IGNORING INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR
"Doing nothing is the most tiresome job
in the world because you cannot quit and rest." - Author Unknown
"Ignoring stinks!" This quote is from
a young man with autism
after experiencing his parent's newly developed skill at ignoring.
Ignoring is not exactly doing nothing but it seems that way. First,
let me tell you why you don't like the idea of ignoring the behavior
of a child with autism:
1. He has autism! Hello! He doesn't talk to me
to begin with and now you want me to ignore him when he does?!
2. I tried it and it does not work with my child.
3. I am trying to communicate with my child. Anything
he does should be responded to.
Maybe you haven't said those things but I have
heard them many times. Ignoring is hard to do with a child with
autism. It just seems mean. However, we need to understand that
paying attention to the behavior of a child with autism can be reinforcing
for them. Not always, of course. But, for the most part, children
will view what we say and do in response to their behavior as some
form of approval or attention.
Therefore, if you do not like your child's behavior,
ignore it. If you like your child's behavior, pay attention to it.
Before you try to send me a nasty email or a virus,
let me say that some behaviors should not be ignored. Hitting others
cannot be ignored - that behavior requires a consequence.
Destroying property cannot be ignored forever - eventually the person
will have to return things to normal and/or receive a consequence.
behavior cannot be ignored if the person is causing tissue damage
- that will require special treatment from a psychologist. Dangerous
behavior needs to be stopped. Period!
However, that still leaves a whole lotta behavior
that we can ignore. Things that should be ignored include: most
tantrums, crying for no reason, laughing for no reason, brattiness,
asking one million questions, and many other typical kid behaviors.
So how do you do it? Glad you asked.
Definition of ignoring
First let's define ignoring. The Judevine Center
for Autism calls it "Actively
Ignoring" (sounds better than "doing nothing"
doesn't it?) and they define it as "not looking at or giving
attention to the person exhibiting the undesirable action."
I would add this: Ignoring is not looking at, reacting to, touching,
or talking to the person who is doing something you dislike. Reacting
includes even your subtle nonverbal behaviors (e.g., raised eyebrows,
facial expression, body language, etc.). The idea is to show the
person that you react differently to certain behaviors. When the
behavior is appropriate, you go crazy with joy and reinforcement.
When the behavior is inappropriate, you do nothing.
This is not always easy. It is hard not to laugh
when your daughter shouts, "Wahoo! Wahoo!" as you are
spanking her (as my little Mallory did). However, I controlled myself
- until now! Wahoo! :-) It's also hard not to respond when an adult
with autism threatens to break out windows (as my friend Earl did
- I calmly told him that whatever he did was okay but it sure would
be cold with broken windows - he put down the wooden coat hanger
and we talked - thankfully, it was December!).
But we have to control our reactions. We can laugh
or fall apart later. Here are some ways you can ignore inappropriate
behavior (remember, we ignore behavior, not people - we love people):
Pretend the behavior is not happening
Act as if nothing strange were going on. Go about
your business as usual. "Screaming, what screaming?" Step
over your child who is having the tantrum at Walmart (don't you
dare step on him!). By the way, this is where you have to get real
tough skin. All the other "good" parents in the store
will look at you as if you are the worst parent in the world. Be
tough. You know what you are doing. This is planned ignoring. If
the other parents really bother you, hand them a printed card that
my friend made up: "I noticed you staring at my son's bad behavior.
Just want you to know we noticed your bad behavior too. He has autism,
what's your excuse?" To help you pretend you can look away,
turn your back, or talk calmly to your other children who are behaving
("Suzy, I love how you are being quiet. You'll get your cookie
at the bakery today for sure!").
Leave the room
You may not be able to control your emotions so,
rather than show them and give your child attention, leave the room.
You may not be able to do this (due to safety concerns), but if
you can, it can help you ignore the child's inappropriate behavior.
This is sort of like putting yourself in time-out. Usually, you
only use this at home.
