Behaviour Seen Developmentally:
Understanding the Language of the Body
Understanding and managing challenging autistic behaviours including issues around eating, toilet training, sleeping, tantrums, aimlessness and negativity
- Do you wish you could stop your child from spitting on and then sucking the carpet, or banging the walls with a spoon, or screeching all day?
- Is your child suspicious about food and do you end up following him around with the spoon?
- Have you tried and given up toilet training your child, because he refuses to let you show him?
What do we mean by Behaviour Seen Developmentally?
Puzzling or challenging behaviours tend to take on new meanings in the course of an Autism Home Consultation Programme. Often the solution is found in a very different place than expected.
Parents are often surprised to find that tackling eating difficulties actually starts with sitting down, not with the foods the child is (not) eating, or that successful toilet training does not start with sitting on the toilet or potty, but with interested attention and shared problem-solving.
Parents’ difficult feelings about their child’s difficult-to-manage behaviours also need space and time to be heard and thought about. This is especially important with challenging, destructive or anti-behaviours like negativity, defiance, refusal and persistent lack of compliance, but equally to reflect on a child’s eating issues, puzzling behaviours and to develop strategies towards toilet-training.
The key to making the required changes is also connected with the parent’s capacity for self-reflection. This is why adults-only reflective Review Meetings are an essential part of the Autism Home Consultation Programme. They provide us with the essential reflective space to think together about the child’s behaviours and our experiences during our last Home Visit, usually with the help of some video, so we can explore the child’s (and the adults’) intentions, frustrations and ideas and some creative strategies towards developmental progress.
Frequently Asked Questions
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Behaviour seen developmentally is a meaningful communication of what child is thinking and feeling that is looking for understanding. It is the best the child can do at that moment.
Behaviour is a form of talking through body language. What is this behaviour saying and what is it a response to? What is behind this behaviour, what is it about?
The child may be saying that he feels it’s all too much, that he feels dysregulated and needs help to calm down (rather than punishment for ‘bad behaviour’) and help with self-regulation. He may be entertaining himself by sucking the carpet or banging the walls, because he is bored or feels lost.
He may be screeching because he likes the sensations in his throat and ears, or because it helps him to get rid of the awareness that his mum is holding his baby brother.
Human behaviour is complex and fundamentally different from mechanical and simple cause-effect processes, because it always involves feelings and interactive elements.
That is why behaviourist approaches are often not sufficiently successful at solving puzzling behaviours.
Often the most direct way to solve a problem is not in simply telling an autistic child to stop, but in a more indirect process of trying to figure out the underlying emotional-sensory meanings or functions of the child’s behaviour.
Trying to teach the child not to spit on and then suck the carpet did not stop the behaviour, and made the mother even more desperate and angry.
In fact it increased the spitting and sucking, as the boy now waited until no one was watching, or enjoyed the kaffaffel and shouting, when they did.
When the mother followed my suggestion to (temporarily) remove the fluffy carpet, the child not only stopped sucking the carpet, (there was no carpet to suck!), but he also stopped rolling on the floor.
Our intention here was to try to find creative solutions to help the child get out of a habit without increasing negativity and to help him to find new solutions to his sensory urges, because ‘a habit in motion stays in motion’ (Dr. Rick Solomon).
A child who has difficulties with relating and engaging warmly with other people needs to learn to interact and engage with other people, whatever he eats!
Focussing on diets and bio-medical treatments INSTEAD of intensive interactive playful intervention can waste a lot of time, hope and money, which can damage that family’s chances of doing the best for their child.
The dose matters! A child with autism or developmental delay needs to experience at least 2 hours every day of emotionally engaging playful 1-1 interaction.
Routines and daily rhythms help a child to make sense of their world and to build their mind ready for talking and all other learning. Routines are activities that happen regularly and have a clear predictable structure, which makes them ideal for encouraging turn-taking and interaction, e.g. mealtime and bedtime routines, the ‘going out into the garden routine’ (socks, shoes, coat, open the door …), the ‘wind the bobbin up’ routine, the ‘going in the car with mummy’ vs. ‘going in the car with daddy’ routines …
A routine has:
1) a clear BEGINNING – MIDDLE – END, i.e. specific steps that
2) always happen in the same order, so you can look forward to the next bit, and
3) repeated regularly and many times, so you remember what’s coming
4) with clear roles for each person, ideal to encourage turn-taking.
All children need praise and acknowledgement. We all do. But it is not helpful to interrupt a child’s activity or concentration by clapping, or (worse!) asking him to clap for himself, each time he has correctly inserted a puzzle piece or made a mark on a paper. It adds nothing, - and distracts his attention. The child performs these tasks from inward motivation and does not need praise. He doesn’t do it for us. He does it for himself. The child explores, plays and does things, because he knows that he needs to do it in order to learn, improve and develop himself. This is what brings him satisfaction.
Sometimes too much praise can even take away the child’s own sense of satisfaction. Sometimes it makes a child feel misunderstood (‘I didn’t do it for YOU, I did it for myself! So stop interrupting me, mummy!’), embarrassed or even patronized. Sometimes adults clap a child, because they want to have his attention for themselves rather than allowing him to find his own satisfaction and sense of achievement. Sometimes a simple nod or sound of acknowledgement is much more appropriate than clapping or applauding, - except if he is pretending to be a performing circus-animal. We don’t want him to do things in order to get applause. We want him to do it, because he WANTS to do it, because he likes doing it, because doing it brings him satisfaction, - not in order to perform for us. We want to help him to find the satisfaction of a job well done INSIDE himself. We don’t want him to be performing ‘Tricks’. We want him to have a Sense of Achievement.
Keep the presenting 'behaviour problem' in mind, but do NOT just focus on wanting to change/stop the unwanted behaviour. If you do, you will end up in a battle of wills with each side feeling angry and misunderstood. Instead: comment, observe and continue to be interested in 'What is going on inside the child's mind?’
Try to clarify confusions, e.g. the child does not understand that jumping off the table is NOT a game and that his parents will NOT allow it. How can we solve this problem? Don’t feel bad to admit that you don't know what to do. Not knowing is the beginning of being able to think and talk about the situation, and to begin to understand what the problem actually is. Realise that 'having a problem' is not ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. Problems help us to think and understand more in order to move forward.
Sometimes the problem is not only the child's 'behaviour difficulties'. Sometimes parents realise, that they are making things more difficult. But they don’t know, what else to do. Sometimes they too feel ‘bad’, confused and helpless. It is difficult to think, when one is feeling ‘bad’. Unable to think their way out of their problem, the adult ends up feeling trapped in a vicious circle, - and unable to think clearly, just like the child with the difficult-to-manage behaviours.
However, it is at the very point, when we realise that we have a problem that we are beginning to be able to find a way out of our dilemma and towards solving ‘the problem’, because we’re beginning to think about it. The adult needs to be contain their own feelings, so they can think and use their own mental-emotional resources in order to solve their child’s behaviour problems, - or it is easy to end up with something akin to ‘blaming’ difficult feelings on the child or on others.
Often people panic, when there is a problem and feel that there shouldn’t be a problem. But then you get trapped by guilt and other difficult feelings that are not helpful to solving the problem. It’s ok to have a problem! It’s part of being human. No need to panic! Problems can be solved or dealt with. The human mind is always trying to solve problems, and in principle it can solve any problem.