The Bridge: Behaviors, Part 2

Last week, I talked about the more difficult behaviors that can sometimes pose a danger to autistic individuals and/or others. There is another category of behaviors that are pretty much a benchmark of what we consider to be autism, and those are the ones I want to address here.

In the autism world, these behaviors are often referred to as stimming behaviors. They can range from verbal (repeating words, making unusual sounds), to physical (rocking, jumping) and all points in-between.

Let’s go to a new client for a moment. His name is David. David is 7 years old, and his parents are a bit flustered at how he often waves his fingers in front of his face. He will do this for hours if they let him (which they really don’t want to), and they want it to stop because it is keeping him for getting through the school day. It also draws attention when they are out and about. He always seems to get very excited when he does this.

The reflex move, of course, is to just tell him to stop. If they are particularly frustrated, the parents may physically move his hands to his sides or threaten to take away his favorite toys (Legos). This only makes him frustrated, which leads to either a meltdown or David aggressively doing the behavior even more. The truth is, there is a very simple reason why David does this action.

It makes him feel good.

There used to be a notion that these behaviors were a sort of torture for the client, and that the therapist/interventionist was “freeing” them from it by stopping the behavior by force (physically, verbally, or otherwise). Now that more and more autistic adults are speaking up, we are learning (or at least I hope we are learning) that the stimming behaviors are actually relieving the so-called “torture.” The difficult part for our clients is navigating an overstimulating, often unpredictable world. In my work, these behaviors signal that the client is trying to calm and steady themselves in the best way for them. When I see them, I want to find out why the behavior is happening. Either something in the environment has shifted, or there has been a build-up of uncomfortableness for the client.

Or, you know what? Maybe they just felt like being happy in that moment.

Much like the previous entry, a bit of detective work can go a long way. After doing some data collection, we discovered that the finger waving would often increase just before going somewhere that involved being in a crowd. We gave him a fiber optic wand as a possible sensory replacement, which he loved. The family also started giving him plenty of warning as to when they were going to go out. We even went a step further and created mini social stories about frequent places they visited (complete with pictures from those places). While David still waves his fingers sometimes (especially when excited), it has decreased along with his anxiety. We didn’t stop the behavior because it was “wrong,” we adjusted it and the environment so that the anxiety that causes the behavior would decrease.

To put it more simply: if someone bites their nails, forcing them to stop will just make them either do it more in secret, or lead to them switching to another tic. Uncover the source of the emotion behind the action first.

Finally, I wanted to share a blog post from another blog that I follow. The author touched on this very subject, and it is a great way to hear about stimming behavior from an autistic adult.

Oh the Ways We Love to Stim

Next week: About The Siblings…

The Bridge: About Behaviors

This is a topic of interest for me, so much so that I created a training for professionals on dealing with “difficult” behaviors in clients. When it comes to autism, difficult usually refers to behaviors that are inconvenient, unnerving or harmful, or possibly embarrassing.  They range from persistent flapping to self-harm, and cover all points in between. The bottom line with all of them, however, is usually the same with families and adults who work closely with the clients: they would like the behaviors to reduce or stop.

In the training, I challenge my colleagues to become detectives first, and to view the behaviors from the eyes of our client. So, let’s take a new client, Paige. She is 14 years old, and nonverbal. She does not yet use any devices to communicate, aside from occasional pictures similar to PECS.

Paige often takes off running for no apparent reason. Sometimes it is just into another room, but sometimes it leads to her running towards traffic or out of the family home. Her family have no idea how to stop it and are deeply concerned for her safety. There are two things that need to be addressed almost simultaneously: Paige’s safety and the reasons behind her running.

A safety plan may be set up immediately, and nothing punishing is involved in it. Doors are kept secure, and someone stays with her regularly until the next step is engaged. At the same time, we start walking through a loose version of ABC (Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence) Data collection. This is one of the aspects of ABA that I actually like, because it brings in the detective aspect. We start examining all the events immediately leading up to the bursts of running, and I document them. After a few minutes, a pattern is noted. She tends to run when a large number of people enter the room she is in (about 3 or more). This is especially true if she is given no warning (for example, if neighbors or family members unexpectedly drop by). If Paige did have a device to communicate (or was verbal), I would more than likely get her input as well.

The family and I develop a plan to let Paige know when to expect an influx of people. We also let her know that if she gets overwhelmed, she can squeeze a trusted adult’s hand to let them know that she needs a break. Her receptive language has proven to be high, so we all believe that she definitely understands. This gives her some autonomy to tell us when she is feeling out of sorts, rather than us just assuming. After a few test runs, Paige is able to squeeze to alert her family. Within about three weeks, her running has reduced by over 50%.

For many behaviors like this, there is an underlying reason that we may be missing. It is usually something that a neurotypical individual would never guess, because it is not something that normally bothers us. This is why I like to reiterate how many neurodiverse brains tend to filter very differently from our own. This sets up a better sense of understanding from families and caregivers, and allows them to become better detectives and listen to their neurodiverse loved ones’ cues, whether they are verbal or not.

Next week: The behavior discussion continues with a look at the actions that aren’t harmful, but still baffle many of us. Have a great week, and feel free to email me with any questions/comments at sparcguidance@gmail.com.