Does it feel like every time your child takes a step forward in one area, he takes a step backwards in another? Do you find yourself time and time again being confronted with old behavior problems you thought you had gotten past?  Have the strategies that were effective before seemed to stop working? Are you wondering what you are doing wrong? The answer may be both frustrating and a relief — Nothing– This is a common experience that is reported by most parents of children with Autism.

Although the degree may cary, all children with Autism have delayed language.  The number one priority of almost every parent I have ever worked with is that their child is able to learn and and use language. The number one fear that almost any parent has is that they won’t be able to.  

Watching a child be able to get something they want for the first time is one of my favorite parts of working with kids with Autism. The first time it happens, their eyes light up and you can see them experiencing joy. For the first time, they have learned a way of getting what they want without crying or tantruming.

For kids who can’t talk, their world is very limited. Some kids are able to use gestures or take their parents to objects that they want. But, still they are limited to only asking for things they can see.

Have you ever wondered why your child start crying at as restaurant when you gave him a food you know he likes? It is really frustrating, especially if you don’t know why.  As frustrating as it is for parent or teacher, it is even more frustrating for a child.

Imagine you went to your favorite burger joint! You ordered a bacon cheese burger.  You could taste the mouth water meat in your mouth as you waited for it. But when they brought it, they brought you a black bean veggie burger on ice burg lettuce instead of a bun … Now unless you are a vegetarian, you would probably be pretty frustrated. The good news is, you would know how to tell the waiter, that he brought you the wrong thing and your delicious burger would soon be on its way.

Well your child can’t do that. They walk into a restaurant super excited to eat chicken nuggets and pizza shows up.  They would love to be able to say, “No, mom I wanted chicken nuggets.” You would love to be able to ask your child, “What do you want and have them respond.” But that may not be possible. So you gave him what you thought he would want and he cried when he wanted something else.

Since your child can’t talk, they try to use behaviors like a tantrum as a form of communication. Tantrums are frustrating for everyone — teachers, parents and even more importantly children. I have witnessed thousands of tantrums in my life. I have seen hundreds of kids so frustrated that they are not able to get what they want and so many parents just like you ready to pull their hair out because their child just wouldn’t stop.

That’s why one of the first thing that any behavior therapist will work on is reducing tantrums. Simply, your therapist teaches your child- this is not a form of communication. As long as the behavior plan is always carried out in your child’s life and he never gets what he wants as a result of having a tantrum (which is easier said than done), the tantrum will stop.

You will think as a parent you have gotten past the behavior. Really, what you did is teach your child that tantrum is not a form of communication or sometimes it won’t work in a specific situation..

The good news is, most children with Autism will eventually be able to tell us what they want. Whether it is pointing to pictures on a choice board, using PECS, and iPad program such as Proloquo2go or Touch Chat to help them talk or tell us vocally, they will be able to make their needs met.

When this happens initially everyone gets so excited, they give the child exactly what he wants every time they ask. If you ask your child what he wants for a dinner and he replies vocally, “A donut!” You get so excited he answered you for the first time you jump up and down and clap for him and drive to Dunkin Donuts in a blizzard. I have personally spent two hour long sessions doing nothing but having a child come to the table and ask for a break the first time he has learned to say, “I need a break.” instead of running away from the table or having a tantrum.

For a few days, nothing could possibly get your family down. Your child is happy because he is getting exactly what he wants. You are happy because the months or years of sacrifice and running to see therapist has paid off. You literally feel like you just landed a spaceship on the moon and found potable drinking water! But, as exciting as it when your child learns to say words, it quickly becomes an expectation and the thrills wears off.

The fourteenth time your child asks for donut, and the baker’s dozen you bought has run out you say — No!

That moment turns your child’s world completely and utterly upside down.  They have learned that they ask and they get. Your and your therapists have spent years teaching them if they ask they can have what they want and suddenly- the rules have changed!

They asked and they didn’t get! Prior to this moment, your child has never conceived this as possible. This is not how the asking game is supposed to work. They have no idea what to do. Their new communication system is broken. In panic and desperation they try something that has worked in the past — a tantrum!

Does this sound familiar?  At this point, I get a call from every parent– frustrated and in tears. They don’t know what they did wrong. Their child was doing so well. He was communicating and using his words and then suddenly out of nowhere he just stopped and went back to tantrums.

There is good news. You are not alone. This is not uncommon. It is not your fault and most importantly — it will NOT last forever. It will likely last a few days- maybe a week.

Use the exact same procedures to eradicate the tantrum that worked in the past. EXACTLY THE SAME ONES. Let me repeat that to make it clear — EXACTLY — EXACTLY– EXACTLY– the sames ones! They worked in the past and they will work again. Five out of ten parents will tell me at this point- they don’t want to go back to the token board or rewarding good behavior with stickers because they are taking a step backward.

To be blunt, if you do it, in a couple of days your child will realize once again tantrum is not communication and the misbehavior will stop. If you don’t this problem can be drawn out for months and it will create a lot of unnecessary frustration for you and your child.

At this point your child will learn- Sometimes asking me will get what me I want. This is called and intermittent schedule of reinforcement in the made up behavior language that I personally find unnecessarily complicated. But– if you hear the term- that is what your therapist means.

The bottom line kids have to learn to hear no. Read that again — They have to learn it — The implication of this is that they don’t necessarily no how to do it.

Rest assured — they will learn.

So, when your child takes a few steps forward and soon after it feels like you are taking a giant step back- don’t worry and don’t blame yourself. It is an annoying and frustrating but necessary and short lived part of the process.