Posts tagged with "watson institute"

Challenging Behaviors

By Rachel Schwartz, Watson Institute 

Challenging behaviors represent one of the most difficult and frustrating attributes of autism. While not every individual with autism displays challenging behaviors, those who do often struggle to gain access to opportunities and independence in their communities of choice. In the face of challenging behaviors, many parents, caregivers, and practitioners sometimes feel powerless in how to best respond. This article is intended to serve as a resource by providing practical tips.

Tip #1

  • Behavior is communication. An individual’s behavior communicates to the environment his or her wants and needs.  Listening to those needs will allow us as practitioners, parents, and caregivers to better understand and respond appropriately. Furthermore, understanding what an individual communicates will allow for teaching new, appropriate ways to communicate the same thing. For example, a child throws items when he or she needs help. Rather than providing help after a child throws, teaching the child to appropriately request help will build a new skill and reduce throwing.

Tip #2

  • Isolate challenging behaviors as actions. What movement does the child make when he engages in the challenging behaviors? What actions do I see? Using actions words becomes a starting point for planning. Using action words keeps the focus on what the behavior communicates to the environment and how stakeholders can help change that behavior. Changing the lexicon of challenging behaviors from meltdown to movement may allow for more reflection, collaboration, and positive programming. 

Tip #3

Consider yourself a co-conspirator. Changing behavior involves reflecting on how the environment sets the stage for challenging behaviors and how we as stakeholders, caregivers, and parents, respond to those behaviors.  Behavior doesn’t occur in isolation; behavior happens as a response to the people and activities in an environment. Consider recording what occurs after an individual engages in a challenging behavior. Whatever occurs immediately following a challenging behavior serves to reinforce it and allow it to continue to occur. Learning how to adapt the environment can prevent challenging behaviors from occurring and promote more appropriate, positive behaviors. Changing challenging behaviors and ensuring that challenging behaviors do not stymie equal opportunities involves taking equal responsibility for the behaviors occurring.  

Final Thoughts

My work in the field of special education continues to push my perception of challenging behaviors and presumed competence.   One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that challenging behaviors do not change overnight. Behavior change occurs gradually over time, typically in fits and bursts. It takes persistence to work with and change challenging behaviors. However even more than that, it takes compassion and empathy.  Incorporating both will build an environment of kindness, mutual respect, and trust for all involved.

Bio: Rachel Schwartz, PhD, BCBA-D has worked internationally creating and supervising programs for individuals with developmental disabilities. Rachel currently works as an education consultant and trainer with the Watson Institute in Pittsburgh, PA.  

Five Steps for Prevention from Watson Institute Experts

The Majority of Children with Autism Are Bullied—Do You Know How to Help?

Children with autism face unique social and education challenges that require attentive support. 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism. Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Autism spectrum disorder encompasses a wide range of challenges with repetitive behaviors as well as social and communication skills.

For students with Autism, school can be daunting, as they are faced with social interactions and not feeling accepted. Coupled with that, children with Autism are at higher risk for being victimized or bullied by peers. Nearly two-thirds of children with autism between the ages of 6 and 15 have been bullied—over twice the rate of children without autism. 65% of parents report that their child had been victimized and 50% report being scared by their peers (Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing (2009)).  

These pressures can lead to refusal to attend school, anxiety or depression, and an overall decline in academic performance. This is borne out in the high school graduation rates for students with disabilities, which is only 67.1% (U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), compared to an overall 84% graduation rate.

Clinical experts from the Watson Institute have five tips on combating bullying among all students, especially those with autism:

  1. Highlight individual strengths. Parents and teachers can be proactive by teaching children that it’s natural to expect others to be just like us, but the things that make us different are often the very things that make us special. Make a habit of complimenting students on their strengths—including in front of their peers.
  2. Widen perspectives. Teaching children to see things from more than one perspective is a key part of developing empathy. Help children connect beyond surface circumstances to underlying emotions. If a child makes fun of a student for not being good at something, ask them to reflect on something that is hard for them.
  3. Praise kindness. Children risk being teased or bullied themselves when they reach out to a student who is being bullied. It takes courage for students to act. Turn this perceived liability into an asset by applauding acts of kindness. This can be done individually, (“I saw how you stood up for Kyle and I’m really proud of you.”) and corporately, through public recognition or incentive programs.
  4. Get involved. If a bullying situation has developed, adult intervention is usually required. Leaving students to “work it out themselves” will often exacerbate or prolong a negative situation. Involve students and parents in addressing the situation. Approach the conversation with a problem-solving, not a punitive attitude.
  5. Provide support. Children can feel a range of emotions—from fear to shame and many more—when they’ve been the victim of bullying. Don’t assume because a child is no longer actively being bullied, that the situation is resolved. Make space for them to talk about their feelings and provide any additional support they need.


The Watson Institute is organization providing special education programming as well as outpatient mental health services such as social skills groups, therapy, and evaluations for children ages 3 to 21.