Tips for Making Odd Behaviors More Socially Acceptable

Author: Lisa “Luna” DeCurtis, M.A., CCC-SLP

Autistic people often exhibit quirky behavior that is not appropriate in a social setting, ruins clothing or toys, and hurts them.  Things like biting on a their collars or sleeves, picking at their skin, flapping their arms, making a high pitched scream, jumping up and down…sometimes these behaviors are in response to sensory stimuli, sometimes they are provoked by anxiety, sometimes they are a way to communicate, and sometimes they are just a bad habit.  Whatever the case may be, often the more we try to stop them, the more they persist or morph into something worse.  When dealing with quirky behaviors, rather than try to stop, try to REPLACE the behavior with something less destructive and more socially acceptable.

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When attempting to address odd behavior, it is important to first try to figure out why the behavior exists.  Be a detective and see if you can figure out what the behavior means and what need it is filling for the child.  When does the behavior happen, everyday or does it come and go?  Does it happen at a certain time of day, during certain weather, whenever the child has a cold or is not feeling well?  What are the child’s emotions during this behavior?  Are they excited, anxious, worried, tired, bored?  Does it happen around a certain person?  Did the behavior start after a movie or tv show the child saw?  Is it related to their sensory needs?  The more questions you can answer, the better your attempts at replacing the behavior.  Here are some common behaviors and ideas for replacing them:

1)    Biting clothing – This can be a sensory need.  An occupational therapist can tell you if this is an oral fixation and if the child can benefit from cranial exercises to stimulate the connection between his jaw and his brain.  Other causes can be anxiety or boredom.  Some quick replacements:  something else to chew on!  Occupational therapists use devices that can be put around their neck to chew on as needed.  Or, try sugar free gum, mints, carrots, celery, stale licorice, dried fruit….anything that satisfies the need to chew on something.  And, do not be afraid to ask the teacher at school to allow a certain amount of snacking during class, chewing on a piece of dried fruit is much less distracting than chewing on sleeves.

2)    Picking at themselves – many children will pick at their skin, lips, clothing….maybe it starts with a scab that is bothering them, and they cannot stop.  Or, maybe they are anxious and trying to soothe themselves.  Squeeze balls, swatches of soft fabrics, or small toys can have the same calming effect on a child, with obviously less damage to themselves.

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3)    Flapping, jumping, and high pitched noises – often this is a way for a child to express excitement or anxiety.  Perhaps there is a noise that is bothering the child.  Headphones are a great item to keep on hand for a child that needs to block out noises in crowded places.  With so many electronic devices around us, a child wearing headphones is a common sight, and an easy way to sooth a child overstimulated by noise.  Also worth noting, often people forget that autistic people need regular physical activity and exercise, just like any child.

4)    Spitting – sometimes kids spit to amuse themselves, they have a bad taste in their mouth, or a compulsion.  This might sound unorthodox, but try giving them a place to spit, and a time limit.  A good place to spit is in the bathroom sink, with the door closed for a time set with a stop watch.  Teach them to clean up the sink after finished.  Another appropriate spit spot?  Outside, when no one is close by, or into a cup.  Sometimes having a designated time and place eliminates the need to do it all the time or randomly.

The best way to stop quirky behaviors is to replace them with ones that fill the same need.  The best way to figure out the need the behavior is serving, is to observe and talk to an occupational therapist.  Occupational therapists have great insight into your child’s sensory needs and can help you with many seemingly senseless exercises that feel like the child is just playing , but the play is helping their senses and their sensory overload.

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