly. That does not mean that poeple with ASD cannot beomc oppostional or even antisocial. They can. Typically this comes as a result of ongoing negative experiences with little to no positive experiences, combined with limited perspective taking and difficulty seeing long term consequences. Thus, the need for a positive consquence based approach becomes even more imperative.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D.