Coping with behavioural problems
Behavioural problems can be hard work for any parent, but for parents of children with special needs – particularly on the autistic spectrum – behavioural problems can be extremely complex to untangle and manage.
A behavioural crisis point that gets discussed regularly on Mumsnet is children's aggression – both towards others and towards themselves, for example in the form of head-banging or hurting themselves. Behavioural issues can be complicated and may need many different approaches. It's rarely a simple matter of 'being naughty'.
One mum explains: "Each problem behaviour will need an independent analysis - and then some sort of individual approach."
Chat to other parents in our special needs Talk forums
One mum explains: "It can be very hard to work out what is attention seeking and what is something he can't help." Commonly used methods of behaviour modification (such as telling off, or the naughty step) may be inappropriate for a child with special needs. In general, behavioural issues with SN children are down to communication problems, and improving communication is the key to improving behaviour.
"Most aggressive behaviour in special needs children is proven to be linked to communication." Davros
As children get older, the challenge of inappropriate or aggressive behaviour can get even more complex and seem to take over family life. And, frustratingly, resolving these problems is rarely simple.
"Behavioural functions seem to be more complex as they get older and harder to decode," notes one mum, and as another puts it: "The priority is to teach better communication - but it's very hard to do."
"The best thing to start with is to find out why your child has problems with different things. For example, not wanting a seatbelt on could be a sensory problem if his body is very sensitive (not wanting to wear certain materials or clothes with labels in is often a sign). It might also be a question of coping with routine. In this case, visual timetables could be useful." coppertop
Traditional behavioural-modification methods popular with parents who have children without special needs are often unhelpful. For example, using a 'naughty step' might be meaningless (or even rewarding) for a child who is protesting because of sensory overload.
Seeking help can be hard, particularly when people don't understand the complexities of living with special needs (one Mumsnetter was told by her paediatrician that she simply needed to "nip bad behaviour in the bud").
"The paediatrician said the usual 'I know it's hard for you, but...'. If she knew how hard it was she would bloody shut up. I am fed up of hearing that phrase!" mummy2aaron
A common feeling among parents tackling behaviour problems is 'I just don't know what to do or what method to follow'. You're likely to need a variety of tools and you're going to be on the proverbial steep learning curve. It's worth seeking help from as many sources as you can. As one mum puts it: "Through lots of research, I found out loads of things that were affecting my daughter which I hadn't even thought of!"
Some Mumsnetters find parenting courses to be extremely helpful. For starters, you're likely to get to know parents in similar situations to yourself, so doing a course can be a good place to network as well as to learn new information and skills.
"I went on a really useful course organised by the charity Contact a Family. The speaker from BIBIC was really good, too!" lottiejenkins
Contact A Family holds courses all over the country. Find out what's available in your area.
The National Autistic Society provides courses particularly targeted at families with autistic children. In particular, the help! and help! 2 courses are recommended by Mumsnetters who are dealing with the behaviour of autistic children.
The aim of help! is to provide information and advice after a diagnosis of autism, and is aimed at parents of children aged over three or children in full-time education (as well as young people or adults who have had a recent diagnosis), while help! 2 is a series of seminars for parents and carers with a basic knowledge of autistic spectrum disorders that focuses on practical help with issues such as anger management.
You're probably sick of people asking, "Have you tried speaking to….?" So if you've been begging for help from everyone from your hairdresser to the school caretaker, here's a quick checklist of people who might be able to signpost you in the direction of something helpful:
- SENCO – it's their job, after all
- School inclusion officer
- Educational psychologist
- Health visitor/GP
- Educational psychologist
- Local authority behavioural team / behavioural unit
- Developmental paediatrician / paediatrician
- Occupational therapist (can be helpful for sensory issues)
- Hairdresser / school caretaker / man in the newsagents / postman
Anything else I can explore?
- Charities for families of children with special needs (see our Special needs webguide).
- Charities for families who are managing behavioural problems, such as the Challenging Behaviour Foundation.
- Different therapeutic approaches - for example, Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) and Functional Analysis, which aim to help with the management of autism, and sensory integration and vision therapies.
- Books – books, lots of books. There are plenty of recommendations on the Mumsnet Talk forums, depending on your child's diagnosis and behaviour.
- Picture cards - "We had to use picture cards to help him communicate as he was easily frustrated and would just melt down."
- PECS - communication methods, particularly helpful for children with autism or communication difficulties.
- Visual timetables – useful for managing routine for some children.
- Diet and gut issues - it's worth looking into yeast, gluten/casein intolerance and supplements, say many Mumsnetters.
Many parents get to the point where they wonder whether medication is the right choice for their child. The decision is always going to be a very difficult one, and not right for all families.
As one mum explains: "We lasted for years with difficult behaviour, but had always suspected that medication was on the cards at some point. You will probably know when that point comes, although you will still be filled with doubt, guilt, and resistance. As usual, we have to try to forget about how something makes US feel and try to be as objective as possible about whether it will help our child."
"I know many cases where medication has been arrived at after much struggle and helped enormously, and many cases where it simply isn't the answer, and many where it is but families and children continue to struggle. Like most issues we come across, it's not simple!" Davros
"Medication does mean that we see medical staff regularly," says one mum, "in our case, the senior developmental paediatrician. I found that very helpful."