Autism Impulse Control: How to Teach Impulse Control to Children with Autism

One of the main issues parents and teachers face in children with autism is impulse control. This can manifest itself as inappropriate behavior such as aggression, obsessive-compulsive habits, and stereotypic behavior (frequent, repetitive and non-functional behaviors). Impulse control can be a difficult skill to teach to any child, and even more difficult with children who have neurological disabilities such as autism. Kids with autism often seek instant gratification and have a hard time curbing impulsive behavior. Here are a few techniques that can be helpful when teaching impulse control to children with autism.

Autism Impulse Control: Model Appropriate Behavior

In situations where impulsive behaviors are frequently occurring, it can be beneficial to model more appropriate options. Because individuals with autism often have difficulty expressing themselves, their functional behaviors may be replaced with stereotypy and compulsions such as non-contextual laughing, shouting, hand flapping, and aggression. Modeling an appropriate behavior will teach the child a more positive way of expression. For example, if you notice a child knocks all their toys off the shelf every time he or she walks past them, you can sit down with the child and show them how to constructively play with the toys. Model not only how to play, but also voice tone, language, facial expression, and so forth. At first the child may resist and show no interest. Many times a leisure skill must be taught to people with autism, just like any other skill would, in the hopes that it becomes something they truly value.

Autism Impulse Control: Positive Reinforcement

One of the primary principles of behavior therapy in children with autism is positive reinforcement, which increases the likelihood that a desired behavior will occur in the future by immediately following it with something rewarding. A reward can be tangible (like candy or soda) or anything else that the child values (hugs, high fives, tickles, etc.)

Motivational systems, such as token boards, have proven highly successful teaching tools. With a token board, the child earns a set number of tokens before exchanging for a reward (using the same principal as an “allowance”). Using positive reinforcement contingently can be very beneficial in replacing impulsive behaviors.

Look for opportunities to reward the child when he or she is not displaying such behaviors, especially in situations where they normally occur. If a child frequently yells and shouts at the dinner table, consistently reinforcing sitting quietly will increase the likelihood that the child will continue to sit quietly as the dinner goes on (and eventually at future meals). Reinforce even small intervals of appropriate behavior in the beginning, and try to keep praise specific (e.g. “wow, look how nicely you are sitting at the dinner table”).

Autism Impulse Control: Redirect

Another method that can be used to teach children with autism impulse control is redirection from the problem causing stimulus. Overstimulation of the senses is a common cause of impulsive behaviors. Look for cues that often precede the impulsive behavior so that you are aware of when they are more likely to occur, and find opportunities to redirect their attention before the disruptive behavior occurs.

Art and music are two examples of activities that kids with autism tend to enjoy, since they appeal to audio and visual senses. Children will also have less opportunity to act impulsively if they have a schedule to follow, whether it be pictorial, written, or on an iPod/iPad. Dr. Fred Volkmar, director of the Yale Child Study Center, likes devices such as the iPad because they offer positive visual stimulation and a means of organization. “You basically want to do whatever you can to get the child to be more organized and communicative,” he states.

Teaching kids with autism impulse control can be a challenge, and there is no single solution that works for everybody. As with most teaching, the more intervention you provide to a child, the greater chance of seeing success. Like working to improve other skills, it is advantageous to begin teaching impulse control as early as possible. Above all, try to avoid getting frustrated and know that it will take time and patience; meanwhile, you can be proud that you are helping a child reach his or her full potential. Good luck!