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Help young kids on the autism spectrum avoid behavior challenges

Help young kids on the autism spectrum avoid behavior challenges

What do you do when your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a meltdown? You probably have a list of situations where you deal with problem behaviors and meltdowns. Children with a diagnosis of ASD are frequently identified because of their difficulties with communication and behavior. Visual strategies can provide a solution.

Many behavior problems develop because children with ASD do not understand. When they don’t understand what is happening, why something is changing or what choices they have, they tend to have major behavior issues. Parents easily become confused and frustrated because the are unsure why the difficulties are occurring--or how to make things better.

One of the most important discoveries about these children is that they tend to understand what they see better than what they hear. They are visual learners, which is why using visual strategies is so effective.

Visual strategies or visual tools are things you can see. Pictures, objects, timers, photos, videos and even iPads are all visual tools that can be used to improve communication and behavior. When parents begin to use visual tools to help communicate with their children, there is usually a huge improvement in the child’s behavior. It’s not difficult for parents to learn when to use simple visual tools and how to use them.


Do understand your child’s learning strengths

Because most of these children are visual learners, it is easier for them to understand visual information than to understand what you say.

Speech is fleeting. It is there and then it is gone. In comparison, things you can see, such as pictures or objects, stay long enough for children to pay attention and figure out what you are telling them. While many children are visual learners, children with ASD rely more on what they see and less on what they hear when compared to other children.

Do get your child’s attention before talking

It is very common for parents to just start talking to their children across the room. But here’s the problem: If the child is paying attention to something else, you may be talking for a while before he realizes that you are saying something to him. He misses part of what you said, or maybe even everything you told him. However, if you move in front of your child and show him something to get his attention, you have a better chance that he will pay attention. For example, hold up his coat when you tell him you are going outside.

Do give information visually

Many meltdowns occur because children with autism don’t understand what is happening or what is changing. If you go swimming every Tuesday, your child may seem as if he has a built-in clock that tells him when it is time to go swimming.

If the schedule changes for some reason, your child may sit at the door with his bathing suit, very unhappy because you are not going. Or another situation is when your child gets his bathing suit every day and has tantrums because you don’t take him swimming every day.

A calendar can save your frustration for both of these situations. Put pictures of swimming on the calendar for Tuesdays. If you are not going swimming, show your child there is no swimming by putting a big X on it. Then you can show him on the calendar when you will go again. If your child wants to go swimming every day, you can show him where today is on the calendar. Then help him count how many days until it is time to go swimming.

Do give choices

Children with autism may not be very good at letting you know what they want. If you give your child what you think he wants and it is not the right thing, you may have to manage strong protest. Give him a choice, but make it visual. For example, hold up two boxes of cereal, so he can choose which one he wants. Hold up two shirts, so he can pick what he would like to wear. Letting your child make choices gives him more control in his life.

Do prepare for transitions

Stopping play to get in the car to go to the grocery store is a typical transition time when kids may protest. Many children will protest when change occurs, but children with ASD are likely to have even more trouble and even bigger meltdowns.

Use visual strategies to help the problem. Show your child a photo of the grocery store as you tell her, “In five minutes, we are going to the grocery store.? Then let her watch you set a timer for five minutes. When the timer dings, show her the photo of the grocery store again and tell her, “We are going to the grocery store.? If she seems to need another piece of information, you can show her a picture of a favorite item that you are going to purchase at the store. She will probably want to hold that picture. The pictures and timer are visual strategies that will give her information to help her prepare for that transition.


Do not assume children understand everything you say

Do not assume that kids understand. Many behavior problems develop because children do not understand. When children don’t understand what is happening, why something is changing or what choices they have, the result can be major behavior issues. Parents easily become frustrated because they are not sure what to do when the meltdowns occur.

Do not fail to give kids information visually

It’s very easy to assume that young children with ASD already know what is happening. Even if they do, the presence of a picture, calendar, timer or some other visual tool will provide a surprising amount of comfort and reduce their anxiety.

Do not manage meltdowns by talking

Don’t try to talk your child with ASD out of a meltdown. The more you talk, the worse his behavior may get. Instead, say less and show more. Do your best to figure out why he is upset. Then think of a visual way to give him information.

Do not believe using visual strategies is difficult

It is not difficult for parents to learn when to use simple visual tools and how to use them. Once you experience success with visual strategies, you will find many ways that you can use them to help your child participate in family activities with fewer problems.

Do not forget that adults also use visual tools in everyday life

Think about how you benefit from using visual strategies in your own life. Your calendar keeps your life organized. The alarm on your phone reminds you when it is time to leave for an appointment. And when the waiter in a restaurant brings a wonderful dessert tray to your table, it helps you decide which yummy treat to choose. We all benefit from using visual strategies, but children with ASD benefit from them even more.

Jumping cartoon

Parents usually see a huge improvement in their child’s behavior when they begin to use visual strategies for challenging situations. It’s not difficult for parents to learn how to use simple visual tools for their children with ASD. Visual strategies help get children’s attention and reduce their anxiety. Just remember that children with ASD understand what they see better than what you say. The good news is that once you understand more about your children’s learning strengths, you will discover that using some visual strategies will improve their ability to understand, communicate and participate without meltdowns.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: © Colibri -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Linda Hodgdon, M.Ed., CCC-SLPSpeech-Language Pathologist, Autism Consultant

Linda Hodgdon, M.Ed., CCC-SLP is a Speech-Language Pathologist who is internationally known as a pioneer in developing the use of visual strategies for students on the autism spectrum. She is a strong believer that easy-to-use visual tools have...

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