“My Autistic Child Destroys the House” – The Google Search Results Series – Part 2
A few weeks ago, I did a quick search of, “my autistic child” to see what parents of autistic children were searching for, so I could write content based on what they needed most. Well, did I have a rude awakening when the first result that showed up was “my autistic child makes me miserable”. Yikes!
However, as an autistic adult, I’m here to translate autistic behavior, so I’m going to make the most of it with a series based on these searches.
Why Does My Autistic Child Destroy the House?
Destructiveness, at least in my opinion, is a matter of perspective. When I think of the word “destructive”, I think of purposeful behavior exhibited with the intention to destroy, harm, or cause chaos.
When an autistic child is seen as “destructive”, they are usually seen as acting in anger with the express intent of breaking something or otherwise rendering it useless. Because of that, they are often punished as though they committed a purposefully cruel act. The behavior is addressed, but the reason for the behavior isn’t, which only leaves the child feeling confused, misunderstood, and frightened.
Here are some common reasons your autistic child may appear to be destructive:
- Your child is trying to communicate with you.
All behavior is communication. Read that again. All behavior is communication. If your autistic child is knocking family heirlooms off shelves, this act may make you feel angry and even violated, but the intent of the behavior is more than likely not to harm you or your stuff. Rather, your child is at their wit’s end trying to get their needs met because all other previous attempts at communication on their part have failed.
TW: Eating disorder, self-harm, addiction mentions.
This is the problem with the behaviorism approach when teaching autistic kids. You can address what you believe is “destructive behavior”, but that only teaches masking, stuffing down big emotions, and finding other more “socially acceptable” forms of venting those feelings such as drinking alcohol, using drugs, not eating, binge eating, and cutting.
Those feelings need a way out, and behaviorism (ABA) just frightens its victims into complying to stay emotionally safe while also finding less obvious but very unhealthy ways to cope.
- Your child doesn’t know their own strength.
If your autistic child is breaking their younger sibling’s toys, for example, it’s possible they either don’t know how to use them as intended, or they don’t realize their own strength. Autistic people often struggle with using the correct muscle groups to open or operate things, which can cause them to unintentionally break objects. We may also struggle with knowing right from left or up from down, so if something is supposed to be opened one way, for example, we may turn it too far the wrong way and break it. It may look purposeful, but it isn’t. We are usually confused and devastated when something breaks because of this as we had no intention of doing it.
- Your child is in a meltdown and unaware of their surroundings.
When an autistic person is experiencing sensory overload, our bodies go into fight-or-flight, and everything inside of us operates on either fighting whatever it is that’s hurting us or running away from it. There are no other thoughts, feelings, or rationalizations. During these moments, we may run smack into something and just keep going, our minds and bodies desperately screaming to escape the sensory assault.
For example, let’s say your fire alarm goes off while you’re cooking. You may be bothered by the sharp sound, but, for your autistic child, the noise is like an ice-pick driving through their ears, the sound vibrating through their teeth and into their brain, halting all thought processes and propelling them into blind, panicked motion to escape.
If Grandma’s expensive glass vase happens to be in the way of an autistic child in full fight-or-flight during a sensory assault of that magnitude, chances are, he could knock it over and even cut his foot on the broken glass and still keep going, not feeling the impact or the cut in his desperate attempt to get away.
- Your child has poor proprioception and dyspraxia.
Proprioception is the body’s internal ability to tell where the body itself ends and other objects begin. Autistic people often struggle with this sense. It can be very difficult for us to accurately judge the distance between ourselves and whatever breakable item happens to be near us.
Furthermore, many of us have dyspraxia, which means we have trouble keeping our balance and orienting ourselves in space, which can lead to missteps while walking, arm flailing to avoid falling, and grasping whatever object happens to come to hand.
- Your child is sensory-seeking.
Another reason your autistic child may be destroying your house is that she is sensory-seeking. Not all autistic people are sensory-avoidant. In fact, some seek more sensory input, not less. Most of the time, though, it’s a varying but extreme combination of the two–sensory-seeking and sensory-avoiding, depending on the input.
I, for example, avoid sharp sounds and sensations. I cannot stand them. I don’t like the sound of alarms, ambulances, certain motorcycles, and stinging sensations like needles or rubber band snaps. However, I find comfort in deep, thudding bass tones, firm grips, and deep pressure.
You may find that your autistic child grabs a bunch of things and puts them on top of herself for a deep pressure experience. What you may see as destructive or chaotic is a way for her to regulate her emotions and sensory input.
This is just one example. Look at your child’s behavior from a sensory angle to see if that could be the cause.
How to Help Your Autistic Child When They Act in Destructive Ways
- Discover the “why”.
After reading this article, ask yourself if any of these reasons sound like the reason your child is exhibiting destructive behavior. Is it sensory? Is he trying to communicate? Does she need an AAC device? Once you discover the reason behind certain behaviors, you’ll be much better equipped to redirect them.
- Fulfill sensory needs.
Fulfilling sensory needs is imperative for an autistic child. It’s not a step you can skip. If your child seeks out firm pressure, give that to him in the form of a weighted blanket, weighted toys, or a sensory sock. If she needs to rock or spin, find toys that offer that particular input in a safe, healthy way.
Also, do not stop your child from stimming if the stims are not harmful. Stopping stimming in an autistic person can cause emotional dysregulation and may inadvertently lead to behavior that would be labeled destructive.
- Practice emotion regulation.
All human beings, regardless of neurotype, experience big feelings, and those feelings need to be identified, acknowledged, understood, and processed.
I didn’t learn emotion regulation myself until I was in my mid-thirties through an emotional regulation class that used dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). I was 35!! I should have learned how to regulate my emotions when I was a child, but that didn’t happen.
In fact, I remember being absolutely shook when I discovered emotions were something that could be regulated. That was brand new information to me at the time–oh, and did I mention I was 35??
I don’t want this to happen to your child. Had I known what emotion regulation was when I was younger, I could have avoided so many terrible experiences in my life.
- Put away breakable things.
You may think it’s important to teach your autistic child “respect for the property of others”, but if they are behaving in ways that appear destructive, for whatever reason, now is not the time to teach that. Put away valuable and breakable objects. Not only will it give you peace of mind, but it will help your autistic child feel freer to move about their home without extreme anxiety.
- Learn about your child’s unique brain and individual triggers.
I cannot stress this enough in every article I write that’s aimed at parents of autistic children: Learn your child’s brain. Autistic feelings, thoughts, emotions, intentions, and ways of processing the world are different from that of neurotypicals. Not less, not pathological, just different. Not understanding these differences can lead to a lifetime of traumatic misunderstandings.
Also, learn your child’s individual sensory triggers. What sounds, smells, tastes, textures, etc., upset them? What sounds, smells, tastes, and textures do they enjoy? Knowing these things will go far in keeping both you and your kiddo calm and regulated.