Get busy doing something else
For many parents it's so hard to do nothing! This
technique is for you work-a-holics out there. Have a book to read
or some task to do that takes all your attention. Instead of looking
at your child screaming and rolling around on the floor, you are
busy reading War and Peace. I had a concerned grandparent do this
rather than pick up her tantrumming three year old grandson between
our work sessions. Here I was being the "meanie" by making
him work and she got all the hugs and kisses by hugging and kissing
him when he was behaving badly. Instead I had her read really boring
book by Martin A. Kozloff (just kidding!) and tell him, "Grandma
has to do her home work." It worked - she won the "Tough
Love Granny of the Year Award" and the child became a graduate
of our program!
Prevent the action but continue to ignore
Sometimes certain behaviors must be stopped. For
example, if your child hits his head until he bleeds when he has
a tantrum, you can't just ignore it. You can place a pillow under
the child's head or place your arm between his swinging arm and
his head, but do all this without talking to the child or looking
at him. Use your peripheral vision to assure all is well but try
not to give any more attention than is necessary.
Ignoring does not work for all behaviors
Dangerous behavior should not be ignored - deal
with those behaviors appropriately. Behaviors that are not controlled
by attention will not go away just because you stop giving attention.
For example, many children with autism engage in self-stimulation
behaviors that appear to meet some sensory need). Typically,
these behaviors would occur whether you were looking at the child
or not. Ignoring is still a good idea (at least you won't be adding
to the problem by giving the child excessive attention on top of
whatever thrill he gets from flicking his fingers in the sunlight)
but it will not change well-established self-stim
The best thing to do with self-stim behaviors
is to schedule a time when engaging in self-stim behaviors is allowed.
You will have to redirect the child's behavior at other times -
do not allow unlimited self-stimulation. You will have to interrupt
the self-stimming when you expect your child to engage in other
activities. Self-stimming is like a powerful drug children with
autism crave - there is little you have in your "bag of tricks"
that will be able to compete with it. Therefore, you will have to
limit self-stimming when you are working or playing constructively
with your child. When your child is not engaged in such work, you
can allow self-stimming, in fact, it can serve as a reinforcer for
your child's appropriate response to training (e.g., "As soon
as you are done working, you can have your straws.").
"But I tried ignoring and it did not work, in fact, he got
That is a true statement. When you begin ignoring
behavior that got a lot of attention previously, it will get worse
before it gets better. For behaviorists this is known as an "extinction
spike" - the child knows that his behavior used to "work"
so he will do more of the behavior to see if you are just having
a bad day. The secret is to persevere. Continue ignoring for at
least three weeks (that's how long it takes to develop a habit,
I am told). Keep data on the behavior you do not want to pay attention
to - to see if it is actually going away. If after three weeks of
religiously ignoring a behavior and you cannot see that anyone else
is giving the child attention (e.g., other parent, grandparents,
other kids, etc.), then the behavior may not be controlled by attention.
You will have to find another solution. But be very careful to totally
ignore the behavior every time it occurs. You cannot ignore part
of the time. To do this actually strengthens the behavior more than
never ignoring it (this is called an intermittent schedule of reinforcement).
Make sure all your family, the child's school
staff, grandparents, and others who have contact with your child
are all willing to ignore the behavior, know how to do it, and know
what behaviors to ignore. Then be prepared for the long haul. Ignoring
is not a one-time inoculation - it's more like a daily vitamin.
You have to commit yourself to always ignore certain behaviors for
the rest of your life! It gets easier for both you and your child,
I promise you. Remember, you must give the child lots of attention
for his appropriate behaviors, otherwise you will be ignoring everything
(only husbands can get away with this!)!
by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.
Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories
Click here to read the
Tactical ignoring fact sheet
Click here to read the
Tantrums fact sheet
Visit http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/environmental.msnw which is the autism home page of Gary Heffner, the author of this
article. This personal story remains under his copyright and is
used with his permission. You are encouraged to visit his site as
it is one of the few autism websites offering free comprehensive