I often hear my colleague, nurse Jason Russo, on the phone asking, “Can you describe what his meltdown looks like?” He spends much of his day fielding calls from parents about a child’s behavior, answering questions about new medications, and acting as a liaison between medical or mental health providers and parents. 

Think about all the words we use to describe our kids’ challenging behaviors: hyper, agitated, distracted, out-of-control. Yet, just as each child with autism is unique, so is the meaning of the terms we use.

When communicating with providers and teachers, it is helpful to paint a clear picture of what is occurring.  You know your child better than anyone and are the best observer and reporter of behavior. It’s up to parents to describe this on behalf of non-verbal kids and even those with words who have trouble expressing how they feel emotionally. 

Here are some tips on describing what you’re seeing: 

What does the behavior look and sound like?

What does your child’s body look like? For example: pacing, restlessly moving from room to room, wringing hands or waving fists. 

What does your child’s voice sound like? What is s/he saying? What vocalizations do you hear if your child is non-verbal? Examples are high-pitched shrieks, low-pitched groans, grunting noises, and whining. 

You likely know, in general, what these mean, but your provider may not. Providing your interpretation will help get closer to the specifics and what to do to address the behavior. 

What is the intensity, frequency, and duration of the behavior?

On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate the intensity of the behavior?

How long has it been going on? One day, three days, a week?

How often do you see it? Once a day, several times a day?

How long does it last? Minutes, hours, days? 

What factors can you associate with the behavior?

Why do you think this behavior is happening? Is there a pattern to what you’re seeing such as in the evening rather than morning? Can you identify a trigger for the behavior such as when your child is asked to do something, when s/he is tired, or told “not now”, or if you are busy and are not providing undivided attention. Remember, triggers don’t have to be things that immediately came before a behavior but can be the culmination of factors over the course of hours, days, or a week. Does the behavior seem to coincide with anything new that has been introduced? For example, do tantrums increase as new demands are added? 

Can you draw on past experiences?

Can you rule out any “usual suspects” such as illness or toothache or a poor night’s sleep? Does this behavior look similar to anything you’ve observed before? If so, was there anything that helped then? 

Clear communication with providers will allow your child to be better understood and served more effectively, particularly in the case of concerning behaviors when you feel you most need guidance. 

Look for a follow-up blog on the many terms we use to describe the behavior we see in our children and the importance of being on the same page with those who work with our kids.