Cajigas: Children with autism pose special foster care challenges

Posted 5/17/22

Autism is among the most misunderstood of all the human conditions.

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Cajigas: Children with autism pose special foster care challenges


Autism is among the most misunderstood of all the human conditions.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder characterized by behavioral and communicational affections that impact a person’s ability to navigate social interactions and causes repetitive and restricted behavior.

Children with autism are 2.4 times more likely to enter foster care than children without an intellectual disability, according to a recent study.

Foster care doesn’t have restrictions; Arizona’s Children Association has many children who enter foster care with intellectual disabilities. It’s important that we take the time to educate ourselves and spread awareness.

For children in foster and post-adoption contexts, it is essential for caregivers to establish safe, calm, and caring environments that are generally predictable and well-structured. It is important to empower the child with ways to safely express their wants, needs, frustrations and fears. The child requires many authentic opportunities to assert their choices and preferences. The child needs to be proactively taught calming and coping strategies that work for them.

Meltdowns can be caused by an overstimulating environment, what may seem normal to us in an environment such as background television noise, music from a radio, or lights for example may need to be reduced or shut off. It is important to be aware of our environment as the behaviors occur and reduce anything that may cause overstimulation.

Meltdowns may be caused by a lack of communication skill, nonverbal, learning and teaching American Sign Language can be a tool of communication for the child and family and can help reduce meltdowns in the future once the communication needs are met, ASL may be viewed by many as a tool for the hearing impaired and may not come to mind when looking through the lens of autism, this skill can help teach communication between child and family and possibly reduce future triggers caused by the communication breakdown.

Self-harm may occur in some cases and the aid of a soft barrier (pillow, seat cushion, big stuffed animal) between child and surface or item can help reduce the impact of behavior.

It is also critical that we look at challenging behavior through the right lens.

During meltdowns and tense moments, here are a few guidelines:

  • It’s not personal, even if it feels that way.
  • Avoid characterizing behaviors in overly simplistic or subjective terms.
  • Consider both the immediate events that may have triggered the behavior.

Here are a few reflection questions:

  • What is the child communicating in this moment and through this pattern of behavior?
  • What is the unmet need, fear, or confusion that this behavior expresses?
  • What skills do we need to teach so that they can better communicate, self-advocate and cope next time?

Here are some strategies and accommodations to apply proactively and consistently to support this child’s needs.

  • Remain the calm. Try to avoid emotionally reacting to the behavior itself.
  • Validate their feelings using rationed language and non-verbal signals that they will understand.
  • Be present for them but give physical space as needed and when safe to do so; and give them time, without placing any demands, and without too many instructions.

Editor’s note: Albert Cajigas is a clinical supervisor with the Arizona’s Children Association. Visit www.ArizonasChildren.org.