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  • Writer's pictureJo Richardson Au

Understanding Behaviour as a Form of Communication

When you think of communication, the most obvious forms that spring to mind are; verbal, sign language, non-verbal (like pointing to things or leading someone to what you want) written and picture communication systems; like PECS.

However, there is a form of communication; especially in non-verbal autistic children, which often gets overlooked; behaviour.

(Please note that this article is relevant to both verbal and non-verbal autistics – I will use the example of non-verbal autistics as they have a more limited communication range than verbal autistics)

In adults, it can be easier to translate the behaviour, for example; if you have a disagreement with your partner, you may glare at them, give them the silent treatment, slam things down or walk heavily; all of which expressing that you are angry with them. Another example is if a friend starts behaving differently around you, you often question if you have done something wrong as you are translating their behavioural communication as them being upset or annoyed at you.

Behavioural communication can take many easily identifiable forms in autistic children; putting their hands over their ears often means that they cannot cope with the auditory input around them. Shutting their eyes when they need to escape from overwhelming visual input, stamping their feet when they are frustrated.

But what about more challenging behaviour? I think that this is the most important communication that we, as parents, professionals and carers, need to understand.

Yvonne Newbold, from The SEND VCB Project has highlighted the area of Violent and Challenging/Controlling Behaviour (VCB) and, through her work, explains how a lot of children who are displaying VCB are doing so because they are anxious and/or are not coping with the situation that they are in, but do not know how to say or express it in a way that is acceptable to society.

By lashing out, breaking things, throwing things, screaming, etc. they are actually crying out that they are not coping and that whatever is happening is too much for them to handle. It is also like their emotions are too big for them and they explode outwards in challenging behaviour.

Yvonne teaches many techniques on how to handle these situations, but the overriding rule is that the adult needs to remain calm and needs to work out what the child is reacting to, or has been triggered by – rather than punishing the child for the challenging behaviour as they are not trying to be hurtful or violent; they are screaming out that they are not coping and punishing them for communicating that will only make them feel misunderstood, isolated and likely make the behaviour worse.

Behavioural communication can also be delayed, sometimes occurring a few days after the triggering situation.

An example of this is my son who began school in September and, after three weeks, began to be violent and controlling at home. He lashed out at school sometimes, but on the whole was reported to be happy and settled; albeit controlling. As time went on, the violence at home escalated and I spoke to the school about it and also saw an Educational Psychologist to find out what the cause of this behaviour was.

Because the Educational Psychologist was looking at it from a behavioural point of view, rather than as a form of communication, she claimed that the violence must be caused by something at home, rather than it having anything to do with school, as he was far more violent at home than at school.

Nothing at all had changed at home. The only change in his life was that he was attending school.

I began to keep a log and a diary of his VCB so that I could try and figure out the root cause of it – again; looking at it from a behavioural point of view.

Over the Christmas holidays, the longer he was off from school, the more his VCB decreased.

When he returned to school in January, I explained all my findings to the staff and continued to monitor his VCB. It instantly returned and, after a week of being back to school, he started to refuse to go in.

He has been off of school for a month now and his VCB has reduced to the point it is practically non-existent most days.

Looking at it from a communication perspective; my son was trying to communicate that he wasn’t coping at school. We didn’t understand. So, he tried to communicate it more strongly. We still didn’t understand. So, he was left with only one option left to make us understand that he wasn’t coping with school, and that was to refuse to go.

Had we understood that this was him screaming out to us that he wasn’t coping, we could’ve pushed the school to reduce his hours, or to only do a couple of days a week. If we had listened, he may well still be in school now, albeit at a far reduced timetable.

Sometimes when we find something difficult to cope with, we put on a mask or emotionally and mentally put up a wall so that we don’t have to deal with it at the time. But it sits in the back of your mind and can fester and boil until you start snapping at people or behaving aggressively. This knock-on effect most often happens when we are feeling safe and secure; free to let these pent-up feelings out. It is the same with our children. They may not ‘act out’ during the triggering event (such as during school) and then, when they are safe at home, the meltdown occurs.

It’s understandable that schools and psychologists often do not make the connection between the triggering event and the behaviour, but we need to do better for our children. We need to learn what they are trying to tell us; what the trigger or route cause is. We cannot take behaviour at face value; we need to learn our children’s own behavioural communication in order to support them, whilst remembering that every autistic child is different and may have different behavioural communication to other autistic children.

Another common form of behavioural communication in autistics is stimming. For those who are not familiar with what stimming is, it is performing repetitive motions, sounds, or actions that sooth or calm you when you are feeling anxious. They can also happen when you are feeling excited (happy flappy hands). But if your child is continuously stimming, then it is most often a sign that they are feeling anxious. For me, I often fiddle with bracelets or repeatedly rub my feet together when I’m anxious or trying to unwind at the end of the day.

Whenever I took my son to Family Centre play sessions, he would spend the first half an hour moving all of one type of object (usually the plastic food and utensils from the play kitchen area) into a pile, and then moving the items one by one to a different area; making a new pile. He would do this over and over until he felt calm enough to explore other areas of the room. Although he was doing this to self-sooth, it was also communicating to me that he felt unsure and anxious.

Looking at PDA children’s typical behaviour; need for control and verbally or physically lashing out, this is a strong indicator that they are feeling anxious and they are expressing it with a need to be in control and, if they are unable to do that or the anxiety gets too much, then they become verbally or physically violent. This is, in a communication sense, crying out that they are extremely anxious and that they just need to be in control so that they can reduce their anxiety.

Self-harm is a clear behavioural communication that someone is not coping with a situation or are suffering from depression. It is a way to release feelings of tension, gain control over some element of their life or a way to punish themselves for feeling as they do.

Another example of identifiable behavioural communication is when a child reaches fight, flight, freeze or fawn. These are classic physiological responses to overwhelm or acute stress and, as parents, professionals or carers, we can recognise that when a child reaches one of these, they are unable to cope in the immediate situation or environment that they are in and need to be safely taken to a quiet area or to a place that they consider safe.

I firmly believe that if we (parents, professionals, and carers) can successfully translate our children’s behavioural communication, they will grow up with less mental health issues, far greater trust in us, the professionals and the carers, and they will be far more relaxed and happy; knowing that they are understood and that we know how to support them. By knowing when they are not coping with something, and making changes to help support them during these times or even knowing which situations to avoid, will help them immeasurably.

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