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5 Ideas on how to improve the behavior of your child with special needs.

Updated: Mar 28

I have been working in the field of applied behavior analysis for almost twenty years. In this time I have worked with a variety of children and their families. It didn’t take me long to come to the realization that the parents of children with special needs undoubtedly have one of the toughest jobs on earth. Although this article’s focus is on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the content applies to and can benefit a much broader audience, including families of typically developing children.

Raising a child with autism can be a 24/7 rollercoaster of emotions that may vary between frustration, moments of joy and excitement, and confusion. Throughout my practice, I meet parents with different histories, parenting styles, and ideas about raising children. They are an absolute pleasure to work with because everything these parents do is a reflection of their love and dedication to their child. Each family brings new challenges to the table but over time I began to see a common thread. Many of the parents I work with were engaging in similar behaviors, actually creating more difficult situations for themselves and their children without even realizing it. It’s often hard to recognize the patterns of behavior you develop for yourself and even harder to change those patterns. This article is designed to assist parents in recognizing those behaviors which may be creating additional stress, potentially hindering progress, or just simply making things more difficult.


History has taught us to rely on a medical model in which we recognize symptoms, see a specialist, and receive a diagnosis. Then we receive treatment for whatever it is that ails us. Although Autism may be a “hot topic” in current news, an increasing amount of individuals know someone with ASD, or at least have heard about it in general, the reality is that most parents aren’t able to recognize the signs or symptoms; thus, hindering that first step in the model we so heavily rely on.

One thing I consistently see working in the field is that parents, especially brand new parents, don’t see anything as being atypical with their child or children simply because they don’t know what they should be looking for. My advice here is to do your homework and get informed about what to expect in the development of your child. Talk to your pediatrician, take notes! Be aware of when your child is expected to meet certain milestones. Has he started pointing? Is he talking? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I am not trying to generate panic, nor do I want you to perseverate over the one and only time your child engaged in a “stereotypic behavior” but, I do want you know that information is available and it should be utilized. In the case of your special needs child, ignorance is not bliss and time is a non-renewable resource.


As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, an Autism Spectrum Disorder can act as a catalyst for a variety of emotions among parents and family members. It’s possible you got called in for a parent teacher conference; maybe it’s impossible to have anyone babysit for your child. Something begins to seem amiss. You begin to worry and wonder if there is something wrong with your child. Our initial reaction upon that gut feeling is to seek answers. You begin to seek out advice from a teacher, other parents, and possibly your own relatives. Suggested solutions seem to temporarily help some of the issues but the underlying (and usually much larger) problem remains. At some point in the process it’s even possible to experience the dreaded “D” word, denial. It happens quite often. Parents or guardians begin to tell me about how they have a brother who is a little shy or they’ve had a cousin who didn’t make friends until he was a teenager. It’s important to note here that there is absolutely nothing wrong with “denial” itself. As the first step in the five stages of grief, denial is a common and even necessary part of the process. It is a common element in self-preservation. The troublesome aspect of denial is that all it really does is delay the inevitable and potentially wastes time during an extremely crucial stage. The end result always needs to be the same. Seek advice from the expert (multiple experts if you feel the need) and take what they say seriously. There will be support, understanding and of course hope along the way. You just need to take the first step.


This tip may be one of the most important but also one of the most difficult. In my practice I frequently hear, “Why does he listen to you, yet he doesn’t listen to me?” The answer is often an easy one. I follow through when I ask him to do something. What exactly does “follow through” mean? Simply put, when you place a demand on a child (e.g., put on your shoes, pick up your toy, bring your plate to the sink, etc...) the child is expected to complete the task as told. What I most often observe however is that either the parent provides the instructions too far away from the child (so the child may not hear the instruction; the child has the chance to engage in maladaptive behaviors), the parent repeats the instruction several times before assisting the child in completion of the task, or the parent gives up and completes the task for the child after they refuse. Any of these actions or combination of these actions may lead to even more distressing situations. (Think increased maladaptive behaviors, increased non-compliance!) There may be a few things occurring. First, the child may be learning that the longer he ignores/escapes the demand, the more likely someone will complete it for him and secondly, he may learn that he can wait until the parent repeats him or herself 10 or so times before he needs to take action. Neither is productive for the child or the parent.

My best piece of advice is to only place demands you are sure you can assist the child in completing if necessary. Also, talk to your behavior therapist or your behavior analyst. Ask them what “following through” means and practice it together. A little follow through goes a long way.


We’ve all been there before, our new exercise habits don’t show change immediately and we stop going to the gym; the book club I joined wasn’t as interactive as I’d hoped so I only went twice... The thing about “new” is that you cannot base your immediate decisions upon what has or hasn’t worked. “New” takes time to become “effective”. Often I will make suggestions based upon what has worked in similar situations in the past or based upon the data that we’ve collected. When I make recommendations, I always let the family know that they need to be consistent for at least a week or two prior to trying something else. These “new” techniques, procedures, and/or methods are not similar to a doctor prescribing aspirin for a headache. They will not work in 4-8 hours and they certainly are not as easy to implement. Instead I ask parents to think of me as a nutritionist. After all, eating “heart healthy” won’t lower your cholesterol in a week. It will take consistent meal planning for a few weeks or so before you really notice a difference. The same goes for behavioral interventions. Consistency is key. It may be difficult when you don’t see immediate change. The frantically spoken phrase “it’s not working!!” is a common occurrence among my families, but I can assure you, giving it time will ease the burden. You already have the desire to help your child navigate the world better, now let’s build your determination to see it through.


Parents usually do whatever it takes to see their children happy, and sometimes this is not as easy as it sounds. But when things are going well and you start seeing new skills on your child its inevitable feeling that your child can take over the whole world. It is important to remember every learning step takes time and those skills were not developed in the blink of an eye, and that your child has some strengths and weaknesses. It is obvious that no parent wants to see his child “regressing”, but we have to consider his or her own learning pattern. Autism is characterized for the development of uneven learning patterns; a child with autism could be developing great and fast receptive skills while his expressive communication is still going at a very low pace. This situation frustrates parents the most and in general it is really hard for them to understand why their child can be so good in one area and so challenged in another one.

In my practice, I see this kind of situations constantly, one of the causes is because the parent puts his desires over his child’s needs and the priorities go overboard. Sometimes I ask myself, what is more important, to learn how to write or to learn how to get dressed? And similar questions case after case. The answer is: “it depends”. One of the qualities I enjoy and admire the most in the field of Behavior Analysis is that everything is personalized to the need of each individual student. For an 8 year old child it may be crucial to learn how to get dress because that will improve his sense of privacy, independence and self-help, but for younger counter part it may be more important to improve his gross and fine motor skills. To summarize, every child has unique characteristics and life style and the programs should be a reflection of it, always looking to accomplish socially significant goals for the individual in question and considering his potential and limitations.

If you want to know more about Applied Behavior Analysis services, contact us at (786) 356-8161 or via email at


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