THE MESSAGE OF BEHAVIOR
by Beverly Vicker
Autism And Behavior
Over the past decade, millions of people around
the world have seen the movie Rain Man, starring Dustin
Hoffman and Tom Cruise. For many people, the movie provided them
with their first glimpse into the world of someone with the disability
of autism. Perhaps this was also your introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders.**
Even now, when you hear the word "autism,"
are images of scenes from that unforgettable movie evoked inside
your head? Many of us still can picture Raymond learning how to
dance, getting his first kiss, and counting cards and toothpicks.
But Rain Man was not just about positive or exceptional
events in the life of a person with autism. This movie was also
about the evolution of relationships and the harsh reality of the
stresses related to having this disability. We saw Raymond get upset
when he thought he might miss seeing Judge Wapner in People's Court.
We saw him rocking when he was distressed. We also heard his screams
when the smoke detector was suddenly activated while he was cooking
in his brother's kitchen. These latter less positive images are
also a part of autism.
Some of us know people who have autism and we
can see additional mental images that emerge from our real life
experiences. Maybe you have similar images swirling inside your
head. Perhaps you can picture the following scenarios:
A young adult paces the living room of his home.
He repeatedly slaps himself in the face. Periodically, he vigorously
bangs his head against the wall.
A middle aged man in a workshop for people with
disabilities sits working at an assembly task. Suddenly, he angrily
begins to throw the assembly parts around the room.
An elementary school child sits in a classroom
with 30 other children. After sitting passively for 10 minutes,
he deliberately puts his head down on his desk. He steadfastly refuses
to begin his schoolwork.
Regardless of whether we personally know someone
who has autism or if our knowledge is limited to our exposure to
Rain Man, our minds will seek to attach a label or a word
to describe or classify such images. Chances are the word "behavior"
with a negative connotation will be one of the associated words.
It is less likely that we would use the notion or idea of a communication
problem to describe these mental pictures.
In the movies and in reality, autism, communication,
and behavior problems can intertwine. We are not accustomed to thinking
that a person may have a communication disability when we see him
or her engaged in what we might call "negative behaviors."
Not only are we not used to thinking of communication and behavior
as related, but we may not be able to see any messages hidden within
the behavior. We may need to learn how to look for the masked messages.
We may also need to learn how to interpret the messages and how
to respond to them. This may take time and training. We can begin,
however, by understanding the connection between communication and
behavior. Let us use our three previous negative behavior scenes
to explore this concept.
The Messages of Behavior
The three negative behaviors described above are
examples of potential communicative messages. The exact meaning
of any one of them would depend upon the circumstances surrounding
each real situation. Sometimes a behavior such as screaming may
represent two different messages in what seem like identical circumstances.
To help you understand the idea of messages hidden in behavior,
let's re-examine the three scenes.
In the self-injury situation, the person might
have been protesting an unexpected change in his daily activity
schedule. He was expecting to go out to eat. No one remembered to
tell him in advance that the activity was postponed until tomorrow.
To put it mildly, he is upset and disappointed.
In the throwing of materials situation, the person
might be communicating: (a) boredom with the task at hand, and (b)
the need for a break. Because of an inability to talk, this man
cannot tell anyone in a direct fashion how bored he is with doing
the same task day after day. He needs a break, but, more importantly,
he needs a greater variety of challenging tasks to fill his day.
In the non-compliance situation, the child might
be confused about the assignment and needs help or an explanation.
He may have been unable to process all of the spoken instructions
when they were given to the class ten minutes ago. Now he does not
know what to do and feels he is a failure.
Why Use Negative Behavior?
A reasonable question to ask is "If someone
really wants to communicate a message, why would he or she use a
negative behavior?" The reason is that some people with Autism Spectrum Disorders have difficulty producing conventional communication.
You and I may have skills that the person with autism may not have.
You and I would know what to do in each situation. You could tell
someone that you needed a break. I could seek a reason for the schedule
change. We both would raise our hands and ask for additional directions.
Some individuals with autism may be unable to do any of these things
unless someone actively teaches them better communication skills.
Other individuals may need reminders before they will use the more
positive communication strategies.
Many people with autism can not speak. Others:
(a) may have some ability to talk, but may have
limited skills (remember Raymond in Rain Man?)
(b) may become inarticulate and not be able to
use their skills when they are in a distressing situation
(c) may freeze and not be able to find or retrieve
the right words to clearly express their message when they are under
Instead, people with autism often use a means
of communicating that is immediate and effective, i.e. negative
behaviors.A negative behavior almost certainly will get someone's
attention. It also may quickly achieve the desired intent. The person
with autism may have learned the effectiveness of a given negative
behavior when more subtle communicative messages were ignored. For
example, in the wanting-a-break situation (scene #2), the following
may have occurred:
His wiggling around in a chair was too subtle
of a message. No one had a clue that he needed a break and they
overlooked or ignored the wiggling.
His standing up was not an effective cue either.
The person with autism was told to sit down.
His throwing of materials, however, communicated
a clear message. The excitement broke the boredom. The person got
to leave the task. As punishment, he was sent to a time out area.
He may not have perceived time out as a punishment. He may have
seen it as a welcome relief from his dreary assigned task.
A Behavior Plan That Addresses Communication Skills
A major component of any behavior plan involves
teaching the person with autism a socially acceptable way of communicating
a message. This means giving the person the power to communicate
in a better way. Punishment will not teach positive skills. Instead,
punishment may insure that the behavior occurs again. For example,
the next time the person wants a break, he may immediately throw
materials. Why shouldn't he do this? After all, the negative behavior
previously got him the desired outcome. We all tend to use behaviors
that work effectively.
Whenever you think of a person with autism, remember
that behavior and communication go hand in hand. Whenever you have
opportunities for interacting with people with autism, resist your
impulse to get angry when a negative behavior occurs. Resist your
impulse to punish. Think about the link between behavior and communication
Ask yourself these questions after a behavioral
What might the person really be communicating?
What other means could the person have used to give you the same
Would a communication board or picture message board have helped?
How could you become involved in teaching him/her better ways to
We can influence the behavior of a person with autism if we learn
strategies which foster good communication skills development. It
makes sense to help each individual become a better communicator.
As a result, he or she should become less dependent on using negative
behaviors to communicate. With improved communication skills, the
person with autism may have a better relationship with you and with
other people. Better relationships and lifelong friendships don't
occur just in the movies. They also can occur in our own personal
Rain Man experiences with people who have Autism Spectrum Disorders. We, however, may need to play an active role in fostering
these types of positive outcomes.
See the following publication for more information:
Reichle, J., & Wacker, D. (1993).
Communicative alternatives to challenging behaviors: Integrating
functional assessment and intervention strategies. Baltimore, MD:
Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.
* The emphasis upon negative behavior in this
publication represents a strategy designed to draw attention to
the link between communication skills and behavior. The staff of
the IRCA clearly recognize and value the positive qualities and
talents of individuals with autism. No offense to people with autism
** Autism spectrum disorders is another term
for the DSM IV category of Pervasive Developmental Disorder. The
continuum includes autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Rett's Syndrome,
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder
- NOS (not otherwise specified).
Reproduction kindly allowed by
Indiana Resource Center Autism. Visit their site for more useful
Click here for the full range of Asperger's
and autism fact sheets and personal stories at www.autism-help.org