Setting Limits With Autistic Children

When children are born, they are dependent on us for their needs. They are incapable of performing any self-care skills. They are void of the ability to verbalize, feed their self, dress their self and do not possess control of their motor functions. They are helpless and must be the center of our universe and theirs for survival.

As the child’s development progresses, they begin to comprehend the fact that others do not possess the same mindset as them. They have expectations regarding their intent and other people possess different expectations. However, children on the spectrum do not understand why others think differently than them. This is due to difficulties predicting and comprehending other individuals intent due to your child’s hampered ability to interpret that other individual’s expectations and they interpret the world differently then the child.

With children on the spectrum, boundaries are of the utmost importance to assist them in learning appropriate self-control and social skill reinforcement. For a brief tome, our children are dependent on us. Quickly they start to separate from parents in gradual ways. At first they are totally dependent on us. Then they will crawl a few feet than crawling back to make sure we are still there. Next, the child learns to walk, moving a greater distance from their parents. You will hear, “do it myself” and that inevitable dreaded word from your child “NO”, all hallmarks of burgeoning independence.

Before we know it they are teenagers on the cusp of transition to adulthood. Keeping this gradual developmental process to independence in mind, teaching rules and boundaries is of the utmost importance for their inevitable transition to independence. When looking at our cute toddlers, it is difficult to visualize them grown up. However, all children do grow up to be adults one day and we owe them the assistance to help them become as independent as possible. This process must be enforced while they are young.

When implementing rules and structure, your child may not comprehend why you are doing so: Your child will most likely rebel these rule and test your ability to stick with your expectations. Remember why you have set up expectations: To help your child in functioning in society.

The world is a confusing place chock full of confusing and sensory overloading experiences for our kids. Their inability to prioritize and process the information received makes structure and learned behavioral expectations of the utmost importance. Our kids thrive on structure as it assists them to understand daily expectations.

When daily expectations are the same, they became ingrained in the child’s daily interactions. Structure becomes your child’s sense of normality in his life, assisting them in learning the social intricacies of the world. Lack of structure can increase your child’s stress levels to the force of a tornado that tears through a town. The child may fight complying with your expectations if they are new and test you to your limit but they do function better with structure then lack of it.

They do not have the internal controls so they depend on us to set them for the child externally. If consistency is practiced when setting expectations externally, the child will eventually internalize them as part of their daily routine. With a set of rules in place, the child will know what the daily expectations are. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of consistency.

Please remember, establishing boundaries is like learning to ride a bike. When you learned to ride a bike, you most likely fell off many times. Through trial and error you mastered riding a two-wheeler. Imagine if you had quit after falling down once, you never would have mastered that skill.

Learning new behaviors regarding children on the spectrum can be equated to this analogy. When establishing new expectations and following through with them, your child will test your limits to see if you will follow through. It is a process; the child will struggle to learn new skills and social expectations. They and you will make mistakes. By not backing off if the child struggles or rebels, new skills will eventually be internalized. Do not quit learning to ride the bike because they or you fell off once so to speak.

To reinforce expectations use pictures. Too much information can overload children so make it simple. Take photos of a made bed, full outfit, socks, shoes, soap, toothbrush, meal, etc. Number these on a board with a simple 1, 2, 3, etc. In the beginning: and later if your child’s capabilities are limited use hand over hand, verbal, and facial cues.

As time goes on and the child gets into a routine, attempt to phase out  assisting. To increase cooperative behavior, I have always subscribed to the earn a reward rule. Start with no rewards and allow the child to earn them. In doing so they start with nothing and earn it rather than having items they already possess taken away.

I purchased a roll of movie tickets. If goals were met, a movie ticket was earned. The ticket could be turned in to me for 30 minutes of video game time, TV. time and more. The list and rewards is endless. Each child is different. For children on the spectrum rewards should be given in short-term frequent increments verses long-term increments throughout the day as these children do not perceive time in the same way neurotypicals do. An hour for an autistic child is compared to what may be 5 hours for a neurotypical child.

Due to autistic children’s skewed perception of time, delayed gratification is difficult for them. Hence, the frequent short-term rewards. If the child’s schedule will be changed due to a vacation, the holidays, illness or any other factors that can impede daily schedules always attempt to prepare the child in advance. Without preparation, you will be setting up a ripe environment for meltdowns.

Talk to the child about impending changes. Watch a movie or get a picture book that reinforces the impending change. Do not prepare the child to far in advance as this concept may be beyond them. Several days ahead should suffice. Put up a picture board with strips of paper. Take one down each day while stating two more days until we go on our trip, school starts and more. This visual format assists children with their compromised sense of time and space. They can see the strips of paper taken down which gives them visual reference. On the last strip of paper, perhaps a picture of your goal could be applied to it. This will give the child visual reference regarding when the last strip of paper comes down what will happen on that day.

