As a professional in the field of autism, a parent and an autistic myself, I am being asked by fearful parents, in the wake of last week’s tragedy in Connecticut, if their child with autism who has meltdowns today might grow up to be a mass murder shooter tomorrow.
First off, to quell your fears here is a sampling of reputable quotes from the recent news:
- “There is absolutely no evidence or any reliable research that suggests a linkage between autism and planned violence.” The Autism Society of America, 12-16-12.
- “That having Asperger’s or the autism spectrum in your life—as an individual, a parent…etc.—does not carry any bearing with whether or not you will become (for lack of a better term) ‘a good person’ in this life. While the majority of statistics prove that we are infinitely more prone to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence, we are not immune from becoming people capable of making terrible, horrible choices. No one is.” Michael John Carley, GRASP, 12-14-12.
- “Aggression and violence in the ASD population is reactive, not preplanned and deliberate.” Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist and autism expert at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland in CNN Health Report, 12-17-12.
Many children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have meltdowns. If they continue to have meltdowns into the teen years it becomes a major concern as the once small children are now in bigger, adult sized bodies. Sometimes during the height of a meltdown, when explosive behavior occurs, it can be quite scary particularly if the individual tries to hurt himself or others. The major difference between explosive behavior and the mass violence that happened last week at Sandy Hook School is that the explosive behavior of a person with autism is that of reacting in the moment while the mass murder behavior of Adam Lanza was purposefully planned out.
The explosive behavior of a person with autism can be diminished over time. This has happened for many people I have worked with over the years using a program I developed and used first with my own son and has now been used by countless others. I define explosive behavior as having four distinct stages, followed by a clearly defined recovery period. In addition, the physiological fight/flight mechanism is triggered immediately prior to the explosion. To learn about this system please see Outsmarting Explosive Behavior. (Endow, 2009)
Tips for Dealing with Your Child’s Explosive Behavior
- When the meltdown is occurring, the best reaction is to ensure the safety of all concerned. Know that explosive behavior is not planned but instead is most often caused by subtle and perplexing triggers. When the behavior happens, everyone in its path feels pain, especially the child.
- Learn and use the visual system Outsmarting Explosive Behavior (Endow, 2009) or something similar that allows you to map the stages of explosive behavior. This is important because different support strategies and intervention positively impact different stages of the behavior.
- Explosive behavior is easiest to manage when you can prevent it from starting in the first place. Three major supports to include in everyday life so as to prevent explosive behavior from starting include proactive use of a sensory diet to maintain optimal regulation, visual supports to show what will happen when, and teaching a system for managing emotions when they get too big (Endow, 2011).
- Sensory Diet: People with ASD usually do not have sensory systems that automatically regulate; instead, they must be taught how to keep themselves regulated. This is most often accomplished by employing a sensory diet. A sensory diet for a person with autism is like insulin for a person with diabetes. It is easy to understand that a person with diabetes has a pancreas that is unable to regulate insulin effectively. We can measure blood sugar and know the exact state of affairs, and from there figure out how much insulin the person needs.Unfortunately, medical science does not allow us to take a blood sample to measure sensory dysregulation. However, we can figure out and employ a sensory diet to prevent dysregulation, and just like insulin prevents serious consequences for a diabetic, a sensory diet prevents serious troubles for an individual with ASD. As an adult with autism, I spend time every day on sensory integration activities in order to be able to function well in my everyday life. A sensory diet as prescribed by an Occupational Therapist and employed proactively goes a long way in preventing the first stage of explosive behavior from ever occurring.
- Visual Supports: Another crucial area of support to put in place proactively is that of visual supports. As an autistic, I can tell you the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is the monumental truth. Although each person with ASD has a unique experience, processing written and spoken words is not considered by most of us to be our “first language.” For me, the meaning I get from spoken words can drop out entirely when I am under stress, my sensory system is dysregulated or my felt emotions are too big. Visual supports can be anything that shows rather than tells. Visual schedules are very commonly used successfully with many individuals with ASD. Having a clear way to show beginnings and endings to the activities depicted on the visual schedule can support smooth transitions, thus keeping a meltdown at bay. For maximum effectiveness, visual supports need to be in place proactively rather than waiting until behavior unravels to pull them out.
- Managing Felt Emotions: A third area in which many with ASD need proactive support is in managing felt emotions. Most often, felt feelings are way too big for the situation. An example in my life is when I discover the grocery store is out of a specific item. I get a visceral reaction very similar to the horror I felt when first hearing about the 9/11 tragedy. I know cognitively the two events have no comparison and, yet, my visceral reaction is present and I need to consciously bring my “too big feelings” down to something more workable in the immediate situation. Managing felt emotions does not come automatically, but can be learned over time with systematic instruction and a visual support such as The Incredible 5-Point Scale (Buron & Curtis, 2004).
The good news is that explosive behavior in a child with autism does not at all mean, in and of itself, that the child will grow up to be a mass murderer – which is the expressed fear of some parents and the secret fear of others since last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Instead, explosive behavior exhibited by autistics can be positively impacted. In fact, with proactive supports, explosive behavior can be outsmarted so individuals with ASD can move on to living purposeful and self-fulfilling lives.
Buron, K.D., & Curtis, M. (2004). Incredible 5-Point Scale Assisting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Understanding Social Interactions and Controlling Their Emotional Responses. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Endow, J. (2009). Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.
Endow, J. (2011). Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go!. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.