6 Key Words That Will Help You Understand Your Child’s Behavior

I occasionally do a little freelance journalism.  Yes, that means one of my many hats is that of a reporter…perish the thought!

But there are some useful skills to be learned from this practice, not least of which is the classic “outline” for a story or situation: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

Goodness knows, parents – and teachers; and therapists; and siblings; and fill-in-the-blanks – of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have their fair share of detective work.

So this seems a perfect opportunity to put my amateur journalist’s experience to good use.

I will here address myself to the parent.  Not because s/he is the only relevant party, but because parents constitute the fundamental support in a child’s life.  All other supports depend upon this foundation.

The importance of Why

So why does your child behave the way s/he does?

Why did Johnny have a meltdown today at Target?

Why does Susie curl up in a ball every time she passes the playground?

Sometimes Petey, who is nonverbal, will suddenly burst into tears; again, why?

While it comes in near the bottom of the journalist’s checklist, in this case the “Why” is both the first and the last.  We begin by asking why, rather than by trying to impose our preconceptions or desires upon the situation.

And then, having examined the other five items on the list, hopefully we will come full circle – perhaps not to a definitive answer, but nonetheless to a more enlightened understanding of the “Why.”

Who, What, and How

The “Who” is your child.  It is emphatically not your “autistic child.”  As I never tire of stressing, we must look at the person behind the disability before we look at the disability.

The ASD is the “What,” the situation the child faces from the inside out.  Understanding what ASDs entail is an invaluable support (though it is important to remember that the spectrum is far from uniform).

The “How” pertains to the behavior itself.  I won’t spend too much time on that here, except to say that unruly behavior is often a substitute for language.  Even if the child can speak, s/he may not know quite how to express the difficulty s/he is experiencing, either to him/herself or to others.


Where the behavior happens can make a big difference.  Let’s return to the example of Susie and the playground: Did something happen to her at a playground (doesn’t have to be this particular one), either recently or a long time ago?

If so, Susie may or may not have any clear memory of the incident.  It doesn’t matter.  Never underestimate the power of emotional memory.

An example from my own life might be helpful.  At age three, I was tackled by a German Shepherd.

I have no recollection of this incident.  But for many years after that I had a petrifying fear of dogs (a fear that I have only begun to overcome in recent years).

Why?  Because the memory of the incident was more visceral than what we call cognitive memory.  It took root deep down in the realms of feeling and instinct.

All people experience this to varying degrees.  But people with ASDs appear to be particularly sensitive in this regard.


Finally, pay attention to when a particular behavior occurs.  For instance, let’s say it happens on Thursday at 4 PM.

Is there something that the child normally does, or something that normally happens, at 4 PM every Thursday that, for whatever reason, is not happening today?

Better yet, was this relied-upon 4 PM occurrence a regular part of circumstances in the child’s life that have changed (i.e., a move to a different town)?

Children with autism have an impeccable sense of time and schedule.  The slightest upset in routine will tend to cause unrest.

For Susie, it could be as simple as the fact that you normally pass by a playground at about this time, but have taken a different route on your walk that brings you by another one – the wrong playground, from Susie’s perspective.

A concluding note

This is by no means a foolproof method, nor do I style myself a Web “shrink” urging parents to over-analyze their children.

But in combination with attention to your child (the most important element) and a little ASD education, you might find it a helpful tool.

Think of it this way: If it can help journalists, it can help parents.

Images obtained through a Google Advanced Image search


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