If at all possible, remind them that expectations will hold whether at home, on a trip or otherwise. Attempt to use the same reward system when away. ie my reference to movie ticket rewards. Visual clues help clarify rules and boundaries externally as children on the spectrum have difficulty making connections internally.

A major component of the process to adulthood is respecting other people and their personal space and needs. I emphasize the word process. As this transition occurs over many years. For children on the spectrum this process is a long an arduous road. They have difficulty perceiving things from another person’s perspective. (Mind blindness)

Ensuing behaviors are not intentional and planned defiance. Behaviors are resultant from a lack of ability to comprehend how the world works. Hence, the reason parents must provide external support through rewards, modeling and repercussions.

Frustration can occur due to sensory issues with sound, crowds, even close proximity of other people to their personal space. Being told no, being ill, lack of social controls, or having to many expectations expressed to them at once can discombobulate them.

Attempt to find out what your child is actually expressing through their behavior and address it. Remember, you know your child better than anyone. Attempt to resolve the issue through being responsive. For instance, if the child throws a pile of folded laundry down the stairs when asked to put them away. This is inappropriate.

The cause was making a request to complete a chore. The response was throwing the basket. I have personally experienced this. If the child is too overwhelmed, give them a cool down period in their room or with a cherished toy. Choose a calm and quiet time object. When children are in meltdown mode you will not be able to reason with them.

When the child has calmed down, You may say, “Wow, this laundry must be a lot for you to put away”. (Verbalizing a possible precipitant and helping the child use their words next time) Throwing the laundry makes a mess and now it will have to be folded again. (Repercussion) Next, offer to assist them in an alternative. (Problem solving) Perhaps laying folded clothes on the bedroom floor: Pants in one row, shirts in another and so on. (Visual organization)

Have taped pictures on each draw of socks, underwear, shirts and more. Remember it is difficult for children on the spectrum to visualize what they cannot see in the drawers.

Always require that the child help you re-fold  the clothes so responsibility for throwing the laundry basket is learned.  This can be adapted for different infractions. Do not reward this behavior with privileges during a meltdown. This will merely teach them that a meltdown will get them what they covet and that you will back down and give in to appease them. Remember the root of the problem. Challenging behaviors can occur due to the child’s frustration at lacking a skill.

Stick to your expectations as difficult as that can be. This will reinforce the concept of self-control and alternate solutions. After the child has cooperated and they have complied, move on. Make sure to note how the child turned themselves around behavior wise. When kids on the spectrum regain self-control it must be noted. Remember, if we only are attentive to them when they misbehave negative behaviors will escalate.

If the squeaky wheel gets the oil it will always crave more. Catch the child being good. Pick your battles to hinder defiance. Is the behavior unfit for future assimilation into society? Will the behavior harm the child, others, or property? Does the behavior hinder the child’s quality of life? Does it affect their ability to learn? If so, these must be addressed. Too many no’s and directives will be resultant in defiance and a deaf ear.

If other choices and wants are not detrimental to their welfare like watching a coveted video repetitively, or eating the same but healthy food choice daily let them do so. In closing, do not perceive your child as intentionally acting out. Attempt to separate the behavior from the child’s actions.

Attempt to perceive your child’s behavior and actions through their eyes. This in no way means to condone nor make excuses for their behavior and infantilize them by brushing all behavior off as “They do not no any better and cannot control it” Merely, separate the behavior from your child, be a sleuth and attempt to find out what triggered it. In doing so, expectations can be set and learned slowly but surely.

Remember, your child needs to adapt to the adult world they will all one day inhabit. It is your job to assist them in getting there. Remember, you have what it takes parents.

I am a published author and focus on books pertaining to autism and Aspergers Syndrome. I have had special needs articles published in several magazines. I have been interviewed several times in print, on pod casts, and internet T.V. regarding the autism spectrum. I have presented autism workshops to staff, management teams, and parent groups. I offer tips on curriculum development and behavior modification within the classroom and through in-services. I am certified by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a lead preschool teacher, an infant and toddler teacher, and site coordinator qualified to manage school age programs. I have recently ventured into public speaking engagements to educate both parents and educators on autism and Aspergers Syndrome
I want my experiences and challenges to be used productively as a learning tool for other parents and for educators as well. When my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade ago it was a foreign word among many parents and professionals alike. I fought for help never giving up. Through my books I wish to help parents feel like they do not walk in the dark, that they are not alone, empower them and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I also want to educate society at large on the topic of the autism spectrum. I believe all parties involved need to work as a collaborative team in order to insure a special needs child’s success.If you like my articles, aside from being the parent of an adult with Aspergers Syndrome/ A.D.D and an educational professional, I am also a published author of many special needs and autism related books written to inspire and support parents, families, educators and society at large as well. Please stop by and check out my books on at Mari Nosal : Please stop by my site at Amazon Books and check out my published books on autism aspergers special needs and more

Mari Nosal M.Ed.


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