He could tell us what he's thinking if he wanted to; he's just being manipulative.
He just doesn't want to listen.
He's playing us all and trying to get a reaction out of us.
This behavior has nothing to do with your child's diagnosis.
Ever heard those statements before? I'm sure you have, in one form or another. Perhaps you've even used them a time or two. At first glance, the assertions behind these statements seem benign enough - someone is wanting to demonstrate that autistic children can do the things that typical kids can do. Certainly, that's reasonable enough. Typical kids can ride bikes, so can some autistic kids. Typical kids can write and so can some autistic kids. Typical kids can talk, and so can some autistic kids. So, in many ways, autistic kids are just that - kids.
However, when it comes to behaviors - hitting, kicking, throwing, yelling, and other behaviors that would appear negative - I can tell you with all certainty that it has EVERYTHING to do with your child's diagnosis. Here's why...
As much as some would like to say that autism can be separated from the individual, it cannot. However, it doesn't define the whole of a person, either. Just as I cannot be defined solely as an autism mom, a writer, a stay-at-home parent, an engineer, or female, so can my child not be solely defined as autistic. He is - in fact - a wonderful mix of traits, abilities, and disabilities that makes him the person who can only be best described as "Jack".
Yet, every action I engage in is defined by my experiences and characteristics, my neurology, and so all behaviors I act out - from grocery shopping to getting in a car and driving, to the way in which I react to a friend's pain and the way in which I write - is influenced by who I am. Therefore, to say that the way I write has nothing to do with the fact that I am a former engineer turned stay-at-home autism mom is simply false.
And what about my "maladaptive" behaviors? We all have them. The way in which I get angry when a parent of typical child complains that their typical child doesn't stop asking questions is not because I am a jealous person. It is because my experiences are defined by the fact that I am an autism mom and know the experience of having a child who has never asked a single question.
And what about my recently heightened tendency to worry about my son? It's not because I'm a controlling helicopter parent. It's because I have experienced the world treating my son wrong. I have also experienced the late loss of a pregnancy when I thought all was fine. It is because I have suffered forever from anxiety. All of these things - my anxiety and my experiences - have shaped my reaction to situations, and in getting to understand those motivators behind my behavior might suddenly shift your understanding from thinking that I am doing something "negative" (being a helicopter parent) to seeing my point-of-view (a mother afraid of loss and pain for her child in the context of anxiety).
And so it is with our kids.
I have written before that all behavior - ALL BEHAVIOR - is communication. There is not a single thing we do any given day that doesn't say something about us. With the exception of those of us with mental health issues that cause us to act in mean and sadistic ways for no reason at all, the vast majority of us - kids included - do not misbehave simply to misbehave. It's a common misconception. We look at our coworkers and declare "She's such a bitch", as though that negative behavior is simply what she is. Instead, we don't look close enough to see the woman going through a bitter divorce. Or the woman who fought tooth and nail to get the position she has and continues to fight each day as though her continued employment was a battle to be won. Her behavior may be a cry out to say that she's at the end of her rope, she's tired, and she has little energy for this anymore. It's easier for us to place the blame on her instead of examining ourselves and how we might approach our dealings with the "bitch" differently.
In particular, I see this kind of perception placed upon children. With the exception of children diagnosed with some kind of defiance disorder - like Oppositional Defiant Disorder - we rarely see kids who misbehave to misbehave. The child who pitches a temper tantrum when it's time to leave may not want to leave the game of Barbies she's been engrossed in for an hour. So we look at that child and say, "She does this all the time" or "It's such a struggle to get her to go anywhere". Instead, if we were to look at that situation and try to understand the child's behavior, we might find solutions.
We - as adults, in particular - like to impose this kind of "I'm-big-you're-small, I'm-right-you're-wrong" thinking on children. In order to change the behavior of our children, we need to change our own. This isn't a compliance contest to be won and children are not little people to be dominated. And with the little girl having the tantrum over the Barbies, you may be right in that you absolutely need to leave right then to, say, pick up a sibling at school. However, before dragging your screaming child off to the car, you might try to ask why she doesn't want to leave. If she says, "I was playing with Barbies", then you can suggest that she might bring a couple along, or - if that doesn't help - you can at least sympathize with her so she knows that you regret having to drag her away. "I know you were having so much fun with your Barbies and leaving them makes you sad, but it's time to go pick up Big Brother at school and we don't want him to be sad if we're late. So, you can choose to bring a Barbie with us or you can leave your Barbies at home and play with them when we get back, but we do need to leave now."
One minute to analyze a situation is all it takes.
And with our autistic children, it is even more critical that we recognize that all behavior is communication. It is simply easier for adults working with our children to label them as manipulative, aggressive, a behavioral issue, or "just being a typical bratty kid" rather than to do the extra work - and in the case of children with communication challenges, it will be extra work - to decipher the situation and identify what is going on.
