Saturday, August 27, 2011

Why's He Doing That?

Iris and I spend lots of time talking about her playroom friends and all the folks who play with them.

There is so much that can be learned from the interaction between children on the autism spectrum and the adults who want to help and support them. You learn a lot about both the children and the adults personally. You learn a lot about what works and what doesn't work. You learn a lot about about human nature and relationships.

We often discuss hostage situations, ones where a child is in full command of the relationship and has rendered the adult helpless. The basic scenario goes:
  1. Child exhibits undesirable behavior.
  2. Adult attempts to stop undesired behavior.
  3. Child responds with increased frequency and intensity.
  4. Adult becomes frustrated, but tries not to appear so.
And so it goes. Before you know it, you have a thirty-something adult at his wit's-end rendered helpless by a seven-year-old child.

Meanwhile, the child behaves differently in the company of other adults and the adult has no challenges with other children. So, the question becomes one of "Why?" Why does this relationship not work when others do?

The shortcut to the answer lies in motivation. Every undesirable action springs forth from a core motivation. Sometimes, the motivation is obvious, sometimes less so, and sometimes you really have to dig to find it. The trick is to get past the superficial motivations and dig down to the core. No matter how much it may seem so, no undesired behavior comes purely from a desire to annoy or terrorize. There's always something deeper.

Shortcut one lies in seeking core motivation. Shortcut two lies in sensory-regulation. Sensory systems (vision, hearing, touch, taste, etc.) vary significantly in how they respond to stimuli. When your sensory systems are optimally regulated, you feel calm, you can focus and listen, and you think more clearly; when they're not, you may feel agitated and restless, it's difficult or impossible to focus, and you can't think. At those points you do whatever you need to do to get your systems regulated. One person shuts out the world seeking a peaceful and quiet environment. Another seeks a cacophony of sight and sound; if she can't find it, she creates it. Regardless of how you respond to stimuli (whether you're under-stimulated or over-stimulated), you probably spend significant time and effort in regulating your systems, trying to achieve that quiesced state.

Although we like to think of ourselves as having core motivations that are of a higher order, much of what we do is simply about feeling good. Feeling good depends largely on the state of our sensory systems. It's just one of those basic things that we humans do.

Applying shortcuts one and two together, you look at an undesired behavior and ask yourself, "How is that helping her to regulate her sensory systems?" Alternatively, by observing the behavior you might also ask, "What sensory systems is he trying to regulate?" Finally, you might ask yourself, "Is this behavior a sign of an over-stimulated system or an under-stimulated system?"

If a child bangs a spoon on a pot, then he's likely trying to stimulate his aural system. He may do this because he's under stimulated generally or he may do it to drown out the stimulation of another system (e.g., his tactile system may be overloaded by the the fabric of his jeans). If a child hits you, or spins in circles, or bangs his head against a wall, or throws things, or runs up and down the room, it's all about regaining a sense of comfort.

Once you dial into the source of discomfort, then the solution lies in providing alternative/desirable ways of achieving comfort and then selling them to the child. By the way, the source of the discomfort may be you, not you personally, but something about your manner or your atire or you fragrance, etc.

There's still some art in the process finding and selling alternatives. Still, but focusing on the regulation of sensory systems, you can eliminate many variables and make the answers easier to find.

BTW, this approach isn't limited to children on the spectrum.

Happy Saturday,


  1. Thanks, Tef. I haven't gotten very far down the sensory regulation path, but will re-look at it. Shortcut one however really works for me, especially with a step back to enlarge the perspective.

    I've also come to see that step # 2 in your basic scenario (attempts to stop undesired behavior) is actually a big area. Most of us, having had no formal training in methods of influencing other people, rely on just one or two modes - say appeasement, or sternness. And when that doesn't work, we are immediately at our wits' end. Again, there is some art involved in picking the right mode for the specific person and situation, but developing more options is a good first step.

  2. The sensory lens is so helpful in our family. Since hostage situations are more likely in an unregulated state (for both the adult and the child) our big goal in everything is regulation. Sometimes we spend a long time offering regulating activities and sometimes play with the feeling that we aren't doing 'anything', we are 'just' regulating. We are tempted down te path of 'regulated to do what?' and we rush to the 'what', and in the process, unregulating both parties involved. I'm realizing that Jay's regulation has it's own value. His brain gets to rewire around the path to regulation, how to remain regulated for longer times, and then eventualy, having gotten more used to being regulated, his brain may help him focus on other things (strategizing on torturing the fish).

  3. Faith,

    As I read your comment, it occurred to me that helping kids to learn effective (and perhaps socially acceptable) self-regulation techniques may be the primary goal of parenting. If a child has that, the rest may take care of itself.

    For example, it may be that strategizing on torturing the fish is itself a form of self-regulation. Generally speaking, I would guess that most undesired behavior IS the self-regulation activity.

    It would likely be difficult to mainstream this idea since correcting misbehavior is seen by most as a distraction.

  4. Sree,
    It is indeed an art.

    I think the benefit of framing situation in terms of sensory regulation (even though they may be framed in other ways) can help find answers. Sometimes the biggest problem with taking on a new art form is too many possibilities.

    By limiting the medium (say just water colors or minor keys), the art becomes less daunting.


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