There are many reasons a behavior plan (or BIP) may not work. Perhaps the plan did not have clear, specific goals. Maybe the tracking of progress was overwhelming. Sometimes, rewards are too abstract or too far into the future for a student be motivated by them. Occasionally, the goal is too ambitious. (I have seen IEP’s written with a 100% mastery criteria. Really? I don’t know anyone who does anything exactly right all the time!)
However, what if you have a good plan in place that does not fall victim to any of the common mistakes listed above? If you have a solid plan and that plan does not seem to be helping a child shape his academic or social behaviors, you have likely overlooked the most essential element: consistency. Without consistent application of expectations, consequences, and rewards, a behavior plan will not be successful.
This is especially true for students with Autism. Routine, structure, and clearly defined expectations are key for children on the spectrum. They crave rules and predictability. In fact, their brains search out patterns and rules within their environment as a means of understanding the world around them. For kids with ASD, a rule is very black or white. There are no shades of grey or “exceptions.” This is an area where rigid thinking can be a great benefit to a student. It is rare that a child with ASD will break a clearly defined rule. Living by rules provides comfort and security for children living with a central nervous system that tends to be in hyperdrive so much of the time. In situations where no rule exists, the child with ASD will frequently form his own set of rules in an attempt to establish order. These rules may not make sense to anyone but that individual. (Think: I will only eat green foods. The curtain must be exactly half open. I can only wear blue on Tuesdays.)
As adults, we have a responsibility to create that structured environment where the expectations and boundaries are clearly defined. We need to set rules that make sense and are the same for all environments. We need to consistently apply those rules. Every. Single. Time.
We all know kids like to test the limits. We all know at least one child who insisted on touching the hot stove to see for himself if it really was hot. The child touches the hot stove. It burns his hand. He does not touch the stove again. Unless, he has some reason to believe the fire will not be hot every times he touches it. If just once, he touches that stove and instead of producing heat, the stove produces a family trip to Dairy Queen, he is going to touch that stove as often as possible, hoping to reproduce that result!
The fire must always be hot! Even on a rough day. Even when you are tired. Even when the “trip to Dairy Queen” is easier than listening to your child scream or cry. The fire must always be hot.
When I train my staff on consistent application of rules, I tell them this truth. You can do something “right” and by the book 1,000 times in a row. Do it wrong just ONE time, and for the child with ASD, that becomes the new rule. For example, say you have a rule against eating food in the living room. Suppose you have followed that rule every single day for the past 8 years, without exception. Then one evening, you are exhausted from a long, hard day. Your darling son looks at you with those puppy dog eyes and you cave. The two of you cuddle up, eating pizza, and watching a Disney flick.
The next evening you are feeling yourself again, but your child has just carried his plate and Juicy Juice into the living room. You may be ready to go back to the “no eating in the living room” rule, but I promise you, he is not. By allowing it one time, you have created a new rule in your child’s world. When you try to explain this is not the case, he will not believe you. You have lost credibility. Furthermore, in his mind you are breaking the “new” rule; the one that says Dinner Shall Be Eaten With Mom On The Couch With Disney On The Television.
It is much easier to enforce a rule that has already been established and accepted than to try to get a child to go back to an old rule after he has been permitted to break it. Stay strong. Resist the urge to take the path of least resistance, even when it would be a whole lot easier in the moment. Teach your child that the fire will be hot every time. Either that, or prepare to move a mini-fridge in next to the old La-Z-Boy and resign yourself to a lifetime of Disney Dinner Theater.