Behavior is Never Just One Thing
A friend of mine who works with autistic and other ND kids in a school setting recently asked me for some advice. A teacher had asked her for help with a kid in her class who hates it when people get close to him and talk loudly, but he often does just that to other people. So my friend asked me: “how do you make that connection for them?”
Hoo boy, I nearly went off! There is so much to unpack in that simple question. Because it’s never just one thing. Parents and teachers may look at this “behavior” and wonder why the kid can’t just understand that other people hate it too. Or maybe they think the child does know but is just being a brat. All of this is wrong. There are layers of understanding that have to be addressed to change this one behavior, because it’s never just one thing!
First Things First – Be Clear
For NT kids, the prevailing wisdom goes thusly:
Adult: “How do you feel when someone does that to you?”
Child: “I don’t like it.”
Adult: “How do you think other people feel when you do that to them?”
Child: “I bet they don’t like it, either.”
Adult: “Do you want to make people feel bad?”
Adult: “So you’re not going to do that anymore, are you?”
And this works pretty well for them, once you walk them through it. We all grew up with Sesame Street teaching us how to respect other people’s feelings.
But autistic kids don’t always make that connection on our own. When adults ask us “How do you think other people feel when you do that?”, our immediate thought is usually something along the lines of “How would I know? I’m not in their head, I don’t know what they feel!”
This does not mean that autistic kids lack empathy! But it does mean that we don’t assume we know how other people think and feel (something NTs do rather a lot that causes a lot of miscommunications, if we’re all honest).
So the first thing you have to do in a situation like the one described to me is tell the child clearly that other people also hate it when you get too close and talk loudly.
It’s so simple, yet so often, autistic kids get blamed for doing things they didn’t know were wrong because nobody told them, they just said “you know what you did” or “you should know better”. Just tell the child – in clear words – that it’s rude or it makes people uncomfortable and that’s why they shouldn’t do it.
Second – There’s So Much Control Involved!
You cannot expect a child to stop something that they cannot control. And control comes from understanding one’s own body and senses and learning autonomy over one’s body. All of this takes conscious effort and time for autistic kids.
Lots of us have difficulty modulating our volume. We may not notice when we get loud because we’re excited or we may not hear a difference when someone tells us to speak softly.
Kids with auditory sensitivities may complain about things being “loud” only for parents and teachers to tell them it’s fine, which only makes them confused when they’re then told that they are being too loud. Why isn’t their voice ok when everything else is just as loud?
Teaching an ND kid to modulate their volume means teaching “inside voice” all the time. In class, at home, every time they come inside, remind them it’s time to use their “inside voice”. Only when the child has a grasp of using a softer tone on purpose will they be able to quiet down when they get close to someone.
Personal space has to be taught as well. ND kids often have adults disrespecting their personal space – whether that’s ABA forcing hand-over-hand techniques or an impatient, frustrated parent saying “I’ll do it” and shoving the child’s feet into shoes or snatching something out of their hands – so we sometimes have difficulty understanding why we get in trouble for getting too close or touching people without asking. (I get it, parents, I really do – we’re not easy to raise and we are frustrating, it’s true. I know you’re doing your best and I’m not trying to attack you, just letting you know how it works in our heads.)
Like the “inside voice”, personal space needs to be taught consistently all the time – at home, in school, in all situations. Simple phrases like “we keep our hands to ourselves” or “give me some room, please” and modeling that behavior as well helps kids learn that everyone gets space and how to respect where the boundaries are.
And All of This Relies on Impulse Control
Kids in general lack impulse control. Even NT kids, until about 5 or 6 years old, can’t always make themselves do what they want to do, let alone what you tell them to do. Self-mastery comes with practice.
Autistic and ND kids struggle with impulse control even more, because it’s part of that executive dysfunction that we tend to have problems with. While they may understand the concept of personal space and might have mastered their “inside voice”, they still need their impulse control to kick in and make them use those skills.
Impulse control is another thing that has to be practiced and developed, like a muscle. Classroom rules like waiting in line or waiting your turn on the playground help, but so do fun games like Red Light, Green Light, Mother May I, and Simon Says (Simon Says is especially good for learning to think about what you’re going to do before you do it). The more practice kids get in waiting and thinking before doing, the better their impulse control will be.
Better impulse control means that they’ll be more able to use their inside voice or respect someone’s personal space on their own, but it also means that they will be able to make corrections when they slip up and you have to remind them.
So About That Kid in the Story?
I don’t know all of how that played out – it’s not my business, of course. My friend did tell me that the teachers’ plan already included much of what I’ve said here (yay for those teachers!). She also mentioned that they made the kid a visual numbered scale to represent his volume, so they can point to it and tell him he’s at a 4-5 when his “inside voice” ought to be a 3. This is proving very effective and helping him adjust more quickly and accurately. I endorse this idea – anything to make abstract ideas like “loud” and “quiet” more concrete will be helpful!
Parents and teachers of autistic kids so often focus on “challenging behavior” but there is so much that goes into every one of those “behaviors”! It’s important to think through every aspect to make sure a child is capable of behaving any other way and that they know why they ought to. You can’t just say “stop that” and then get mad at them – that will only make them confused and scared. Give autistic and ND kids the tools to understand themselves and help them to understand the world around them, and with a little work they will develop just as much self-control as any other child.
Did you spend your childhood getting in trouble for things you didn’t understand? Did you or do you still struggle with your volume? I was very loud as a child and got shut down so much that now I’m very soft-spoken unless I get excited. Did you ever feel like other people got to do things that you got in trouble for, like there was some way of doing it that was ok that you just never mastered? What would have helped you in a situation like this?