Understanding upsetting behavior as communication

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I had just brought Sammy (not his real name) in from the playground at the end of our school day. His mother was usually in the hallway by this time to greet him and take him home. On this day, since she wasn’t there yet, I suggested to Sammy that we could get his backpack from the cubby and wait for her together, sitting on chairs in the hallway.

The very moment we got his backpack, his mother arrived. They have a very loving relationship, so I was surprised when Sammy threw a fully physical and verbal tantrum.

Since teachers at Hanna Perkins view behavior as communication, I considered what Sammy might be telling us – and what might have happened in such a short time to bring on such a strong response.

As is true for many children, Sammy has difficulty with change. It occurred to me that he had been hit with several changes at once: outdoors to indoors, teacher care to mother care, mother waiting to us waiting, school work to leisure time, etc. Maybe this was just too much for him, so I considered which specific change to address first to help Sammy begin to get his tantrum under control.

The last change I had introduced was verbally preparing Sammy to wait for his mother on the chair in the hallway. She was visibly relieved when I explained this, and when I took Sammy to a hallway chair to enact that situation, he began to calm down.

I asked Sammy if he was ready to go, but I think I spoke too soon. He started screaming and thrashing on my lap. Since he takes comfort in the reliability of numbers, I told Sammy “We will count to 10 and then it is time to go home with Mommy.” I began. “One… two… three… four…” but Sammy shouted “It’s a rocket ship! It’s a rocket ship!” It was his way of saying he didn’t like this idea.

“OK,” I said, “we will count down from 10 to zero just like on a rocket ship.” Sammy listened quietly until I had gotten to number seven, at which point and he whimpered sweetly “100?”

“OK,” I tried again. “I will count from zero to 100 by tens, and then you will be ready to go home with Mommy until tomorrow.” With every multiple of 10 I named, I could feel Sammy relax a bit more. The numerical sequence was known to him, the ending value had been predetermined, and the expected action had been clearly stated.

During much of this time, Sammy’s mother had been listening, watching and waiting patiently a short distance away and down a short flight steps. Once I got to 100, I helped Sammy to his feet and his mother calmly approached. It was just as I had told Sammy it would be – us waiting for his mother on a chair in the hallway.

kirsten radivoyevitch

Kirsten Radivoyevitch

Sammy’s school day ended peacefully as he held his mother’s loving hand and calmly walked out of the school building like a big boy.

Being a teacher for young children with autism can be a challenge, both physically and mentally. But if we are willing to learn from them, they can show us a new way of thinking – one that challenges us to use our reasoning skills in a new way.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch is a teacher in Hanna Perkins’ EPIC Early Learning program, for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here for more information about the EPIC program.