Beating Behavior Whac-A-Mole

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by Dan Coulter

I admit it. I’ve played Behavior Whac-A-Mole. It’s a version of the arcade game where mole heads pop out of holes at a faster and faster rate and you try and hit each mole on the head with a mallet before it disappears. Like many parents, I had no idea at the time that I was playing. But if you find yourself constantly responding to your child’s behaviors by criticizing or correcting him, and those behaviors are not improving, you’re playing Behavior Whac-A-Mole.

This can be a particular challenge when dealing with children who have Asperger Syndrome. Many children with Asperger Syndrome don’t deal well with criticism. Think about it. They don’t pick up on social cues and other signals that others read naturally. So it seems that peers and parents are always telling them they’re doing something wrong. Even if these corrections are well-intentioned, is it any wonder that many children with Asperger Syndrome get upset when they’re criticized -- or tune out perceived criticism? How would you feel if the majority of comments directed at you were negative?

Want to break this cycle? Instead of dealing with problem behaviors as they arise, anticipate them and help your child learn to modify them. Easy? No. But it can be effective. It may require being up front with your child. Explain the pattern you’ve seen develop and how it would be better for everyone if you work together to change it. Give yourself and your child parts to play. You’ll help him learn the behaviors that people expect of him and he’ll practice to make them habits. You’ll praise him when he reacts as expected and try not to criticize him if or when he forgets. He’ll try to be understanding if you slip up and automatically correct him.

The challenge with this approach is that it can take time. But setting aside 15 minutes a day to talk with your child and to practice behaviors can pay big dividends. Deal with one behavior at a time until your child masters it. This makes it easier for him to remember and succeed. And his successes give you more opportunities to praise him. You can start with simple things like remembering to say “Please” and “Thank You” in conversation, and build up to more complex behaviors like good table manners.

If you feel yourself getting sucked into playing Behavior Whac-A-Mole, it might be helpful to remember and apply a line from the movie, “War Games.” In the film, a talking supercomputer named WOPR is programmed to run all the probable scenarios for a global thermonuclear war.

After finishing the program, WOPR concludes, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of ten DVDs designed to help people with Asperger Syndrome and autism, including “Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills." You can read more of Dan’s articles on his website: Copyright 2010 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used by Permission.

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