Autism & Severe Problem Behavior: What Do We Do?

Some children on the spectrum experience very severe problem behavior, that includes causing themselves great physical harm or causing others harm, which poses a real challenge to parents, doctors, and educators alike when it comes to treatment.  Earlier this month a California couple was accused of keeping their 11-year-old autistic son in a cage, which elicited a lot of criticism and debate over how to best take care of those children who unfortunately engage in this behavior. Amy Lutz, the author of Each Day I Like It Better: Autism, ECT, and the Treatment of Our Most Impaired Children, and a mother of a severely autistic son, talks about how people are quick to judge when it comes to taking care of your child. Her son’s aggressive behaviors were so dangerous that he has to spend ten months at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at just nine years old. Without knowing the details and context for these parents accused of caging their own child, we can’t really say whether this was a form of abuse or maybe a short-term solution to a very difficult challenge.

Dr. Gregory Hanley, Professor of Psychology at the Western New England University and adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, gave a dynamic and informative workshop about how to assess and treat severe problem behavior for children with ASD at ICare4Autism’s International Autism Conference. He talked a lot about using effective and safe methods as a behavioral analyst to not only help children on the spectrum, but also making sure to treat them as an individual with dignity and respect. Much of the problem behavior that he used as examples throughout the workshop included children who would throw tantrums, or engage in self-harming behaviors, and even trying to physically harm others.

The method he described to work through these behaviors is called functional assessment. He then provided a few qualifications and adjustments to the way behavioral analysts used to and still do functional assessments. Many behavioral analysts can be afraid for their safety or the child’s especially if the case is one of producing physical injury. Dr. Hanley argues that with the right method and approach, the analyst can provide a safe environment that allows them to learn essentially what it is that causes the problem behavior. Functional assessments like the ones that Dr. Hanley described are just ways in which behavior can be treated, however, there are other cases where the problem behavior is in fact a mental issue that requires medical treatment. The medicine available today includes anti-depressants, anti-seizure drugs, or in extreme cases electroconvulsive therapy. 

We hope that as this field of research continues to grow, we can come to a better understanding about the individual and how to help them lead more successful lives. To see Dr. Hanley’s presentation slides used during his workshop, click HERE.