All children have the ability to learn new ways of doing things and develop new habits or ways of relating. But when left to their own devices children, especially those on the Autism spectrum, will easily retire into their own little worlds and continue the patterns that have been wired into their brains. Therefore, establishing new behaviors of any type will take much encouragement and repetition over a span of time.
As the saying goes, even the most intelligent people typically have to do something twenty-one times before it becomes a habit. How much repetition and for how long depends on what it is you are trying to eliminate or change. Bad habits are harder to break because one has to struggle against the power of immediate reinforcement; such as, making my sister cry always gets me my mother's attention.
Replacing old behaviors with new ones also takes lots of focused energy and effort. If you want to eliminate a negative behavior and substitute it with a more acceptable one, patience and consistency are a must. Most children will need to have the new behavior labeled, taught and role modeled, followed by many opportunities to practice. This may be difficult for busy parents to do but essential nonetheless if a change for the better is the goal.
Breaking an old habit is like blazing a new trail in a jungle - it may not be as easy as following the well-worn path but worth it if it avoids the quicksand. As children routinely perform the same action over and over again, their brain slowly gets rewired as the alternative pattern of behavior creates new neural pathways. Once established, these will override the old ones and become the default behavior.
Here are five easy steps to habit train your child:
1) Choose a value or a behavior you want to instill or modify. Prioritize them in order of annoyance and start at the top only working your way down when the one above has been mastered.
2) Provide appropriate substitutes for behaviors you want to change. If you want to stop a behavior you need to introduce an appropriate alternative to take it's place and specifically train your child to use it.
3) Make it easy for your child to remember the new behavior. Train your child with prompts and reward the behavior you want to see more of. If you are trying to get your child to stop screaming post visual reminders for them to use their 'inside voice' all around the house and praise them immediately and specifically when she speaks appropriately.
4) Be intentional and consistent in your teaching. This means creating a plan of action, getting all household members on board with it and spending the time necessary to address the negative behavior you want to eliminate every time it surfaces.
5) Practice, practice, practice. Being extremely specific and concrete with your directives and using role-play as a tool will help children with Autism generalize from one situation to another. Giving children ample opportunities to practice new behaviors is extremely important and cannot be overdone if you want to achieve success.
Always remember that many negative, aggressive behaviors and tantrums in children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder often stem from an inability to communicate effectively. If you were a non-verbal child and unable to communicate your needs to get them met, wouldn't you tend to tantrum too? Even a child with some language ability, who is trying his best to communicate but can't get his point across, can easily become frustrated and discouraged.
In cases such as these, stopping negative behaviors may have more to do with improving communication than teaching substitute behaviors. Introducing alternative methods of communication and training them to use it can form new habits and ways of relating to people that result in more satisfaction and less frustration for all. An Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC) method or device may mean the difference between feeling invisible, isolated, and dependent versus being able to be seen/heard, interact and get their own needs met.
As parents we need to fully embrace our role as teacher or trainer and not shy away from it. Yes it is time consuming but consistently instructing and guiding our children is what gets the best results. If not, we are granting any and all behaviors permission to take hold. We all know that the deeper a root has established itself the harder it is to remove. So make your job easier and tackle those negative behaviors before they become too ingrained.