Personal story about ignoring behaviors linked with Autism, an Autism Spectrum Disorder


"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. Self-injurious 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 (repetitive 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 behaviors.


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 worse!

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.


Shut this Autism personal story on behavioral issues and ignoring

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Ignoring behavior can be a useful intervention for some behavioral issues with children on the autism spectrum