I recently read somewhere that the average person living with autism spectrum disorder suffers levels of anxiety that would cripple any of us neuro-typicals. On any given day, they experience exceedingly high levels of anxiety. Every day, all day, tremendous anxiety. When an event or person triggers an increase in these already high levels—in other words, a truly serious bout of anxiety—watch out! It can be too much to handle, especially for a person with an already compromised coping system.
For example, for the past year or so, my daughter has been struggling with anxiety about the impending conclusion of favorite activities. If Nate and I take Katie to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to ride every swinging and spinning carnival ride multiple times without stopping, she spends at least half the day obsessing about not wanting to leave. So much so that she starts ruining the experience for everyone. The more she obsesses, the tougher it is for her to behave in a socially acceptable manner. It’s a downward spiral with no clear exit ramp.
If I remind Katie that she needs to have “nice hands and feet” in order to stay at the Boardwalk, the additional pressure and anxiety of that demand almost always results in the very behavior that she needs to avoid. A no-win situation for both of us.
A more successful strategy has been to have her choose a reward for good behavior that she gets when we leave the park. In Santa Cruz that generally involves a trip to a gourmet ice cream shop that produces some killer dairy-free sorbets. Or a bag of salt water taffy. Or a meal followed by ice cream. (The kid drives a hard bargain.) Basically she gets to choose what she earns. This serves two purposes. 1) It gives my strong-willed daughter a sense of control. 2) It works as a powerful motivator. It also makes me less of a bad guy. Instead of nagging about nice hands and feet and the crappy consequences if she doesn’t, I get to remind her of something fun that will follow the loss of the beloved spinning rides—a loss, I might add, I am usually all too ready for.
This technique works better than anything else I’ve tried. The problem is, I have to remember to set it up in advance. But that’s a small price to pay for good behavior.
Bottom line: a reward motivates better than punishment. The more I think about it, the more I realize that’s probably true for all of us, whether we live on the spectrum or not. Who wouldn’t prefer a juicy, delicious carrot to a painful stick?
Until next time,