“How are You?”

This is the first question I ask whenever I begin to work with a family seeking behavioral support for a child diagnosed with autism.  The answer is often “fine”; sometimes the answer is “tired”; occasionally the answer is “I don’t know.” There doesn’t seem to be adequate language to communicate. The focus of concern is typically an undesirable behavior and the very strong hope to extinguish that behavior. “This behavior support is not for me.

Why we ‘communicate’

We communicate for: social closeness, social etiquette, transfer of information and to have our needs and wants met. If we don’t have the words to communicate those messages, we can design very creative methods.

Why we ‘behave’

We behave: for sensory input, to gain attention, to escape a demand or activity, or to gain access to some one or some thing. Some examples:

Sensory input – a classic I Love Lucy scene where Ricky Ricardo is tapping his fingers, Fred Mertz jingles the change in his pocket, Lucy or Ethel is continuously stirring coffee and the fourth behavior is, if I remember correctly, chewing gum (I can’t confirm the fourth behavior, but you get the picture) Each behavior meets a need for sensory stimulation alerting their nervous system while wordlessly communicating their boredom.

Gaining attention – Arnold Horshack, Welcome Back, Kotter! His hand-raising behavior accompanied by shouts of “ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo” are second in gaining attention only to his attention-seeking laugh.

Escape – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! – Sits under a light to raise his body temperature, feign illness and escape school.

Gaining access – Mrs. Doubtfire! – Creates a female persona to be hired as a nanny providing access to his children.

In each example, the behavior communicates a message.

Behavior is Communication

Carl Sundberg, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Behavior Analysis Center for Autism, when speaking on behavior says most of us have a “sophisticated verbal repertoire that allows us to compensate in a socially accepted way.” When we don’t use words, or simply don’t have the words, our behavior communicates for us. Thoughtful observation of behavior provides insight to its purpose and the message communicated by the behavior.   For a more typical example, (another favorite!): the child crawling across the kitchen table may not be demonstrating a sensory need to climb. Instead the child may have attempted to communicate in whatever way they could their desire for the cookie in the jar on the table.  If the child is scooped up from the table and receives a cookie, the child has communicated the need, received the desired object and has ultimately ‘learned’ to ‘ask’ again that way the next time he wants a cookie. That is an effective communication system! Respectful of the child’s communicative ability, we seek to provide a more socially acceptable yet equally functional way to communicate the request for that cookie. Shaping the replacement behavior requires slow steady steps and ample reinforcement. Described in this way, communication is a perfect system; but we don’t always realize our participation in the system.

The absence of words to describe feelings does not mean you are not communicating your needs.  For example, withdrawal from a challenging conversation may not demonstrate indifference to the challenge; withdrawal may more deeply communicate an inability to access the language of the emotions and challenge you experience. Withdrawal from challenging conversation might also indicate a feeling of inadequacy if you think you cannot meet the challenge, or, in the case of autism, change the diagnosis.

In other words, sometimes saying ‘nothing’ may actually be communicating ‘something’. In nuanced and subtle ways we communicate through our behavior; thoughtfully noticing behavior provides insight to its function and message.

As we come to the end of Autism Awareness Month…Let’s remain aware. Let’s cultivate growth. Let’s build confidence and, above all, let’s communicate. Just some thoughts…