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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Become an Autism Behavior Detective!

How many times have we all heard that behavior is communication? If you parent a child with autism, the chances are you are very familiar with that phrase. I think the tricky part is figuring out what your child is actually saying with his or her behavior. And it is so important, because once the root cause of the behavior is determined, it is much easier to choose appropriate tools to address what is going on. We have to become autism behavior detectives.

The ABCs of Behavior

I've talked previously about the tremendous impact of a behavior training we had with an autism expert. Analyzing the traditional ABCs of behavior - antecedent, behavior, consequence - are a proven method to determine what is reinforcing a behavior (and that could be a positive behavior you want to encourage, just as it could be a negative behavior you want to diminish). With that data in hand, you can start teaching more functional replacement behaviors or increasing the frequency of appropriate behaviors the child already knows.

This approach to behavior management is often linked with some form of ABA or Verbal Behavior therapy, although certainly parents can (and should!) also be trained in its use at home. I would recommend starting with guidance from an autism behavior expert to learn the science of this approach, rather than just winging it. 

TEACCH Iceberg Model

Another great detective tool for parents and teachers is the TEACCH Iceberg Model (download a blank copy here). The visible behavior is the tip of the iceberg above water.

Underwater are the core characteristics of autism:

Expressive/Reception Communication
Social Skills/Social Thinking/Social Interest
Cognitive & Learning Characteristics

You can easily expand this list based on the particular child. Anxiety could be a factor for many of our kids, and co-morbid conditions/medical issues are other frequent triggers.

Using what you know about your child, consider how each of the characteristics might be influencing the behavior. Usually one or two likely candidates will jump out - don't be surprised to find that there is more than one root cause of a behavior. Since it isn't possible to work on everything all at once, narrowing the list down to the top couple of underlying factors gives you something to focus on.

The picture is an example of how I used the Iceberg Model to determine why my son often uses an unfriendly tone of voice. Certainly voice modulation is a communication issue, and lack of perspective taking (knowing the effect his voice has on others) is a key concern, but knowing my son, I always suspect that rigidity may be a factor.

Don't forget that you can involve your child in the detective process by asking questions, using a choice board, or utilizing another form of communication. I asked him in the moment if was using a mean voice because something did not go according to the plan in his head. It turned out that yes indeed, he was angry because I did something (stopping at the gas station) that was not in his mental plan for driving home. So that goes on the flexibility line of the iceberg. The more you practice this, the easier it becomes to make smart guesses!

Now What?

Now that you've used your detective skills to determine the cause of the behavior, it is time to start using some strategies. The particular tools for the situation will of course depend on the cause of the behavior and what works for your child. Remember to teach replacement behaviors and positively reinforce them! Everyone is more successful when they know what to do, not just what not to do.

You may often find that combining techniques to create a custom strategy is most effective. Going back to the example about tone of voice, we wrote a Social Story using language from Michelle Garcia Winner's Social Thinking Curriculum to address the social perspective taking piece. In addition, the story included tips on how to be flexible in situations by using tools from the Zones of Regulation program my son learned at TEACCH. It wasn't a novel either, just a short story packed with specific key words we know are meaningful to our son from previous teaching. And the Zones tools are visual, because we have found that almost any situation can be improved with visual supports. 

What if your strategies don't work? Sometimes you need to keep trying longer (especially if you see an "extinction burst", which is when a targeted behavior gets worse before it improves). Sometimes a different strategy is needed. And sometimes you need to put your detective hat back on and look for a different root cause of the behavior. Remember that professional help is out there - visit our therapists page for a list of local specialists in autism.
Have you used any of these behavior detective strategies with your child? What do you find to be most effective?

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