Below is an excerpt from a blog called Thinking Autism Guide. Please note: the article might not use the same type of person centered language that you or I use. That said, I have a loved one with autism who just yesterday shattered the last of our cereal bowls on the granite countertop. During a ride in our minivan, I was worried she would break the window with her pounding palm. At dinner, the noise of her banging her hand on the table frightened her sisters (also with autism) away from the meal. I found the information useful.
When Autistic Kids Destroy Things
Sometimes autistic kids, and the adults they grow up to be, are really hard on physical things. Sometimes they consistently break devices or furniture, or take them apart. What many frustrated parents and caregivers may not understand is that there is usually a reason behind these urges; it's not just random autistic behavior. And if parents can try to figure out why their children have these needs, and then accommodate them as much as they can, everyone can have a much easier time. Not always, but in many cases.
With this in mind, we talked to two advocates with both personal and professional experience in this area: Ivanova Smith, and Aiyana Bailin. Here's what they had to say; we hope it is helpful to you.
Thinking Person's Guide to Autism: Tell us a little bit about yourselves
Ivanova Smith: I am a self advocate leader in Washington State. I am Chair of Self Advocates in Leadership, and Member of People First of Washington.
Aiyana Bailin: I've been a respite care worker for over seven years. I've worked with kids and young adults with various developmental disabilities (Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc.), but I specialize in "severe" autism. Or rather, I prefer "profoundly autistic clients," because we generally get along really well. I'm probably on the spectrum, but have never tried to get diagnosed.
TPGA: When you see parents complain about autistic children or youths destroying furniture or other household objects, how does that make you feel?
Ivanova: When I see the media complaining about autistic people it makes me feel sad. I also think it is not an effective way of helping the situation. There are ways to work with autistic people that help, but that do not stop autistic people from having freedom of experience.
Aiyana: I don't have a general answer to this. There are a lot of factors—tone, intended audience, etc. But often, I think parents need to be more careful about how they discuss their autistic (or otherwise disabled) kids. These kids already feel like they cause their parents a lot of stress, and they can be very sensitive about it.
TPGA: What do you think makes some autistic children need to take things apart?
: For many autistic people, we do not only have sensory experiences that are negative. Lots of autistics, especially those with intellectual disabilities, and/or who are non-speaking, also sensory seek. Sensory seeking is when the autistic person seeks out a sensory stimulus. Stimming
is actually a form of this.
Staring at certain objects and taking them apart is stimulating. Have you ever taken a pen apart? For me I really like lights and water, I like touching fountains, water, and feeling water move.
Lots of times autistics need to avoid sudden sensory things, but can also seek out sensory things. Autistic people need understanding for both sensory issues, and sensory seeking. It is important to allow autistics to sensory seek. It as important as allowing us to stim.
TPGA: Do you have ideas for how parents might be able to help those children?
Ivanova: I understand that property damage can be frustrating. I know my family struggled with it when I didn’t understand. I wore out the lazy boy armchairs because of my intense rocking. It would been helpful to have armchairs that were adapted for autistics who wear things out.
Some ideas I have for this issue: Find things that person enjoys to sensory seek with, and make sure they have access to those things easily. It also can be a form of communication, like an autistic person who is non-speaking ripping up a mattress—they may be trying communicate that the mattress is uncomfortable. If it seems like sensory seeking, then get cheap things that are OK for them to sensory seek and take apart.
Another factor is that a person may need support in learning what property is. When I was adopted, I didn’t understand property because everything in the institution I had lived in was collective, and none of the orphans had property. I would just take things, not knowing it belonged to someone else. Helping to understand by using plain language and social stories can be helpful. It took a couple of years for me understand. It may take time to learn, but there are ways to teach.
Aiyana: I'm going to answer your last two questions together, because they are closely related. How to help depends on the reason for what the kid is doing. Parents usually focus on stopping a particular behavior, and that rarely works. They need to provide alternatives instead, or solve an underlying problem.
Curiosity can be a reason. One of my clients always wanted to see how things worked, and what was inside things. He couldn't ask questions, so he tried to figure it out himself by dismantling everything he could. And since things were usually taken away once he broke them, he learned to break things quickly, or in secret.
The answer was to respond to his curiosity. I started explaining more about how things worked. I tried showing him books (which he wasn't very interested in), and videos and shows about how things are made. He went through a phase of grabbing for people's cameras whenever he saw one, which was scary because cameras are fragile and expensive. Eventually I bought an old one from a thrift store for $10 and we took it apart together. He stopped trying to grab them after that.
Boredom, restlessness, and dysregulation can lead to destructive behavior. They're related, but not quite the same. The answer is more input to occupy their mind and body. This can be physical exercise, like long walks or swimming, or mental stimuli like audiobooks, educational videos, puzzles, and building/crafting toys. Often, they need a "sensory diet." I have a hard time with that phrase, because it's not a food diet. It means getting the right amount of different sensory inputs. For example, a person might need a hammock or swing at home, being rolled tightly in a blanket every morning, a few hours of music, low lighting, a bath before bed, and a toy for chewing on.
Dysregulation can also have medical causes
. A lot of autistic people have allergies, difficulty sleeping, and other conditions that cause general discomfort. Dietary or medication changes may help. If a kid suddenly develops a new distressing behavior, the most likely reason is that they are feeling sick or in pain.
Emotional stress is another reason kids get destructive. They may need more downtime, when they aren't scheduled to do anything or reminded to act "normal" (no demands to speak, make eye contact, or sit still). They might need hours alone in silence. Sometimes it means just letting them do whatever makes them happy, including stimming and making noises. Be aware that nonverbal kids often understand everything they hear, even if they don't respond. That includes overhearing how their parents talk about them.
They might be expressing a specific emotion. Try to acknowledge their feelings respectfully. For example, you could say, "I understand that you're mad right now, but don't want you to throw dishes. I can give you some alone time if you like." Don't use the choppy baby language that therapists teach. You'd be amazed how many of my clients behave better once their family start talking to them more normally. Parents can also teach/allow other ways to deal with strong feelings, like yelling or punching pillows. Read more: When Autistic Kids Destroy Things