Jonathan Levy

Jonathan Levy

The Interactive World

I'll Pay You Ten Dollars to Throw That Apple

How to get an autistic (or any) child to stop misbehaving

Posted Oct 30, 2009

I was observing a Speech Therapist work with an autistic child (I consult with a school system in New York). The teacher was sweetly and diligently trying to help him pronounce the word ‘Green.' The boy, we'll call him Alan, threw the apple he was holding at the teacher. It bounced lightly off her.

The Speech teacher laughed, and then, realizing that she might have been sending the wrong message, got a stern look on her face. "Alan , look at me," she said. "I am not happy."

Alan then went on to do many more minor defiant acts, including sitting in her chair, knocking objects over, leaving his desk and walking around the room, and ignoring her directions.

This kind of thing plays out countless times in classrooms and homes everyday. Adults often get caught up in trying to show misbehaving special needs children that what they've done is wrong. However, this usually is ineffective. Why?

Mainly it's because children are often not doing these behaviors for their own sake, they do them specifically to get a reaction from the adult. Imagine you are an autistic child (or really, most any child). It's fun to see an adult make a face, gesticulate wildly, and get louder. It's like you've made the adult into a cartoon character. And all you had to do was spill some milk on purpose or throw an apple.

Mostly, children with autism (and really, most any child) don't care about the seemingly invented concepts of right and wrong. Instead, they care about what is entertaining and what isn't, what gives them power and what doesn't. In that way, they are like pretty much everybody else.

The next time you find yourself about to promise your autistic child (or really, most any child) that you will become entertaining if they misbehave ("Joey, if you throw that glass I am going to get really angry!"), try a different approach. Try being calm and peaceful. You can still stop something from happening if it doesn't look safe or something expensive will be broken, etc. But instead of doing it like your hair is on fire, do it a little slower, with ease, without injecting morality into it.

Remember, your child probably already knows that you don't want him throwing the glass. You've likely told him this many times already. Communicating that information again usually results in nothing useful. What you want to communicate is this: I do not give big entertaining reactions when you do things I do not want.

photo: nigelstwin@flickr

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