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Pick Your BattlesOne of the most important strategies to use for severely autistic children is to learn how to look away from certain misbehaviors. Their parents and teachers often feel like they need to comment on every strange or negative behavior and reinforce it accordingly, but this is not the case. Children with severe autism need to feel that you are creating a positive environment. You can focus on the specific behaviors that need to change; ignoring other behaviors is important. In order to decide whether you need to react to a behavior, consider whether it is dangerous, interferes with learning, interferes with social interactions, or is concerning for another valid reason. If the answer to all these questions is "no," then avoid reacting to the behavior. For example, if a severely autistic child perseverates by clutching her hands together at random times, it is wise to ignore the behavior and work on more pressing issues. Severe aggression in autistic children, however, should always be addressed.
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Think About Motivation
Before coming down hard on a child with severe autism, think about why the child is exhibiting a specific misbehavior. They are not always "trying to misbehave" or attempting to avoid a task; in fact, they very often have another reason for why they are acting inappropriately. For example, the child may be struggling to communicate an emotion - such as fear, frustration, hunger, or hurt - and it "comes out" as a misbehavior. Alternatively, the child may have sensory needs that must be addressed, and she is trying to get them addressed through misbehaving (e.g., hoping that an aid will physically restrain her or speak to her in a loud voice). Children with severe autism may also misbehave when they feel bored, overstimulated, or overwhelmed by a situation that seems out of their control.
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Many strategies for severely autistic children require you to be proactive and to think about what you can do to avoid problem behaviors. For example, since children with autism have difficulties with transitions, you can warn them ahead of time when a transition (or other potentially problematic event) is coming up. As much as possible, try to avoid locations or activities that often trigger misbehavior, and watch the child for warning signs that a misbehavior is about to occur. You can also give the child a "safe area" to go to when he becomes overwhelmed or overstimulated and needs some time alone.
You can also help severely autistic children by teaching them relaxation techniques, concrete routines, and behavioral scripts they should follow when necessary. Give children with severe autism choices whenever you can, as it helps them feel like they have more control over the situation.
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Don't Take It Personally
One of the strategies to use for severely autistic children that is hardest to put into practice is to remain as objective as possible. When a child with severe autism misbehaves, it is not a reflection of the child's relationship with you or on your success as a parent or educator. Instead, it is a normal reaction for a child who is struggling to make sense of the world around her.
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Ward K and Gaetz M. Calgary Board of Education Staff Association Convention. Dealing with severe behaviors, retrieved at http://autism.ca/aide.htm
Schoolthemes.org. Working with autistic children, retrieved at http://www.schoolthemes.org/working-with-autistic-children.html
MayoClinic.com. Autism - symptoms, retrieved at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/autism/DS00348/DSECTION=symptoms
Four Strategies to Use for Severely Autistic Children
Is your autistic child aggressive? If so, this series contains articles that can help you understand what your child may be feeling and how to control these aggressive tendencies.