As an autism and speech-communication consultant, I am often called in to support children who are having behavior problems in the preschool or childcare setting. Upon observing their behaviors, I often see signs of autism (difficulty with play, repetitive behaviors, difficulty with transitions or sensory input, social communication concerns, etc.) For many of these very verbal little ones, the possibility of autism has not been considered, because the characteristics might not stand out in the one-to-one interactions that take place at home. However, once the child enters a group setting (childcare, preschool, kindergarten), and the social demands (interacting with peers, being flexible, considering others' feelings, wants, or ideas, etc.) exceed their social skills/abilities, the child often begins to struggle (exhibits sensory difficulties, anxiety, ;aggression). And, unfortunately, without an understanding of why these characteristics or behaviors might exist, many of my little ones with social communication difficulties gain reputations as being non-compliant, rude, aggressive, or in other words, a "behavior problem."
Whether I am working with parents or educators, I always encourage them to get information about the child's abilities (via evaluation), as well as, to consider the role that communication plays in the child's behavior. It's crucial that we identify what skills are missing and WHY the behavior exists, so we can offer the appropriate supports. For example, one of my little friends has difficulty understanding that everyone is not thinking what he is thinking. This is one of his missing skills - a delay in the development of theory of mind. He thinks that it would be fun to knock down the tower his peer just built, and assumes others are thinking the same. He has no awareness of his peer's hurt feelings as he crashes into the structure destroying his classmate's hard work. How the adults view and address the behavior will depend on what they know about the child's abilities (or missing skills). If the child's social communication difficulties have been identified, then the adults are more likely to consider the skills that are missing (theory of mind) and address them. They might show the child the devastated look on his peer's face, and help him to understand how the peer is feeling and why. Then they could introduce ideas that he could use to change the way his peer is feeling such as, help the peer to rebuild the tower, apologize for knocking it over, ask an adult to help him fix it, etc.
On the other hand, if the adults interacting with the child are not aware that there are missing skills, they will most likely punish the child for his naughty behavior. Not only do I feel it is inappropriate to punish a child for failing to use skills he has not yet obtained (Would we punish a child for not being able to read?), it is also ineffective in helping him to learn them. For example, if the child in this scenario is scolded, removed from play, or loses privileges as a result of his behavior (destroying his peer's work), it will not help him become better at tuning-in to his peer's/others' thoughts and feelings (compared to the example above). As a result, he will most likely continue to think that others are thinking what he is thinking, and continue to make similar mistakes.
Far too often, we assume that by putting out little ones into social situations with other children (preschool, recreation programs, etc.) they will learn the social skills needed on their own. Unfortunately, having social opportunities may not be enough. If your child is struggling and you have concerns about his/her social communication development, contact your local school district's speech-language pathologist for a free evaluation.
Until next time,