The Source of the Problem


Usually when I ask Buddy to pick up his toys at the end of the day, he ignores me. Since he was 2 I would attempt various ploys to get him to clean up. Some things would work once, and then never again. This was frustrating for numerous reasons, but especially because as a sensory seeking autistic child, he can make a large mess in a very short amount of time (pretty much he dumps his toys bins everywhere). He will also move furniture, such as the dog kennel around (he’s big and strong).

Lately there’s been a change. He’s started to help with clean up with minimal prompting. And tonight I asked him to pick up his train tracks and he just went and did it! No prompting, no hovering over him, no pleading, no threats. He went and cleaned up while I took care of some other things.

At my last meeting with his case manager she said they’d had some autism specialists from the nearby university come and observe him and give feedback on where to go with him. One thing they noticed was that he has a difficult time figuring out what it is we want him to focus on, which is something I agreed with. They started incorporating ways to help him into his treatment plan, and it seems to be paying off amazingly. I can now give complex directions, such as “put the toy fire truck on the window sill.” And he will get it. And it makes my life a lot easier. And I think he finds it comforting to know what we want and expect.

We you have an autistic child it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that when they don’t follow directions it is willful. This is where I ran into trouble with the school district. It’s easy to forget that their brains are wired differently and we have no idea how they are interpreting the information they are sensing. It’s so easy to call them bad, defiant, argumentative, etc, without realizing that something may be preventing them from following directions, and if that isn’t addressed, then name calling and punishment will not work.

As Buddy matures and as they put programs in place to help him overcome his deficits, it seems clearer to me that what I have always believed about Buddy (that he wants to please us but can’t figure out how) is true.

Here are my suggestions below when your child is struggling.

  1. Don’t assume that misbehavior is willful. Even typically developing children’s brains are maturing and they are not processing information in the same way that we adults are.
  2. Find a specialist who takes a sensory based approach to targeting undesired behavior.
  3. Find a specialist who does not describe your child as “defiant” or other such derogatory terms.
  4. Find a specialist who listens to you and takes your observations of your child seriously.
  5. Be patient. A lot of times kids grow out of undesired behaviors.
  6. Avoid power struggles. Much as it angered me when Buddy wouldn’t pick up his toys, arguing with him and doing hand over hand with him screaming the whole time to clean it up just seemed to be backfiring with him and making me a mean angry mommy. It was counterproductive and not helpful. Buddy simply wasn’t mature enough to clean up after himself, and forcing a skill on a child before he is ready is a recipe for disaster. So for a time I had to let go of the expectation that he clean up his own messes.

Granted I realize that 2-4 involve having access to resources to get a good specialist, which is maddening. But as someone who has been there and knows very well the frustration of spending hours picking up toys and sorting them into bins only to have your child dump them all over the floor in under five minutes and then will not pick them up, with patience, the right support, and targeting of the right skills, it does get better.


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