Why I Don’t Believe in the Term ‘Behaviors’ as the Mother of a Son With Autism


I’m frustrated about a word: behaviors. Many of you may know what I’m talking about and are probably nodding your heads as you read this. You see, if behaviors are mentioned to you by a teacher, therapist, counselor or a parent, it’s probably not for a good reason. You may have heard remarks similar to the ones below:

We’ll work on his behaviors. Here’s our plan …

I don’t understand all these behaviors. What do you let him watch on TV?

His behavior is escalating.

And my favorite of all time: “What’s wrong with him? He’s never acted like this before!” My answer: “Nothing is wrong with him. He has autism and is frustrated/tired/overwhelmed, and so am I because I don’t know how else to explain this to you. But nothing is wrong with him.”

I don’t believe in the term “behaviors.” I don’t really believe in the idea of a behavior plan. I think it’s demeaning and inaccurate. My son is communicating, but people aren’t listening. And the technique of using candy to “teach” him to react in a way that the neurotypical world deems more appropriate creates a Pavlov’s dog scenario. My son is not a dog.

Do I want him to run out of a room crying because he is so upset? No. Do I want him to yell “shut up” to an authority figure? No. But I don’t think these are “behaviors” in the mainstream sense of the word. My son’s actions have meaning. He’s frustrated. This is the only way he knows how to communicate in that moment. For him, it’s fight or flight because he’s overwhelmed, having sensory overload or doesn’t understand an assignment. It’s a combination of things. Even he may not know the reason, but there’s a reason.

Over the years, I’ve been told to scold him. I’ve been told to take away privileges and give him consequences. For what? For becoming overwhelmed, scared and panicked? Because four hours after the event, the consequences mean nothing. And with moderate autism, sensory processing disorder and severe ADHD, the impulse control isn’t there. I won’t punish him, but I’m sorry he felt that way. I’m sorry he was so immensely upset that he acted out physically or lashed out verbally. My heart breaks for him in that moment because as a mom you want to prevent pain, fix it and make people understand.

When he says “I can’t do it” or “I give up,” it’s because the concept is hard for him and he’s panicking. When you add all the sensory stimulation, it’s a recipe for a meltdown. A meltdown is not negative, attention-seeking “behavior.” It’s his physical body and mind imploding and beginning to shut down from total and complete suffocation — he’s trying to escape to survive.

At that moment, he feels like he can’t do it. He doesn’t understand what’s going on or has some problem he can’t express. He doesn’t want to have a meltdown. His behaviors aren’t something to “deal with” or “get under control” — they’re something we should try to understand.

His feelings are important. He is asking for help at these moments. A break. A time out. An escape. An explanation. Reassurance. A way to help him de-escalate. A hug or other physical outlet to free him from the fight-or-flight feelings that are taking over.

I believe my son’s behavior is communication. We all need to start listening better.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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