Welcome to the November edition of Ask Dr. Emily!
We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Rastall, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format. We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Rastall will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: My name is Chris, and I work in a high school with our ASD student population (high functioning). This past week I’ve dealt with two separate students involved in theft (a teacher’s laptop and the master school key). I was wondering if you could comment on the typical function of stealing for people on the spectrum? Is it common? Neither student was able to express why they had stolen their respective items, and both were aware of the negative consequences associated with getting caught. I’m finding it difficult to come up with a contingency plan with them when I can’t identify the function of the behavior we’re trying to replace. Any resources you think might help would also be very appreciated!
A: Thank you for your question. I’m not sure there is a universal “typical function” of this behavior for individuals with ASD. However, there are some special considerations to make when looking at the function of this behavior in children with ASD. For example, executive functioning skills in kids with ASD are often less developed than their typical peers, so they have a more difficult time thinking about consequences and/or resisting impulses. Though they may know the consequences, in that moment when they see something they want, their brains aren’t thinking about those consequences and aren’t able to resist the impulse to take.
In addition, we know that kids with ASD often have a hard time considering the perspective of others, so they are less likely to think about how taking an item will affect others. Also, items may be increasingly appealing if they fit within the restricted interests of a child with ASD. Finally, kids with ASD may have a harder time communicating their needs, so taking items is a quick and easy way of “bypassing the ask.”
No matter the purpose, it’s not uncommon for kids to have a hard time explaining why it was that they took a particular item; I often hear, “I don’t know.” or “I just wanted it.” The truth is, they may not actually know or they may not have the words to describe it.
Regarding behavior planning, a functional behavior analysis (with someone who knows ASD well) is probably where you want to start. As far as intervention, broadly, just like for all humans, behavior changes are made via reinforcement of “the right” behaviors. Thus, we might start by praising and rewarding impulse control behaviors, like raising a hand in class (“I could tell you really wanted to speak out, but you raised your hand instead.”) and/or asking for desired items/privileges (“I appreciate you asking to use my pencil before taking it from my desk.”).
Another option might be to reward the absence of stealing behaviors. We might also teach scripts for how to ask for things and/or how to negotiate politely and effectively; when scripts are used, praise and rewards are given to promote continued use. For more resources about behavior management in the classroom, the following books might be helpful:
Positive Behavior Support in the Classroom (Jackson and Panyan)
A Work in Progress: Behavior Management Strategies and Curriculum for Intensive Behavioral Treatment of Autism (Leaf and McEachin)
Coaching Students with Executive Functioning Deficits (Dawson and Guare)
Q: Thank you for your informative blog. It has answered so many questions. I was wondering if a friend’s fixation or obsession and competiveness are common in high functioning autism. My 11-year-old son has a mate with Asperger’s/autism (many titles here in Oz), that has a real fixation with being with my son constantly and having to have whatever he has and do whatever he does. It was fine when they were toddlers, but lately my son has found it tiresome and wants to form other friendships. As a mum I’ve suggested not catching up as often and both adding new friends, but as they attend the same school and sporting activities, this can be a challenge.
A: Thank you for your question. One of the primary diagnostic criteria for ASD is what we call “cognitive rigidity.” This might manifest as “getting stuck,” having a hard time making changes, or becoming overly focused on items, ideas, and/or people. As the social expectations increase throughout development, it is not uncommon for kids with ASD to have a hard time “keeping up with” the changes that need to occur to maintain friendships. I also want to mention, though, that it’s not uncommon for all kids to go through changes in their friendships, the root of which could be any number of things: Changes in location or school, changes in interests, family changes, personality preference changes.
It sounds like your son may be experiencing what is a normal part of growing up—shifting and changing of friend groups and interests. Luckily, this is a life lesson in kindness, tolerance, and inclusion. We want to teach kids that it is okay to outgrow friends, but never to become unkind or purposefully exclude others. While your son and his friend may move on to different friend groups, we want to encourage continued care, tolerance, and empathy for one another (they will continue seeing a lot of each other at school and extracurriculars, after all).
Bottom line: We want to help your son branch out, but also to continue showing kindness and compassion for a longtime friend. In order to improve variety and also remain inclusive, you might encourage your son to invite other peers to play with him and his friend on the playground or during play dates.
In the spirit of setting boundaries, your suggestion to support your son in kindly asking for some space is a good one. You might encourage your son to pursue other extracurricular activities that may open the door to a wider variety of potential friends, with whom play dates can occur. Play dates that do occur with your son’s friend, could include other peers or could be less frequent, shorter, and/or activity-focused (pumpkin carving or cookie making). It may be that, with your son less available, your son’s friend finds other peers that he likes to spend time with too.
This is not an easy transition, but one that most, or all, kids go through at least once. Your continued support and coaching will help your son make this transition kindly and empathically.