When dealing with challenging behaviours at home I have two different coping personalities .
One in which I remain cool, calm and collected and am able to manage it all in a composed way knowing just the right way to handle the chaos. Sometimes I even shock myself and totally toot my own horn and think ‘wow, you are really nailing this, go you!’
In stark contrast my second technique goes a bit like this. Abort mission, I’m done. What a shit show. Control yourselves, stop crying, ‘Are you serious why did you hit your sister again? And why are you the one screaming about it?’ Nope too much, no idea what the hell I'm doing.
The truth is challenging behaviours are tough to navigate through. Noone has all the answers and you aren’t going to get it right all of the time. Insert having a child with a diagnosis that presents daily struggles with behaviour and well you may feel at a loss most of the time.
Autism can be tough and definitely plays a major role in determining what the days can look like at home and has a strong influence on the family dynamic.
Yes, while some days can be relatively cruisy, calm and collected lets be honest a lot of the time as parents you may feel like your walking on eggshells and anticipating the ticking time bomb that is about to explode.
It is no one's fault, especially not your child who has autism. Each day can present new challenges for them, environments can be more triggering, sensory overload is inevitable and struggles to keep emotions in check must be downright exhausting for them at times. So we adapt, we stay patient and calm (as best we can!!) and we develop strategies to assist in managing challenging behaviour at home.
Being at home is my child’s safe place, I totally get it as I am a bit of a homebody myself but the difference is the emphasis on the words ‘safe place’. Being home and having your family surrounding you that are your ‘people’, your security and your comfort means that they can be their true self. Home is their sanctuary, their haven and their place that brings calmness from the business of the big wide world.
The thing with autism is that usually outside of the home can be extremely overwhelming and a lot of the time autistic children spend a great deal of it masking behaviours, imitating, ‘fitting it’ and acting how they are ‘meant’ to act. All those therapy strategies and interventions put into practice to help them cope.
This means (well in my daughter's case) that being home brings the comedown. Exhaustion kicks in and sensory overload has peaked. This is where autistic meltdowns and challenging behaviours kick in big time. Sometimes simply being at home can also present triggers, over stimulation and anxiety so it is imperative to develop strategies (or what I like to think of as an autism toolbox) to manage difficult behaviours at home. To give your child the ability to regulate their emotions in their ‘safe place’ and to ease the burden that challenging behaviours may have on the family.
Strategies for managing behaviours at home
- Establish routines and predictability where possible
It’s impossible to have a clear set routine each and everyday as changes are bound to happen. But individuals with autism thrive on knowing what to expect, it brings a sense of calmness and control. Adding predictability and structure where possible throughout the day can assist in emotional regulation and aid in preventing less challenges throughout the day. This can be done in many different ways.
-Have a routine board with days of the week and photos of your child, for example Monday a picture of them at swimming, Tuesday a picture of them at therapy. It doesn’t have to detail everything about the week but incorprate the key activities that don’t change.
-Talk about what is happening the next day each night and then again in the morning ‘Tomorrow we will have a quiet morning then after lunch we are going to the park for a playdate, then daddy will be home around dinner time’. A simple overview of the day's plan to give them a sense of control and knowing of what to expect.
- Time management
Transitioning to and from activities can cause distress so the implementation of time management tools is a helpful way to cope with this. Your child may be completely fixated with something they are doing but it's time to stop and get ready for dinner, giving warning prior can help with a smoother transition. ‘In ten minutes you will need to finish what you are going so we can have dinner’, followed by further reminders.
Giving cues about what is happening throughout the day can also assist with time management skills ‘Once you are dressed we will have breakfast then we will go to the shops’. Constantly giving them little bits of predictability throughout the day.
The use of sand timers and visual countdowns are a fantastic therapy tool to support challenging behaviours triggered by transitions and time management.
- Give choices
Making choices gives a sense of control and assists in feelings of inclusion and empowerment but on the downside of that having too many choices can be very overwhelming for those on the spectrum. It’s important to give choices throughout the day that are simple and concise. The use of choices can be particularly useful during overwhelming and challenging times, as children with autism tend to struggle to communicate. Using hand gestures or visuals can help but basic and simple language is the fundamental key ‘I can see that you're upset. Would you like a cuddle or some quiet time?’
-Choice boards. Sometimes deciding what to do can cause anxiety or lead to frustration so giving a choice board can assist in allowing your child to feel a sense of control but not be overwhelmed by having too many choices.
Perhaps you have come home and your child is a bit heightened with emotions giving a choice board can diffuse negative behaviours arriving by taking their focus elsewhere.
- Reinforce positive behaviours
Reinforcing positive actions is such a simple but effective tool to modify and bring positive effects on behaviour. Focusing on strengths and incorporating this to guide future behaviours can be useful to build a sense of self worth and satisfaction ‘I love how organised you are, your room is always tidy and inviting.
It's always nice to hear a compliment about something you're doing well so reinforcing positive behaviours and showing your child that you are proud of their actions can play a huge role in setting a positive energy. It's particularly useful in looking out for behaviours that are dealt with in a progressive and non-distressing way and mentioning each time they happen ‘Well done for not getting stressed about your tag annoying you, thankyou for telling me calmly’.
Taking note of all of the little things and acknowledging them can really set the tone for the day.
- Be consistent
Let's be honest there is simply no quick fix or magic answer when dealing with challenging autistic behaviours. Something we can do to help in managing meltdowns, anxiety and challenging behaviour is to be consistent.
Consistency sets expectations and boundaries and individuals on the spectrum benefit greatly from reliability. They know what is expected, what the consequences will be and how and why behaviours will be dealt with in a particular way.
Be consistent in the language being used, the use of choices given and the expectations. Set the environment up for success.
- Teach emotional regulation skills
A main strategy effective in managing challenging autistic behaviours at home is to give your child opportunities for self-regulation.
-Having an emotional toolbox of sensory tools such as fidget toys to help cope in times of anxiety or distress.
-Incorporate the use of visuals. Have a chart that shows different emotions to assist your child to recognise what it is that they are feeling.
-Teach coping strategies to use when they are feeling overwhelmed or upset; taking deep breaths, having time out, and asking for help.
-Incorporating the use of social stories, one for feeling angry, one for feeling worried, one for feeling frustrated ect.
Social stories work best when they are relevant to the situation and are short and simple: ‘I am feeling angry’, ‘Sometimes when I am angry I throw things’, ‘Throwing things can be dangerous’…
-Use a timer for time out. Before emotions get too heightened, recognise them and encourage your child to have some quiet time. ‘Let's read some books together for ten minutes to restart, when the sand goes all the way to the bottom we will see if our breaths have calmed down’.
-Incorporate behaviour strategy models; Zones of regulation, The alert program, The just right kids strategy model. Whatever model is suggested or preferred stick with it, keep it consistent and use the language that derives from it.
-Create a calming space and ritual. My daughter enjoys going to her room for some quiet time, we close the blinds and turn on the diffuser. Sometimes I might give her a massage, we practice deep breathing together, read a book or she has some ipad time.
It's important to try to make sense of challenging behaviours, Are there environmental factors to consider? What was the trigger? How did they cope? What can you do to help with emotional regulation to ease the behaviour? Strategies then can be put in place to minimise or replace the behaviour with more beneficial and positive ones.
We need to remember to also pick our battles and look at fixing the environment and triggers rather than concentrate so much on the challenges that the behaviours can bring. The key is to try to provide children with emotional regulation strategies that assist in bringing continuous calmness into their day.