When my son was an infant and toddler, he would often scream in the car. On long car rides we desperately asked ourselves, “Why is he doing this to us?” We didn’t know our son had autism. After his diagnosis, we purchased noise-reducing headphones for him. He reached for them in the car one day and I knew: all those times he screamed in the car, he was not being naughty or trying to torture us. The highway noise was too loud for him and he was uncomfortable.
There are countless moments when we might ask ourselves, “Why is my child doing this? Why is she behaving so badly? Why is he ____?” Fill in the blank with anything, such as hitting, kicking, spitting, biting, self-harming, etc. The truth is, our children are not misbehaving. They are communicating.
Behavior is a form of communication.
Learning to tune into this form of communication takes practice. We are nearly two years (and two kids!) into an autism diagnosis and I often remind myself to stop, listen and evaluate when I am getting frustrated with one of my children’s behavior. Here is how we take those steps:
Stop yourself from talking or reacting. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Remind yourself that your child isn’t deliberately behaving poorly. He is communicating with you.
What is the behavior that he is displaying? Is your child providing you with any verbal or nonverbal clues? Where/to whom is the behavior directed?
What happened in the minutes leading up to this behavior? How might your child be feeling? Is she hungry or tired?
For example, perhaps you answered a phone call while playing with your child and your attention shift is the cause of the behavior. Maybe it’s 30 minutes past your child’s typical snack time and hunger is the cause of the behavior. Perhaps he needs quiet alone time but he’s at a play date; or she just returned from an event and she is experiencing sensory overload.
This is where you make the choice to react in love and understanding instead of frustration. Your child is communicating with you through his behavior. Listen closely and meet that need to build greater trust with your child. Doing this will take practice, and you won’t get it right every time, but over time you will find yourself more in tune to your child’s needs.