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.
Today, in reading, we talked to our students about living in their Autism bubble. We asked them how many hours they spend with their family in a three day weekend. Two students said “zero.” Another student said a few hours and one said he begs for time with his family, but they are too busy.
We asked them if they eat any meals with their family. NO. They basically come out to grab food to go back into their bedroom or to go to the bathroom.
After talking with them, we challenged them. The assignment--Spend one hour a day, for the next two weeks, with your family.
They looked like they were sent to prison. Spend time with my family? I might miss one of the 80 plus hours of video game playing/television watching I do every week.
The longer we talked, this same student that spends zero time out of his bedroom, said he has asked his family to play boardgames with him, but they are the ones that say No. “They all like to do their own thing,” he said.
We told him, consider yourself challenged. The student got his ornery grin on his face and said, “Consider it a challenge.”
“I will always accept a challenge,” he said.
I could see in his face that what he really wanted was time with his parents. He wanted consistency and some connection time with something other than a television screen. Will kids go off into their own little world as long as we allow them? YES! Will they never come out of their room if we never grab a hold of them to come out of their Autism bubble? ABSOLUTELY!
They might want their bubble, but in reality, they love the feeling of structure and safety. After my dad died, my adoptive mom had to go back to work. I was left at home to get my meals, do my homework, and watch tv without anyone, many evenings. When I was left to this schedule for periods of time, I tended to act out more. I would have done anything for someone to make my schedule and help set up some boundaries for me. Safety is where people with Autism thrive. If we have an environment that has set rules and set expectations, we will follow them. If we have set times for us to spend with our family and eat meals together, then we will talk, connect, and maybe even help with making dinner. Putting dishes away with dad and cleaning up the living room with mom, while throwing a pillow or having a little fun brings connection and closeness to someone with Autism. This also allows them develop new interests and realize passions that they might not know they have.
People with Autism might appear that we don’t want this, but we really do. We crave structure, routine, and to know our safe people are close.
One of the students said, “Everyone in my family does their own thing. They don’t want to watch what I watch so I don’t want to join them.”
True. They should learn the give and take of sharing interests, but just as much as the family wants the person with Autism to join the family, sometimes, the family needs to join their world to get them to join the group. It is a give and take on both ends.
Non-negotiables and consistencies are welcomed in the Autism world. We seriously want rules! Open-ended situations, bring fear. Allowing someone with Autism to break even the smallest of rules, brings confusion, in our world. We normally will call people out on breaking a rule.
Are there times that a shift in the day is necessary? Absolutely! People with Autism have to learn that things happen and our schedules can change. That is not what I am talking about. We can still have a schedule change and have consistency in our core beliefs and rules. Set them and they will be not only be followed and provide safety, but anxiety will lessen while trust and growth occur.