The Challenge of Expressing Needs Through Behavior

By Sonia Bhala / Health Columnist

For most children, the holidays are the most exciting time of year. They dance to loud music. They show off to adults at family dinners. They stare at the lights that come only once a year. But the same environments that stimulate these children can trigger pain for others, as Adrienne Robertiello, a specialist at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, NJ, explained at a presentation on November 19 in RVCC’s Atrium Lounge.

The event, hosted by the Bio-Chem club with help from the Psychology Club and Rotaract, described the challenging behaviors children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encounter and the proper ways to treat it. At the event, Robertiello defined ASD as a group of complex brain development disorders characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulties with social interaction. As a spectrum disorder, every individual’s symptoms vary tremendously. One child may not show any signs of the disorder until the holiday music starts playing, and another may be noticeable at first sight.

Potential associated conditions include ADHD, depression, and sensory processing disorders, which causes children to over respond to sensory stimuli. Children with ASD react to pain using behavior, rather than words, to voice needs. These behaviors, such as making ticking noises or repeatedly opening and closing a door, are reflexes that occur because it serves a function, not out of willfulness.

Unfortunately, behavior isn't the easiest way to express needs. Communication difficulties create feelings of frustration, confusion, anxiety or lack of control. Parents of children with ASD are challenged with creating strategies to deal with this behavior. This can include avoiding holiday parties and other environments that cause sensory overload and using positive reinforcement, such as teaching children to ask politely if they want something.

To demonstrate the verbal challenges children with ASD face, Robertiello showed a short documentary where an adolescent was unable to communicate her whole life until learning how to sit down at a computer and type. Through her typing, she began to show exceptional intelligence. For the first time in her life, she was able to communicate the difficulties of living with ASD through her perspective. Her parents and doctors described it as a miracle.

Robertiello also emphasized the importance of treating ASD with positive reinforcement and other evidence-based practice, which are procedures that have been studied carefully through peer-reviewed results. They are the safest treatments known at the moment.  Yelling, using experimental medicine and other non-evidence based practice are counter-intuitive and increase health risks.

The cause of ASD is still not known. It is believed that there is no simple genetic factor that accounts for ASD. Rather, it’s the result of many differing genetic factors. The recent increase in diagnoses is believed to be due to broader definition, better detection, and more acceptance of the disorder. Many children that were once thought to be mentally retarded or having ADHD have recently been correctly diagnosed with ASD.

“The goal of the event was for all attendees to leave with a greater understanding of people with ASD and to be more compassionate towards those struggling with ASD during the holiday season and always,” said Melanie Martin, Bio-Chem Club President.  “With a little more education and understanding, we can work together to make the holidays more enjoyable for everyone.”

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