Teacher seeks advice: Student with autism intimidates others

Today’s “Got Questions?” response is by child psychologists Rebecca Hellenthal and Megan Norris, of Nationwide Children's Hospital Child Development Center and Ohio State University. The hospital and university are among the 13 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

I teach in a self-contained classroom for students who have autism. I hear a lot about kids with autism being victims of bullying. But can they be bullies themselves? One of my students tends to get physically aggressive and scare other students away when he wants something such as art materials or games. Advice greatly appreciated.

Editor’s note: The following information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as appropriate, with a qualified healthcare professional and/or behavioral therapist.

Great question! You’re right that we often hear about children with autism being bullied – not so much about them bullying others. It helps to remind ourselves that every person on the spectrum is unique. They can demonstrate the full range of behavioral and emotional difficulties we see in people who don’t have autism.

So the answer to your question is “yes,” this can include bullying behavior – or at least what appears to be bullying. It’s important to keep in mind that someone who has autism may not realize that his aggressive behavior frightens other people. We also know that autism-related behavior problems often stem from an inability to communicate needs or wants.

In our practice, the first step to addressing a challenging behavior is to understand the motivation behind it. These motivations typically fall into one or more of four categories:

  • obtaining a desired activity or object such as the art materials you describe
  • avoiding something unpleasant such as an assignment or disturbing sensory stimuli
  • getting attention
  • enjoying a calming or otherwise pleasant sensory experience

Given your description of the situation, let’s address your student’s aggressive behavior as aimed at simply getting an object what he wants.

The next step is to think through how to prevent the behavior from occurring, how to respond when it does occur and how to teach more-appropriate ways of getting what he wants or needs.

Prevention. When possible, prevention is a particularly effective strategy. In the situation you describe, some strategies to consider include:

  • Stock extras of the games, art supplies and other materials that this student wants, so he doesn’t feel the need to compete for them.
  • Stand ready to redirect his attention when you see signs that he’s about to intimidate and/or grab something from another student.
  • Ask the student what he wants to do and accompany him to get the materials he needs – demonstrating polite behavior toward the other students in the process.
  • Use words or visual supports (picture cards) to remind the student of rules (waiting turns, no pushing, no grabbing, etc.) before starting an activity

Response. Ideally, you want to work with the student’s behavioral therapist or another professional who specializes in developing behavior plans that address challenging behaviors. Together you can personalize an intervention that considers the intensity of the student’s behaviors, how often and how long they’ve been occurring and what exactly occurs.

For instance, you want to go beyond “he’s intimidating others” to address the specific behaviors involved (for instance, shoving, punching or yelling).

For example, if the boy pushes another student, you or a teacher’s aide could step between them and direct him back to his seat until he is calm. If he grabs an item from another child, calmly but firmly ask him to put the item down and give him a brief time out (set a timer for, say, a minute) before he can rejoin the group and try again at appropriate behavior. 

If his behavior is more challenging or longer lasting, work with his behavioral therapist to design more-intensive and effective interventions.

Teach. While prevention and response are important in the short term, you also want to teach your student appropriate ways of getting what he wants. This is a crucial social skill that challenges many children – and adults – affected by autism.

Again, we encourage you to work with a behavioral therapist to personalize an intervention plan for this student. If possible, include the student’s parents and/or other caregivers in the plan– so that everyone’s efforts are consistent and reinforcing.

The importance of turn taking

Here are some strategies for teaching turn taking that we recommend:

If your student is verbal, encourage him to request a turn. He can start by practicing with a teacher. For instance, encourage him to approach a teacher and ask, “Can I have a turn?” or “My turn, please.” Praise and reward him for any attempt and each small step toward success.

Next, help him try requesting a turn from a fellow student. It will help to do this with a student who shares well and/or can be coached in how to respond appropriately.

Next, we suggest teaching him what to do when he needs to wait for his turn. Keep it simple. We suggest offering two alternate activities that you know he enjoys. Visual supports can be particularly helpful for this strategy. For instance, you can offer him two cards with pictures of the alternative activities that he can do while he waits his turn.

If you sense that the student needs help understanding the concept of turn taking, consider using a teaching story – also called a social narrative or social story. Social stories use images and simple text to help convey concepts such as why we take turns and how it works.

You can download a template for a teaching story about turn taking from the Autism Speaks website. The template comes with pictures that you can easily swap out to personalize the story for your student and classroom. (See the example pages above.)

  • Use a timer to help the student understand when it’s his turn. In simple language, explain he can take his turn when the timer rings. Consider pairing the timer with a simple visual support. This can be a card with the word GO on a green background on one side and the word STOP on a red background on the other side.
  • Remember reward all efforts and each small step toward success. Rewards can include praise, stickers, a small prize or tokens on a “reward board” that earn a favorite activity or larger prize.

You can use these same strategies more broadly to encourage other appropriate classroom behaviors – for example, finishing tasks, raising his hand, and so on.

We hope these suggestions are helpful. Please let us know how you’re doing by emailing us at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org. Thanks again for your great question.

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