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EATS: How Behavior Works for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Every parent in the world has looked at their kid and wondered, "Why does she do that?" Part of the answer is that children think differently than adults. Their learning brains don't begin to develop reason until about age 12. A lot of the time, if you ask a child why they did something, their answer is, "I don't know." They don't. An impulse, a thought, just anything may strike them as a good idea. The next thing you know, your favorite figurine is broken because your kid wanted to see what happens if you throw it.

Reasoning skills have an "if, then" relationship. It looks like this:

  • If I throw the ball in the house, I might break the computer screen.
  • If I play with mom's shoes, she may get angry.
  • If I use one of dad's power tools, I may break it.
  • If I gossip about my friend, he may stop letting me play with him.

Cause and effect starts making sense during the middle school years. Children who are building reasoning skills can think ahead a few steps. They see or can guess that their actions have consequences.

With children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the age of reason may be delayed. They may be way behind their same-age friends, peers. Impulsive behavior can happen more frequently. Parents of Neurotypical children can guide those children through phases knowing that they will pass. Parents with ASD children do not have that luxury.

Think of behavior as having a purpose or a job. Instead of seeing your child's behavior as flawed or wrong, look a little deeper. How they are acting is serving a purpose. It may be impulsive or it may not be, but it is working for some reason. In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), this is called "Function of Behavior."

Using the Acronym of EATS, the Function of Behavior is as follows:

Escape/Avoidance: Some kids just want a break or to get away. These are the kids who "elope" or run away. They will run out of the classroom or slip out of the room at home while no one is looking.

Attention: Kids who like attention like all kinds of attention! You may think that giving your child with ASD a strong talking to will stop the problem. In truth, it may make it worse. In their world, bad attention does not exist. All attention is good.

Tangibles: Stuff. Some kids with ASD just love things: spinning light-up toys, books, iPads, cards. They will work for these items, or they will do zero work while they play with them!

Sensory/Motor: Almost all children with ASD have a favorite "Stim," or self-stimulating behavior. Some kids rock, some flap their hands. Other kids may stare at lights or play with sounds. This kind of behavior is self-reinforcing. In other words, it feels good. When this is the main function of behavior, parents can struggle to overcome it.

EATS is an easy way to remember the reasons kids on the spectrum behave the way they do. But, most parents want to know how to get their kid to stop it, or at least grow past it.

Step one is figuring out which category your child falls into. For instance, your child may be stealing cookies. That looks like he or she wants tangibles. However, they may be stealing the cookie to get your attention. You'll have to investigate and experiment a little bit. But if you can figure out which one of these categories your child fits into, you will be empowered to help them in a positive way.

SOLUTIONS

The child who seeks Escape/Avoidance will get a break whether you want them to or not. You can give this child an "I need a break" card, which gets them involved in the solution. They would hand you the card and you would let them have a five-minute break. If they are unable to self-manage yet, set a timer on regular intervals and give them a break. Ideally, the break would happen just before they might run away. If you know your child can go 30 minutes without running off, set a timer for 29 minutes and let them have a break. When the break is over, set the timer for 29 more minutes.

Giving your child constant Attention can feel draining, but if you can give your child attention prior to them misbehaving, they will get that need met and their behavior will improve. Set a timer to remind yourself to give them neutral attention. You don't need to praise your kid necessarily, but you can say, "I see you sitting at the table." Or, you might say, "You look like you're busy over there." The idea is to take care of the attention need they have and avoid misbehavior. Just like the Escape/Avoidance technique, you would set a timer to remind you to give attention. If your child can stay on task for 15 minutes, set the timer to 14 minutes. When it goes off, give neutral attention.

Tangibles, or things that your kid likes to have, make great reinforcement items. With kids that sneak items to play with or candy to eat, you can take those things and say, "When you finish your Spelling homework, you can have five minutes of screen time." Use these reinforcers to help motivate your child do what they need to do and then reward them for finishing the task.

Sensory/Motor is a tough function of behavior. Stimming can be like scratching an itch. If you've ever worn a cast, you know how uncomfortable it is not to be able to scratch an itch. Instead of asking your child to give up a stimulating action, it will need to be replaced. However, it is appropriate to do some stimming in a private area, as your child transitions into the new behaviors. The child whose function of behavior is Sensory/Motor may do well in trying the some of the solutions for the other categories.

If you have professionals working with your child, the Autism Specialist may be able to conduct a test to determine your child's Function of Behavior. These can be expensive, but you may want to have a conversation with providers about whether your child would benefit from this assessment or not. In the meantime, you can observe your child's behavior and experiment with solutions to see what works for you. It is much more important to help your child than to accurately assess what he or she might need.