In conversations around autism, behavior always seems to be a hot topic of conversation.
It seems to be a commonly held belief that the “behaviors” are the biggest issue and if parents can somehow stop unwanted behaviors, everything else will fall into place.
But the truth is that behavior is only a means of communication and when you have that understanding, it helps you have a different point of view on behavior. If we take the time to understand what’s going on with a child who usually cannot tell us, that we’re gonna be in a good place.
This is why a focus on relationship must come before a focus on behavior.
Kat Lee: Welcome back to Autism: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child, and we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee, and in this podcast, Dr. Sheely talks to us about behavior and the guiding relationship. Let’s listen in.
Kat Lee: Wonderful families come to me, and one of the first things I hear is, I have this… And I wanna say this, I completely, as a parent and a professional, understand why they say this. Parents come to me with hearts full wanting to know how can we solve this behavior, how can we address that this is happening? I wanna fix this. And I always think of it as a chicken or egg, which came first, the guiding relationship or addressing the behavior? How do you talk to professionals who see wonderful, loving parents and to parents about this. This is a challenging topic, I think.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: You know, I think it’s challenging for any parent when there’s a behavior that continues, you don’t understand it and you don’t know what to do about it, and I think typically, when people think about things like this, they think about our reward or punishment system. And it’s like they think in a linear way, if I do this, I can expect this. And I guess sometimes that works, but to be honest with you, Katherine, I’ve never been able to be consistent enough to make something like that work.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: When I see a behavior like that, the first thing that I do is kind of monitor it and see what is going on. Is it from time of the day? Is there a correlation between that and something else? So I first, I like to understand, is their time correlation with what’s going on? Then I like to think about the complexity of why this might be happening. And all of these things are really hard, because really, it’s much easier people say, “I’ll give you a quarter if you stop that,” and the child stops it. That never works, I mean, that never works. And the opposite doesn’t work either, you’re gonna be in time out. Because a lot of times the behaviors that we think are problematic are impulsive. And so time out would never have enough strength to stop something that’s impulsive, and impulsive behavior. So that’s where I like to get started. I like to get started by trying to understand the behavior.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: Also I like to understand if I’m a parent, how am I supporting this, how am I encouraging it?
Kat Lee: It is a harder topic because we can both understand why I have… If I’m the parent a desire for this to stop or the other to stop, sometimes even very destructive things. But one of the things I love about RDI is your whole section that you and Dr. Gutstein developed on understanding. And when you have understanding, I think it helps you have a different point of view on behavior, don’t you?
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think it does. I know it does for me. If you think about this child, if you think about a child who can’t tell you what’s the matter, and I’ve had people say, “What’s the matter, what, what’s the matter, what’s the matter?” But if you have a child whose biological system is aroused and you start questioning that child, you have exacerbated the situation. And so what was a minor upset is now maybe a full-blown tantrum or maybe even an aggressive act, which makes it more difficult to deal with.
Kat Lee: How does the guiding relationship play into this? For me, and I’ve had many talks like this, I say some of this is not really going to go away until you have an established guiding relationship.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think that’s true, and I think we also know that there are some things that have nothing to do with the guiding relationship, they are… So for example, a lot of the questions I like to ask parents, is it a problem because it’s embarrassing, or is it a problem because it’s dangerous? And somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, lie other things that might be problematic. But if it’s an embarrassing kind of stim or something like that the child does, I think we have to understand that as a parent, if we can get a child in a better regulatory pattern, that some of those things are gonna go away on their own. Sometimes just the guiding relationship reduces some of these things. However, if it’s dangerous and that’s another whole bag of tricks, not a good choice. Not a good term, I don’t think. But we need to understand, is there something that’s triggering it? This is probably one of the other odder things I’ve ever said to you. But I remember one time, a little boy who, when we started trying to figure out if something was triggering this awful behavior that was going on with him, we realized that 20 minutes after he had had milk, it happened.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: Now, please, I want everybody listening, I’m not suggesting that these things come from lactose intolerance. But what we discovered when we started looking at it, there was actually something that’s triggering it. That’s the easy part. I mean, if you can find out something is triggering a very complex behavior, and it’s more linear rather than layers of complexity, that makes it kind of easy. But I would say that the first thing any parent in a guiding relationship wants to do is understand this behavior, what’s the meaning from it? Is it something the child does wants to escape?
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: We’ve all had children who don’t wanna do the dishes, right? [laughter] But usually there’s some way to understand it, and I think it’s important that we take the time, whatever time that’s going to take to figure it out. So I say start with taking the time. I am also a fan of video taping the behavior, and I wanna be careful about this. Because just by video taping the behavior, I don’t mean that we’re gonna embarrass the child, look what you… Look, well, look, this is the way you look when you do that. No, no, no, I’m not saying it for that reason, but sometimes understanding what happened 20 minutes before, 20 minutes after or just looking at it, we’ll see something that might be helpful to a physician. A lot of our kids are on medication, is there something going on with medication? So I don’t wanna ever rule out immediately that something physical is going along with the child. Also don’t wanna rule out that it’s not being triggered by something.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: If it does seem to be 100% random, then we just need to investigate further. The guiding relationship is really a wonderful way for parents to approach anything that’s going on with their child. Everybody stay calm. Everybody stay calm. And let’s, we are in this together, I’m gonna help you do this.
Kat Lee: One of the most comforting things that I hold in my heart and my mind that you have ever said to me is, autism makes all of us feel incompetent at times. So I think whether we have parents with us or professionals listening to us today, it’s important to know that if you feel that way when you’re confronted with these things, when your child is so struggling and hurting, you’re not alone.
Dr. Rachelle Sheely: I think that’s true. And as professionals, we wanna figure it out too. I’d like to say usually there’s no quick answer, there’s no quick response to it, but I am a believer that if we take the time and we honestly are trying to understand what’s going with a child who usually cannot tell us, that we’re gonna be in a good place.
Kat Lee: And thanks for joining us for Autism: A New Perspective, the podcast show where we help you understand what is going on in the mind of your child. And we encourage you that growth for your child is possible. I’m Kat Lee. See you next time.