This post is another in a series about my work with Christopher, A Seriously Sweet Dude on the autism spectrum. At eleven years old, he is a poster child for “practice makes permanent.” It is only in the last year that he has had limits placed on his video obsession, been encouraged to eat vegetables, and experienced effective intervention in social and academic skills.
Although his rate of tantruming has been markedly reduced, Christopher still “entertains” the neighborhood with manic episodes of frustration and agitation. What to do with all that wild energy? A stair stepper is a useful tool for replacing random running and pacing. It must be part of a system for calming, with rehearsal in its use before Christopher reaches the point of no return. That calming system, best presented through social stories, is more effective for him with some payoff for making a better choice. He also responds well to a cost-reward system where he might lose some perks for tantruming. Eventually, self-control will replace the wild-child habits.
Researchers (and many parents) are concerned that extrinsic rewards undermine motivation and effort. In my experience, students like Christopher have not yet experienced the intrinsic joys of self-control and peaceful negotiations with adults and sibs. He has not normalized his behavior independently; peer role models and parent/teacher directions been ineffective. Christopher is a rule follower and eager to please, but operates according to an idiosyncratic set of goals and a rigid definition of fairness which are not shared by his family or classroom teachers. As Christopher is rewarded for doing what we hope will become internalized behavior, social stories and graphs will assist him in charting his emotional growth. We are capturing his attention, so to speak, by providing incentives to overcome habitually inappropriate behaviors. The potential payoff is great.