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3 strategies in working with autistic children

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a disorder that affects more people in the UK than some may know. The charity Beyond Autism cites the NHS information centre (2012), saying that one in 100 children are on the ASD spectrum. What's more is that it is not just the children themselves, but families are affected by their children with autism, which leads to millions of people struggling to manage and handle the challenging behaviours autism presents to their lifestyle and livelihoods.

Let's think about this for a second.

It's not just the children, but families as well who have difficulties coping with the challenges autism brings.

Coping with autism

There are three strategies I'd like to share that are worth considering if you, your child or someone you know is struggling to cope with autism within the family.

1. It starts with an understanding of what the origin of the behaviours are

Many times and understandably so, parents and carers of children with physical and learning disabilities as well as autism find that when children are screaming, hitting and kicking, it seems random. It seems to happen at a random time of the day or in a random location, for no apparent reason, or perhaps after they tell the child "no", or that they cannot have something.

I italicised the word 'random' and 'apparent' for a reason. It is understandable that, during heightened moments of stress, anyone would do whatever they could to stop a child from screaming, kicking, hitting or acting out because they're in public, without stopping to understand what is causing the behaviour in the first place.

What can help is finding out that these behaviours are not necessarily random and that there are apparent reasons for them doing so? This takes investigation, putting on our thinking and Sherlock Holmes hats to find out the root of the behavioural challenges and to understand their origins. Many practitioners use a method call the "ABC technique" in which we need to record the behaviours as they happen (or as close to the time of the event as possible) by seeking the Antecedent (what happens before the behaviour, i.e. screaming, hitting or kicking), what the actual Behaviour is (i.e. screaming, hitting or kicking!) and what the consequence is (i.e. what do you or the person in the room do once the behaviour shows itself), hence the A, B and C.

You may find that after being as detailed as you can, such as noting the time of day and going through the aforementioned ABC technique of recording the behaviour, that it may be a sensory issue (does your child have difficulty with loud noises?) or attention-seeking (does your child panic when you or someone he does not know is not in the room?).

There are other possible reasons to an autistic child's behaviour, but you may find that being armed with more information and possible reasons for the child's behaviour may provide a sense of calm and relief you have not experienced in some time.

2. Make sure a team is involved

Have you ever seen a sports game or been involved in a sport yourself? The athlete may be the star, but it usually takes a team of coaches, family members and teammates themselves to ensure the athlete is successful.

We all want the best for our children, autistic or not, and want to make sure we gather opinions from all those involved, from the team that works with the child. Once we gain a better understanding of the possible reasons as to the behaviours of a child with autism, we want to seek what support we can from the child's multidisciplinary team.

While it's a privilege to work with children and their families suffering from autism, it's crucial that they know that the therapist doesn't have all the answers and that others need to be involved. 

Who's on this team anyway? School is a big player in all of this. It may include the child's teacher, the speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, school head and another carer to start. The point here is that all these professionals and family members will each have information that may help us understand more about the child's behaviours and what can be done to help manage them.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of making sure this full team is involved is knowing that everyone working with the child is on the same page, which can be a relief to families and children. Communication books are a great start, but it may take a meeting with all those involved at school face-to-face as well.

3. Summarising a plan of action

You now have a greater understanding of the origin's of the child's behaviour and have met with appropriate staff that work with the child, but now what? This may be a good time to write down a plan of suggestions based on all input received.

This can be a plan written by someone spearheading the aforementioned meeting in the last point. In my case, I have written a plan summarising points from speech and language/occupational therapists, parents, and school heads. It is a plan that may include greater one to one support for the child at school or calm, sensory rooms for children to limit the amount of noise and lighting at home or at school, or even making sure parents and carers themselves are engaging in self-care (i.e. finding times for respite). The point here is that having a plan of action with strategies that all agree to can be crucial to the child's development and care.

In reading this article, you may have noticed the strategies listed don't go in detail with how one needs to specifically manage a child with autism. Strategy number one is a lot longer than number three. There is a reason for this. It is incredibly important to understand what causes and what is the function of the child's behaviour rather than decide first what to do about it. Understanding the cause and function can help direct what plan of action to take, and it can't be done alone, but rather with others involved.

These strategies are just recommendations for guidance and may vary from professional to professional. Whichever challenge presents itself to you as the parent or carer or to the child, perhaps what has not been said is the most important recommendation of all: that you are there for your child, and are not afraid to make mistakes when coming up with solutions for the child.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Dr Joshua Bourne

Joshua is a Counselling Psychologist registered with the BPS, BACP and HCPC. He has over 7 years of training and work experience offering evidence-based practice in the field of Psychology, both in therapeutic and business psychology contexts. He works with children, families and adults and invites you to visit his profile for more information.… Read more

Written by Dr Joshua Bourne

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