Behavior modification has never been easy at our house. Some kids on the spectrum (mine included) are not motivated by external reward/punishment in the way non-ASD children are. Here's an example of one kind of "rewarding" that many parents do that has NEVER worked at our house. This particular scenario happened in one form or another approximately 1053 times before we figured out what we were doing wrong:
Us: Sky, if you [fill in desired behavior here] today, we will go to a movie after lunch.
Sky: [Immediately freaks out and does the opposite of desired behavior to the nth degree]
Us: Sky, why are you doing that? Don't you want to go see a movie?
Sky: [Intensifies undesired behavior]
Us: Okay, that's it. I guess we won't go to a movie after all.
Several things were going on here. First, the mention of a highly desired reward increased Sky's excitement level, immediately making it impossible for him to a) process what we were saying and b) fully control his behavior. Second, as soon as we reacted negatively to his behavior and threatened to withhold the reward, the heightened excitement turned into confusion and anxiety. Third, when the result was the loss of the very thing we promised, Sky melted down because he could neither control his behavior nor express verbally what was going on in his head. He ended up simply feeling frustrated and out of control of his destiny.
Like I said, it took us an embarrassingly and painfully long time to figure this out!
We’ve tried a lot of other things with similar (lack of) success. Sticker charts? Forget about it. All three of the kids could care less about stickers. I mean, really. And, yes, we've tried the approach where if they get a certain number of stickers, they will get a prize. It just doesn’t work. They are too interested in the things that drive their day to day interests to be persuaded by some abstract reward that’s at least a few days away. There’s a whole body of literature out there about why extrinsic motivations don’t work well for kids on the spectrum, so at least we know there’s some precedent for this kind of thing.
For the record, the marble jar is the only spin off of this idea that has even remotely worked, and I am pretty sure that’s because the kids help motivate each other toward the goal. We’ve been at it for six months now, though, and they’ve only managed to fill the jar twice (most recently three days ago after months of trying).
These days, Stow presents the greatest challenge for us. He consistently wakes up between 5 and 5:45 a.m. and immediately stealthily sets about seeing what trouble he can cause. It turns out that he can cause a lot of trouble during the 20 minutes or so between when he wakes up and when Ren or I are able to shake off our stupors and figure out how to keep him occupied. Recent shenanigans include:
**painting the bathroom with watercolor paints,
**writing on our bedroom wall with a permanent marker,
|In case you're wondering, rubbing alcohol just kind of lightens the color while also removing the paint.|
**breaking every single Lego contraption on Sky’s desk (multiple times),
**eating several slices of Ren’s not-gluten-free bread,
|He tried to hide his handiwork on this one but the BIG HOLE in the bag gave him away.|
**“helping” finish the letter Pink had written and illustrated for Big Sissy, and
**"seeing what would happen" if he went potty on the floor of his room instead of in the toilet.
|THIS is what happens.|
Like Sky, Stow doesn’t respond well to heightened emotional responses to his behavior, despite the fact that he’s quite adept at making a person want to respond emotionally. The only chance one has for success when dealing with him is to keep totally and completely cool. Unfortunately for us, most days he seems pretty intent on making sure that You. Do. Not. Keep. Your. Cool.
So, our behavior therapists suggested we simplify things and go back to the five-minute time out. Time outs never seemed to work for Sky, and Pink rarely needed one. And, our attempts at them with Stow were dismal failures in the past. This time, though, the therapist seems to think they just might work. We have a visual timer, which she suggested we use for this. She also told us to find a less exciting time out spot. Apparently, the bottom step is just a little too much fun. (Sometimes it strikes me just how often the therapists we work with are effective not because they offer new-fangled ideas for how to address the various challenges we face but because they remind us to use what we have and go back to the things that didn’t work before because they just might work now).
A little over a week ago, we gave it a shot.
|Boy vs. the visual timer, round 1.|
It took about seventeen minutes to get Stow through his five-minute time out, but the visual timer and change of location helped him understand time outs in a way he never had before. It was encouraging.
He REALLY seemed to get it. When I went to take a shower, I found this—
|At least I was permitted to shower while in time out.|
—apparently I need to learn to be nicer and not put people in time out.
A couple of days after that, I got another time out—
|Found this right on the floor outside the bathroom door.|
— this time for having the audacity to go to the restroom alone. (NOTE: If I could actually get a 50-minute time out entirely to myself, I would take it every dang time).
The summer after my sophomore year of college, I worked at a lodge on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Every time I had a day off, I filled my daypack and set out into the mountains where I would wander the trails alone until dusk. It was heavenly. In a cabin with no television (and certainly no computer or cell phone), my entertainment that summer was letter correspondences with friends and family back home. A good friend of mine ended one of her letters to me with advice I still try to put into practice today: “Breathe deep the mountain air and save some for the rougher days.”
|This mountain air!|
For now, the visual timer is working for Stow. If our experience tells us anything, we know this won’t last forever and soon enough we will need to find something else that works. But, I’m going to choose to savor this moment. I’m going to rejoice in the little gift that is time outs working for one kid for just this little while. I hope you can find those moments of respite in your everyday lives, too. Breathe deep the mountain air, friends! Goodness knows we’re going to need it.