The Crying Game
If you are the parent, teacher, or relative of autistic children who cry a lot, you already know how stressful and emotionally draining it can be. But put yourself in the child’s shoes. Think how you’d feel if suddenly you couldn’t get anyone to understand what you want or need. You can’t find the words. You don’t know how to point or take your mom, dad, or teacher to where the desired object is. You become frustrated because it’s just out or reach. You can see it, but you can’t make anyone understand what you want. Or you are in a place or situation that makes you uncomfortable or anxious. You don’t know how to say you want to leave. Out of anger, exasperation, and extreme frustration you begin to cry. Others try to help but still fail to give you what you want; you continue to cry because you don’t know what else to do. This is the world of an autistic child.
Autistic Children who Cry A Lot: Tips to Manage Excessive Criers
- Redirect attention.
If your child cries every time he or she wants something, begin to work on changing this behavior. Many autistic children can be redirected to accept another preferred activity or reinforcer. For example, if your child wants a particular treat and it’s not available, offer an alternative**.** Make sure it’s something they prefer. Don’t offer a ball when they want their favorite crackers. If the child begins to cry or tantrum, stop speaking and withhold the treat. Again, offer another preferred item. This may take several attempts. Make sure you give lots of praise when the child eventually stops crying and accepts the alternate treat.
- Ignore the child.
This is the most difficult suggestion to carry out. As parents we carry lots of guilt and sadness over our kid’s condition. We try to make them happy however we can. But when we give in to crying for every minor (and major) upset, we’re teaching our children that crying is the most effective way to get what they want. As long as they’re not hurting themselves or others, ignore the behavior. For example, if your child wants a cookie before dinner, and you say no, and he or she begins crying uncontrollably, without giving eye contact or comfort, allow them to cry. When they are done crying or have calmed down considerably, give them attention. Praise them for calming down. Then state they can’t have the cookie now and why. If they begin to cry again, start ignoring again. We have to teach our children that crying or throwing a tantrum won’t get the desired results. Don’t expect changes overnight. This technique requires lots of time for an autistic child to learn how to communicate their needs in other ways.
- Put them on a schedule.
Many autistic children enjoy having daily routines and predictability. Having a daily schedule helps keep them engaged which in turn may help keep them emotionally centered. Reward and praise your child for following the schedule. Of course the schedule will have both preferred and non-preferred activities. If your child cries when presented with the non-preferred activities, continue with the activity and increase the reinforcers. Begin to dial back on the reinforcers when he or she begins to complete tasks with less crying.
- Reduce sensory input that triggers crying.
Some autistic children cry when they feel physical or mental discomfort. Try to anticipate when your child may encounter a sensory trigger that may result in a meltdown. For example, if your child hates to be in crowded places and you are going out to dinner at a popular restaurant, ask to be seated in a quieter area if possible. If loud noises cause crying, try to avoid noisy areas as much as possible. Another tip is preparing your child by telling him or her beforehand if they will be in a crowded or noisy area. Praise or reward children for the time they are able to tolerate the situation without crying.
- Provide positive sensory input.
There has been an increase in the number of companies that make products which provide positive sensory input. There are bean bag and foam chairs which provide deep massage and a feeling of security. Some parents of autistic children who cry a lot try alternative treatments such as aromatherapy, massage, and chiropractic realignment. The parents claim these alternatives help reduce mental stress and sensitivity to certain stimuli. If your child has a toy or object that provides comfort, take it along on outings if possible.
McClannahan, Lynn E. and Patricia J. Krantz Activity Schedules for Children with Autism, Woodbine House 1999.