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Misbehavior vs. Disability Behavior

Misbehavior vs. Disability Behavior

Figuring out your kid's behavior is tough enough when they are "normal." Add in the challenges that plague kids on the autism spectrum, such as cognitive difficulties, sensory limitations and the inability to pick up on social cues, and it's downright baffling.

Is my child going off the deep end because of his or her disability-related challenges or is my child simply misbehaving? It's a question the parent of a special needs child asks themselves numerous time each day. Unfortunately, the immediacy of these situations prevents us from consulting with a professional on each go around, and we have to learn to make our own judgments, in the moment.

It helps, says mom of two Carrie R., to have a good grasp on your child's diagnosis and his associated challenges: "It can be hard to decide, but the more you read about autism, the more you will recognize common behaviors (that) are part of the diagnosis and should not be punished. It's a fine line."

The Cookie Incident

Here's a scene to ponder: You're at the local grocery store where every aisle is full of people you know. Your mildly autistic kid is in full meltdown mode. There is yelling, kicking and crying all because the bakery isn't giving out free sample cookies today.

"But they always have cookies," laments your child in a shrieking voice that people can hear at least five aisles over. "It's not fair. It's not fair. I want the cookie. Why don't they have cookies today? Mom, make them have cookies!"

Tears stream down the face of this precious, confused, and out-of-control child. His earliest memory of this grocery store involves getting that cookie. It has always been this way. He cannot process this experience with a no-cookie plot.

Been there. Done that. And had to leave the store. I am certain some of the other shoppers that day thought my son to be a spoiled brat.

That was several years ago, when my understanding of my son's needs was truly just developing. Yet even then I knew that the fact that things weren't "the same" was what pushed him over the edge. He was six. He had not yet learned the coping skills he now has.

Understanding That Behavior Carries Messages

"Know and understand what behaviors may be triggered or linked to the autism," writes Lorraine S. in a post about deciding what to punish. "These behaviors are generally messages the child is trying to tell you."

That was the story when Heather B. was wrestling with her son's picky clothing habits. There was an underlying reason, but it took her a while to figure it out, and in the meantime, they argued daily about his desire to wear his clothing backwards. After a while, she decided the battle wasn't worth the effort. While it wasn't socially appropriate to wear shirts backwards, "it wasn't hurting him or anybody else." And eventually, she learned, "it was due to the tags," which rubbed against his skin and irritated him, a common problem for kids with sensory issues. As soon as she bought "tagless" clothes, her son started putting his shirts on the right way more often than not.

Learning Over Time

"The intricacies of public behavior and interpersonal relationships are a lot to grasp even for a child with no barriers to learning," writes Jean G. "Be patient and kind and firm about your expectations."

That's a lesson repeated regularly in my own home.

After leaving the grocery store on the day of the infamous cookie incident, we discussed social norms around store samples. I had to explain that giving out free cookies is a choice the bakery manager makes and that we simply cannot expect it each time we go to the store. My son talked about this for several days. It would have driven me nuts if I hadn't realized that this was his way of processing a new piece of information and ultimately, accepting it as reality.

Fortunately, it didn't take seven years for this lesson to be internalized. Now 13 years old, my son is long past expecting the free cookie. But it remains his favorite part of grocery shopping (with the actual leaving of the store coming in at a close second). He still makes a beeline for the bakery once we get past the front door. He expresses disappointment when the cookie isn't available. But he hasn't thrown a tantrum over it since that fateful day.

As the mother of an autistic child, I've learned to follow my instincts regarding the classification of his behaviors. When he's simply misbehaving, I take away his favorite video game for a set period of time. When he's struggling with a sensory issue, I take the time to work through the issue, try not to pull out any of my own hair, and attempt to teach him how to cope. It isn't always a very pretty scene and I am convinced some people around me don't get it. Oh, well.

It's advice echoed by Jean G. in a discussion about how to identify behavior that's truly "naughty" from behavior that carries messages tied to the child's diagnosis.

"Trust yourself to know the difference," she writes.

Image Source: mdanys via Flickr/Creative Commons

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

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MelissaHaly MelissaHaly 5 years
As a special education teacher, who has worked with children with emotional disabilities, and behaviorial disabilities, I have learned that tandrums lasting very long periods of time tend to be due to the inability to process or understand something around them and not a strong willed behavior. Most children can cope with being disappointed or not getting what they want in under 30 minutes. My professional opinion remains that if a child is tandruming in a store, over an unusual event(may not even seem unusal to you) and continues to meltdown long after the event is over that is a sign of the diagnosed disability and not a spoiled child. Some may want to try to discuss the issues that may arise before any typical activity. For example, explaining to your child before getting into the store that there may not be cookies, and why, instead of being retroactive and dealing with a screaming child in a public place. Some times the child's ability to process something unexpected is just to much for them to handle, but if they know ahead of time that there may be the possibility that the result is not what they are used to the child may suprise you, or at least not embarrass you to badly in public.
nitabarnes44453 nitabarnes44453 5 years
that's my story alright, word for word. just yesterday my 7 year old bit me while i was trying to get her into the car to go home, after 30 minutes of screaming bloody murder and struggling and hitting...oy, it is extremely difficult to discern which behavior is rearing it's ugly head, lol. i know she just seems like a spoiled brat to others but, until they've experienced it firsthand, they'll never know.
BrendaCoupland BrendaCoupland 5 years
more more more that is trully what i am struggling with everyday. my husband is always saying i don't discipline nearly enough and that he is getting away with murder. it is a major issue in my house.
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