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Children with Autism. The Importance of Clear Boundaries and High Expectations

Aug 17, 2007
Children will test boundaries, children with autism are not necessarily going to be any different. Be very clear about which behaviors are acceptable to you and then create clear boundaries, ensure that the rest of the family is also clear and that you all act with consistency. However, be realistic. A child with autism, by definition, has difficulties in social interaction, you will have to make some allowances.

Be realistic also about what lengths you are prepared to go to, do not create a boundary and then not enforce it, if you do you may find that your child will keep trying to test it. Boundaries should be clear-cut. If you regularly engage in intensive play with your child, and they are enjoying playing with you, a natural way to minimize your child's tendency to push boundaries is to simply stop the interaction whenever an inappropriate behavior occurs and calmly wait for more appropriate behavior before continuing.

A child with autism may not necessarily care to act in a way that pleases you just for the sake of it. However, they may well be very interested in your reactions, and a purple screaming face can be just as interesting as a beaming smile, perhaps more so. So, put all your energies into making extreme whoops of delight when you are pleased with your child, and make the minimum of fuss when they engage in behaviors that are unacceptable to you.

Sometimes children work out which of your buttons to press to get an interesting response and then persist in trying to get those responses.

For example:

Johnny, aged 5, was adorable and very active. He often engaged in activities that seemed designed to get a response from adults, these included: shouting loudly, ripping books and posters, and urinating on the floor.

Typically adults addressed Johnny's behavior by telling him "no shouting", "no ripping", etc. However, this did not appear to have much impact on the behavior, if anything it sometimes made Johnny even more excitable, and he would repeat "no shouting", over and over again loudly, laughing.

What made a difference with Johnny was having clear boundaries and enforcing them with the minimum of fuss. Rather than telling him "no" whenever he did something he should not do, I gave him clear positive directions he could follow, e.g. "Johnny, come here", "sit down". I kept my voice and face as neutral as possible.

When Johnny was calm I would then address the behavior, I found that this resulted in much less excitable responses from Johnny. Most of his inappropriate behaviors disappeared in class in the course of a few weeks because he was no longer getting the interesting adult reactions he had been used to.

Sometimes they find a way of playing a game at our expense, and then persist in playing it:

Steven, aged 7, enjoyed playing chasing games. He would often run off and giggle when adults ran after him to bring him back. A number of strategies were tried, including giving Steven lots of attention when he was not running away, and very little attention after he had run off. However, Steven's running off behavior persisted.

What eventually worked was to ignore the running away behavior, monitoring his safety from a distance and waiting for him to return, even if it took ten minutes. When it became clear to Steven that we really were not going to chase after him, the behavior lessened. After that whenever Steven started to run off, I would cheerfully shout out "Bye Steven" and wave. As soon as he heard this he would turn and come back. Not much fun running off unless someone is chasing you!

And of course, you will want to reward your child for when they are behaving appropriately. Remember though that your child may not be as motivated by pleasing you as they are by getting access to a favorite toy.

If you have been engaging in intensive play with your child, perhaps a suitable reward may be a favorite game that you play together. This would be ideal as you would be rewarding appropriate behavior in a way that also teaches that social interaction is fun. Whatever the reward, for it to be meaningful, it has to be something that your child likes and not what you think they should have.

Having high expectations of your child's behavior can make a difference too. For example, I have spoken to a number of parents who have found it difficult to get their children to eat with a fork.

However, I have not really ever found it to be an issue with the children I have worked with, as my expectation is that everyone will use a fork. At the end of one summer at camp, we had a message from Cameron's mum asking us how we had managed to get her son to eat with a fork. We were a little surprised by the question as we had not done anything really other than ask him to use it, as we did with every other child.
About the Author
Alan Yau heads up the Autistic unit at a primary school in North London in
the UK where he is responsible for teaching 18 children across the whole Autistic
spectrum. See http://www.teaching-children-with-autism.com
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