Have you ever wondered why your child feels a strong need to resist normal, everyday demands?
For some children on the Autism Spectrum there is an extreme need to be in control, often stemming from intense anxiety and uncertainties about their world. This need for control can mean that children go to drastic lengths to avoid everyday requests and demands.
This drive to be in control can have a huge impact on the child’s relationships and also on their availability for learning. Demand avoidance stemming from anxiety may look like having a high need to be in control of choice of activities, the way he or she undertakes tasks and even directing how other people interact and behave. This high need for control can result in the child having extreme difficulty following instructions and directions. They may also find it difficult to accommodate or compromise to another person’s needs or wishes, thus impacting on peer relationships (Duncan et al. 2011).
A child with high anxiety and strong need for control can use a wide range of strategies to avoid a demand or request. This may include distracting people, giving reasons/explaining why they can’t complete a task/instruction, or even directing others to complete the task/instruction. When the child feels situations or events are out of their control or they are unable to manipulate the situation to avoid the demands, the child may explode or ‘meltdown’ as a result of their lack the ability to react to the situation in an “adaptive” way. This may be seen as screaming, throwing things, physically lashing out, often in very sudden and dramatic ways (Newson, Marèchal, David 2003). If we can better understand the driving force behind the child's behaviour we can better support them to manage their anxieties and reduce the likelihood of behaviours escalating.
Try some of these tips:
- Explore ways to help your child communicate in a comfortable way. Communicating emotions is often hard for children with Autism, thus it is important to find a way of communicating that suits them. Some ideas include through text messages, writing a comment and posting in a special box, drawing, or whatever you and your child feel comfortable with. Ideally involve them in finding the best form of communication, as this may be more acceptable than an idea introduced by you.
- It’s important to understand that some days their anxiety can be so high that they will struggle to accept most demands, even requests others might not view as a ‘demand’. On days where your child is showing signs of extreme anxiety, reduce pressure and limit requests. On days where your child’s tolerance is higher, try increasing demands. Try to use a calm, even tone when communicating with your child, particularly on days when their anxiety and need for control appears high (PDA Society 2017).
- Often, it is not the demand or ask itself that the child is avoiding, rather it’s the fact that someone has made a request of them. Depersonalising the request, i.e. using a visual schedule, can help the child adapt to the request. You could also try presenting the requests as ‘challenges’ such as, “Bet I can get my coat on before you!”. Another strategy could be trying to make them feel useful, such as “It would be really helpful if you could just…”. You could also try giving limited choices, i.e. “Do you want to start your homework at 3:30pm or 4:30pm?”, or using a first/then approach, i.e. “first you need to complete your homework then you can watch TV.”
In summary, anxiety in children with Autism, and their subsequent need for control, can have significant effects on their ability to engage effectively in everyday tasks and situations and can also be detrimental to their interpersonal relationships. By better understanding their need for control, and having some strategies to support engagement, we are better placed to be able to support them to actively engage in everyday tasks.