Get top advice from an educational therapist on why it’s vital to find ways to help a child with autism communicate.
My son used to bang his head, but he has stopped. For the past two months, he has been pushing and biting children in the classroom for no reason. At home, he is trying to bite us when he gets angry about not getting what he wants. Please tell me why he is behaving like this with children for no particular reason.
In most cases when parents are really concerned about the behavior of their children—whether it’s biting or sometimes stimming (movements back and forth that can go on for hours)—they’ll often get a strictly behavioral answer from a teacher or a therapist.
This often takes the form of the following advice to parents: You have to use positive reinforcement for desired normal behavior.
Or, if there’s a behavior that the parents don’t like, use an aversive stimulus, some kind of punishment, that will discourage the child from doing the behavior.
These are overly simple, misguided behavioral responses. I don’t do that. What I do is address the underlying issue. Your son used to bang his head; that has stopped, and now he’s biting people in the classroom and at home.
You say he’s behaving like that “for no particular reason.” There’s nobody provoking the biting. He’s just biting on his own. The other child didn’t do anything to him. Why is he biting this person? It seems like a complete mystery.
But there is a reason. Perhaps, the reason is that a preschool child, who is probably about three and a half or four years old, has no other way to communicate with others.
When children are two, two and a half years old, they’re normally able to express their needs and can understand and know their feelings.
And your child, who is three and a half, or four years old, is frustrated—perhaps terribly frustrated about his inability to find a better way to communicate. Up until this point, nobody’s been able to understand why.
There’s no apparent reason because people are not looking for the reason. Most likely he is biting because he has no language skills and therefore has no other ways of expressing himself and understanding others.
I’d start by asking the parents, what does he understand? What clearly doesn’t he understand? How does he express himself when he wants something?
How can we create a better connection between what he wants and how he expresses it? Most parents would say that he understands quite a bit.
Many children on the spectrum actually have no connection to language. It’s remarkable, and we don’t know how to explain it.
There’s absolutely no connection between what they’re feeling and thinking and language. These children don’t yet realize that language is a way of making their lives easier, a way of communicating internal feelings and thoughts to the outside world.
This might be the case here. There may not be a language connection: he has to be taught. That may be the solution. He has to be taught that connection.
If you’re a parent looking for an answer, I can tell you what I do with some kids. We are now talking about a child who doesn’t connect to language and has to learn how to make that connection.
Once he makes that connection, he changes almost immediately. For the child, It’s an amazing revelation: Wow, this language thing is great! This language thing really works! That’s where I would start. Teaching your child language is an effective way to get him to stop negative behaviors like biting.
I don’t mean holding up a picture of a house and saying the word “house.” I’ve seen ABA therapists hold up the letter T, and the kid has to say, “Tuh,” eight out of 10 times; this is the way he is expected to learn to speak.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about learning language in the same way that we learned language—in real situations, with real context.
Let me give you an example of a 10-year-old boy who had absolutely no language. He was putting pegs in order. I took one of the pieces away, and he began looking for it.
This was actually one of the very few times that he acted in a normal manner. He was actually looking for something. He takes constructive action; he has a purpose, he has an intention.
This is what linguists would call an effect—there’s an emotion, a feeling behind what he’s doing. He’s purposefully looking. He wants to find the missing block! I wanted to insert an appropriate word in his mind.
I wanted him to be able to express what he was doing using language. What word did I use for him to connect, to tie down and build a bridge to language?
The child was looking for something. I said, “Where? Well, where is it? Where could it go? Where do you think it is?” I’m trying to connect the word “where” with what he’s feeling and doing: “Where is the block?”
Finally, he said “Wh—?” That was the breakthrough. At that moment he realized that language could help him in a very fundamental way.
This is an example of how to get the child to connect to language. You need a situation when he is experiencing intention. His mindset and his emotions are all connected.
I wanted him to connect intention with language. He finds out very quickly how language could make his life a lot easier.
No need to have a tantrum or yell or bite or drag his mother over to the refrigerator. He can use language in a much more efficient way to make his life a lot better and a lot easier.
Rob Bernstein, an educational therapist specializing in autism spectrum disorders, gives you hands-on suggestions for handling your child’s behavioral issues. Rob uses a cognitive approach to understand what’s underlying the behaviors so that the issues can be resolved. Twitter: @autismspeech