Autism Series Part V: Sometimes kids just blow up!
Let’s start by acknowledging that… SOMETIMES KIDS JUST BLOW UP!
I’m sure you’ve experienced this. You’re having a great day, the children are getting along, things seem to be running smoothly, and then KABOOM! Major meltdown with crying, yelling, and hitting. Your child just blew up and there was no apparent rhyme or reason for it.
Let me share a quick story: One afternoon, my wife and I were preparing dinner for our six teenage boys. (before you start doing the incalculable math, we were foster parents☺)
One of our boys with ASD, let’s call him Sam, took a bag of Doritos to his room. Another boy saw Sam, and according to him, he “politely” reminded Sam that he could not have food in his room. Now, I doubt that it was as “polite” of a reminder as the boy promised, but regardless-the following blow up wasn’t his fault.
Sam instantly went from zero to sixty, ripped open the bag of Doritos, chips exploded into the hallway and the “polite” reminding boy hit the floor, covering his head as if to protect himself from Doritos shrapnel. Sam then bent over, yelled some unintelligible profanities at the boy, stomped to his room and slammed his door. And then slammed it again for extra emphasis.
“Where on earth did that come from?” My wife and I asked each other (we asked each other that question a lot during those five years). These outbursts were frequent and Sam seemed angry and frustrated most of the time.
We desperately wanted to help Sam, but didn’t know how. While working with Sam afterwards, he explained to us why he was upset. He had picked out the Doritos while shopping the previous day and had tried to eat them several times, but was told “NO” each time. No one told him WHEN or WHERE he could eat them.
It never occurred to me that we needed to specifically tell Sam WHEN and WHERE he would be eating his Doritos, or that by not telling him it would lead to such a fast and violent blow up. We had two boys with ASD at the time and the other boy was older, bigger and stronger, which made his blow ups even more violent and scary.
The worst part of these blow ups was that of course they had to happen when that child was having a really good day or the most inconvenient time of day i.e. paying for groceries at the store, going out the door for the child’s first day of school, or when we were REALLY running late for something.
It was SO hard to patiently figure out why they were both frustrated while they were throwing groceries out of the cart, faster than I could load them. A few times I discussed these difficult days with other parents and friends, they said things like “I understand what you’re going through” and “Remember, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
Seriously? I know my loving friends meant well, but in those moments I don’t want to be stronger, I just want a relaxed ride home from the grocery store. My neighbors, Bless their hearts. My wife and I learned quickly that we needed help and we reached out to our brilliant consultant. That same week she came to our home and taught us the skill of Preventive Teaching.
She started by claiming that although we couldn’t prevent 100% of the meltdowns, we could prevent most of them. She had us hook, line and sinker with the “most of them” claim. We were ready and willing to try anything that might help us with the anger and tension that was felt in our home.
“IT WORKS LIKE…LIKE MAGIC!”
We began using Preventive Teaching ALL OF THE TIME, and we became instant believers. We used it when the children struggled waking up, going to school, study hour, and even making dinner. Really, we used this new Preventive Teaching approach all day long, day after day.
The next week when our consultant came over to the home she asked how it was going and my wife and I unexpectedly looked at each other and said “It works like…like magic!” The fighting in our 12 passenger van had stopped, the arguing over video game time vanished, and most importantly, the tantrums in public places had decreased significantly!
Here are the modified steps for this magical skill
1: GIVE INITIAL PRAISE
A great way to begin an interaction with your child is by starting with something positive. Praise a specific behavior that your child is doing well or a behavior that you can see your child attempting to improve. Example “Thank you for making eye contact when we are talking”.
2: IDENTIFY THE SKILL AND GIVE EXAMPLES
Describe the new behavior that you would like to teach them. Children on the spectrum often struggle meeting new people and going to new places. “Jane, I’d like to teach you how to meet new people. We are going to your cousin’s home on Thursday for a birthday party. There might be a few people you haven’t met before. I’d like to show you how to introduce yourself.”
“Practice, we’re talking about practice” –Famous words by the basketball star Allen Iverson, who unlike us did not understand the importance of attending team practice.
Yes Allen, we’re talking about practice. Right before the specific event is happening, a quick review of what the child should expect and be expected to do should be practiced.
Back to the above example. Show your child what it looks like to meet someone for the first time, make eye contact, shake their hand and say “Hi, I’m Jane, it’s nice to meet you.”
For a child with ASD and very concrete thinking patterns, behavioral steps break the social interaction down into parts and the seemingly challenging
situations become fairly simple.
One idea is to take pictures before the event of new people your child might meet. This takes time to go around and photograph uncles, cousins, family friends etc. But once you’ve done this save the pictures in a digital format, and then they are easily accessible to use again when needed.
Take pictures of new places. One suggestion is to do this one week at a time. Find a time on a Sunday afternoon to prepare for the week. Review the calendar and identify places that your child is going throughout the week they are not familiar with.
For example, if your child has a dentist appointment or going to a new therapy office, it would be helpful if you went to these places in advance and took pictures of them.
Begin reviewing the pictures with your child each night, discuss what the child might see, smell and hear at the dentist or therapist office. The more exposure the child has to the new place or person, the more likely he/she will be comfortable and relaxed when going for the first time.
Another great way to use the PRACTICE step of Preventive Teaching is through the use of mobile apps like Kid in Story or Choice Works. These apps are great because they help you create stories that your child can be the leading character in as they go throughout their week experiencing new things. By using these stories, your child is exposed to new places and things in a non-confrontational and non-intimidating way that helps them feel at ease. I saw a story created by parents a few weeks ago that prepared a child for their first day of school. The parents took time to go to the school in advance and take funny pictures of the teacher, class room, cafeteria and play ground. They read the story to the child each night for a week and prepared him for his first day, which went smoother than ever imagined.
4: POSITIVE REWARD
Remember each time your child practices with you there should be a small reward. This incentivizes your child and makes them more motivated to practice with you the next time. Also, whenever you see your child practice the desired behavior on their own, no matter how small or simple it might be-reward them! This only make
them want to do it again and again.
PREVENTIVE TEACHING SAVED US
As full time foster parents, we have had several boys with ASD. Before learning to use Preventive Teaching, our boys had major melt downs that resulted in the destruction of an entire kitchen, a bashed up car, trips to the E.R., hurt feelings and countless holes in the walls. We embraced the skill steps of Preventive Teaching and made a goal to use the skill several times each day with each boy.
While we still get burned out at times and have our “not so proud” moments as parents, Preventive Teaching has helped us de-escalate and prevent hundreds of melt downs over the years.
When we do have the melt downs, we go back and review the steps to Preventive Teaching, then we brainstorm the cause of their stress, and if it’s applicable, we start teaching our children an alternative behavior to the one that’s causing their stress.
I can say with certainty that my wife and I use the skill of Preventive Teaching more than any other parenting concept we’ve ever learned. It has shaped not only who we are as parents, but how we treat our children.
Lastly, kids are still going to blow up for no rhyme or reason and we can’t prevent all of them. However, the more we use Preventive Teaching the size and frequency of the blow ups continue to decrease significantly.
Ben Franklin you were so right, “An Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure”.