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Got Autism? The Therapy Every Parent Should Know About

After son Jimmy started head banging when he was upset or stressed, this mom turned to applied behavioral analysis (ABA) to stop it.

Dale and I are parents of three little boys: Jimmy, who is 11, Adam, 9, and Joel, 4. Jimmy is severely autistic and has ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and learning difficulties. He started the diagnosis process at 18 months and, by the time he was three, he was diagnosed with autism. Jimmy’s behavior has always been challenging, but we hoped that his diagnosis would increase our chances of accessing the help and support we needed to make his life better. It didn’t work out that way.

We pushed to get Jimmy into a special needs school. After two years at the school, there was no significant progress. He still did not use language, and he developed a distressing and dangerous behavior — head banging. Jimmy did this when he was denied something he wanted or when he got stressed because something did not go his way. He used to head bang the glass windows in the car, the baby gate at home, and the walls and floors.

This was heart breaking to me. All sorts of things went through my head: What if he goes blind, has a stroke or a blood clot, or causes brain damage? This was the biggest challenge we had to deal with as parents. It was frightening.

We made lots of phone calls trying to find the correct behavioral support for Jimmy. I was advised to put him on a beanbag when he had a screaming fit. I was given a helmet from an occupational therapist to protect his head. We were told to play a board game with him when he got out of control. Not one person could tell us how to manage Jimmy’s head banging or give us a behavioral intervention that worked.

I began looking for a school that taught applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy, a system of autistic treatment based on behaviorist theories. ABA states that behaviors can be taught through a system of rewards and consequences. Understand that ABA is individualized for each child. What worked for Jimmy might not work for your child. You should always seek professional advice.

When a head banging tantrum started, the ABA therapist advised us to tip a big box of toys out on the floor and have Jimmy put them all back in the box. The theory was that he couldn’t continue to head bang and tidy up at the same time. If the tantrum persisted, we had to repeat the process as many times as necessary. It worked. No language was necessary. When Jimmy started to throw a tantrum, we pointed to the box of toys, which was enough to make him stop and calm down. The behavior intervention worked quickly and effectively. We were also told not to talk about head banging in front of Jimmy because that might spark the behavior.

We learned how to put an end to head banging when James was five. Now he is 11, and it hasn’t happened since. What’s more, ABA therapy also helped Jimmy learn to talk. But that is another story. All I can say is, “Thank goodness for ABA.”

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