Patience can be difficult for children on the spectrum. Ask most parents in the ASD community, and you will hear that when a child has to wait for what they want it can create massive meltdowns. In our house, it can create a lot of tears, screams, and the throwing of objects or himself on the ground. We work in therapy every week to manage and regulate his emotions, help him with strategies for coping, and to learn practical methods for easing transitions.
When we started with our family therapist in June, I was apprehensive that the goal of therapy would be to try to make my son “less autistic.” Walking into the therapy one of the first things I shared was that I didn’t want the focus of treatment to be changing him. I wanted to help my son find strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with life when he felt overwhelmed. The therapist was very receptive to this feedback, and she promised everything we would work on would be geared at helping him cope.
Everything in my life felt like I was constantly doing everything he needed NOW to avoid terrible behaviors and epic tantrums. He didn’t know how to be patient with anything. If he wanted a toy, his iPad, to go outside, it all had to be immediate. I was concerned that by always giving into to him that I was creating a monster. I’ve never wanted to be the mom that allowed my son to be a brat just because he was Autistic. There is behavior that is directly related to Autism, and there is behavior that is related to him being a preschool boy that is impulsive.
Working with a therapist, we started using a sand clock in session to help him understand how that we expect him to wait his turn. She wanted him to have a visual cue of when the time was up. The first sand clock we used was for 1-minute increments. He would demand the therapist speak with him, and she would flip the clock over and let him know she would talk to him when the sand was all at the bottom. Initially, this exercise perplexed my son, and he would protest by yelling, whining, and throwing himself on the floor. When these behaviors took place, I was told to ignore him and not give in. As a mother, in the early sessions, this was very challenging for me. However, over time it became easier and easier to ignore his behaviors.
After a few weeks of trying in the clinic, we decided he was ready to try it at home. I considered buying an actual sand clock, but we ended up just using the timer on the microwave in our kitchen. When he demanded anything from me, even if I wanted to give it to him, I told him that I needed him to wait. In the beginning, I started off in small increments as we did in the clinic. I would have him wait for 2 minutes, and then we moved to 3 minutes and so on. I can’t say that it was perfect, that behaviors improved immediately, or that it wasn’t challenging for me to listen to his yelling, screams and tantrums as we taught him this skill.
We spent the bulk of the summer working to master the skill together. When we got up to 30 minutes, it was unbelievable to see him find other things to do than demand his needs be met. I realized that his behavior and what I thought were meltdowns were typical attention-seeking tantrums. As a parent, I was able to make the connection between when he was just naughty and when he was overloaded. He was acting out badly knowing that if he behaved in that way, I would give him what he needs. Now that I no longer respond to this behavior, he is finding ways to be more polite in asking, and he is learning how to wait his turn.
By no means, has this been a perfect process, and we still struggle with this issue. The difference is he now knows that if I tell him he can have what he wants in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or even 30 minutes that he must wait that time to get it. He has learned that no amount of bad behavior is going to get him what he wants.
If you are struggling with this issue, I would suggest starting very slow with the timer. You can even start with as little as 30 seconds in the beginning. As you continue to work with the timer, the behavior can escalate and get worse. However, if you don’t respond to the behavior, eventually your child will stop their attention seeking behavior. The biggest obstacle to this exercise will be your ability not to give in. When you give in, it sends your child the message that the behavior they exhibited will get them what they want. I so used to always giving in that I had taught him that bad behavior would get his needs met. When I changed my approach, was firm, and consistent his behaviors decreased and eventually disappeared.
Working in therapy is tough work for everyone. In our house, it’s made a huge difference, in helping our son learn what we expect from him. While he is Autistic, that does not give him the right to misbehave. When I learned how to identify the difference in a meltdown vs. a tantrum, our lives changed for the better.