Take a couple of examples from Jack's recent behavioral issues. The following is an actual incident at school...during table work time, Jack picks up his worksheets and throws them on the ground. He did this last year, too, but not with the frequency of this year. He then yells, "Pick them up!" It might be easy to look at this and say that he just doesn't want to do his work, he's lazy, and he is smarting back to his teachers.
However, let's examine this closer. As a parent, I know Jack has two main triggers to "throwing" behaviors. One is impulse control and stimming. He loves watching objects drop. In fact, he tends to throw sidearm and cut his eyes to the moving object. He lacks impulse control, so the consequences of his actions don't occur to him before he acts, as is evidenced by the fact that his bathroom was drenched last night when he gleefully threw a cup of water in the air. The second trigger is frustration/escape. If Jack perceives a task as too difficult, he will throw the object in question. It has been everything from an iPad (a beloved object in Jack's eyes, and one that he would not want to damage) to papers to crayons to anything.
So, in this example, Jack throwing his papers is probably a means of frustration and escape, given that he yelled afterwards. Instead of saying, "He just doesn't want to do his work", we need to examine why.
As I've said before, Jack lacks empathy (remember from this previous post that empathy is just the ability to relate to the emotional state of others, which is wholly different than being able to love someone), so he is going to struggle to understand that relationship between doing his schoolwork and pleasing his teacher. (As an aside, he does enjoy "praise" in the form of smiling and clapping, but I believe this is because he likes the sound.) Since pleasing teachers isn't a motivator, Jack's probably going to have a low tolerance for an activity he perceives as unpleasant, but why might he see table work as unpleasant?
This is where remembering the autistic child is important. Remembering Jack's challenges is critical to determining the reasons for his behavior. When I watch Jack feed himself with a fork or spoon, he fatigues easily. He has to put the utensil down between each bite and his grasp degrades over time. Holding that fork is tiring work.
So, when 2-3 worksheets are placed in front of him, he's going to remember his past experiences with this. Was he allowed to put his pencil down and rest? Was this tiring for him? Did it make his hand hurt? Many adults won't consider these possibilities because autistic children do not express or react to pain, discomfort, or fatigue in exactly the same way as the rest of us. They can't tell us when they're tired of a task or when their hands hurt. Us adults will see these kids as "smart" and assume that means that they could tell us when they are uncomfortable.
Only they can't.
Those 2-3 worksheets - front and back - may have seemed like climbing a mountain to Jack. He looks at them and remembers how it hurt his hand and made him feel tired the last time he did paperwork. He remembers how hard it was to stay sitting up. He remembers the way it made him feel. And while he loves letters, he doesn't want to feel that way. He gets frustrated - I don't want to do this today, I can't! - and throws his papers.
Then, to add to the situation, he yells, "Pick it up!" Now, it's very difficult for others to always recognize echolalia. There are two things that Jack commonly says after throwing, and it is because it is what is said to him when he throws. He'll say "If you throw it, then it's gone." That's more recognizable as echolalia because of the pronoun reversal. He'll also say, "Pick it up!", as in the way someone would tell him to pick it up. When you look at that phrase as echolalia, you realize that Jack wasn't smarting back; he was anticipating what he thought a teacher might say.
Look at how we've reshaped the way we look at that behavior! Instead of disobedience, we see a child who needs some support - and perhaps modification - to complete a task. Maybe it would be better to give Jack frequent breaks in between every line on the worksheet (or - at first - every few letters). Perhaps we should only expect him to do 1 worksheet a day instead of 3 and design instructional opportunities that do not involve so much pencil work. Before table work, perhaps he should get some gross motor time to give him the input he needs to stay calm. And we should always make it clear that there is an end in sight ("Just one more letter, Jack.").
And as always, we should empathize with Jack. "I know that writing is hard and that it makes you tired. Let's just write 5 letters and then you can crash on the crash pad."
But to say that his behavior has nothing to do with his autism is just false. It has everything to do with his autism. Autism and his unique way of learning and perceiving the world shapes every interaction, every experience, and every behavior in his day. You simply cannot separate the two. He is not a NT boy in one moment and an autistic boy in the next; he is autistic every minute of every day.
Instead of labeling autistic children as "bad" - the easy thing for us adults to do, because it takes the blame and burden off of us - we need to look at all behavior as a manifestation of our children's autism. We need to look at it as communication and work as detectives to figure out what our children are trying to tell us. Instead of saying, "This is a behavior issue I can't fix", look at it as a behavior issue that you have not yet figured out how to fix. It's not your fault; this isn't easy or intuitive by any means and it flies in the face of what generations of adults try to teach you about child behavior and parenting, but it may be the way to solving some of these issues.
Parenting and teaching aren't about domination. Behavior isn't about disobedience. Behavior is about communication. It is about challenges. It is about looking beyond the obvious into the overlooked details.
And behavior is absolutely about autism.