Sometimes autistic kids, and the adults they grow up to be, are really hard on physical things. Sometimes they consistently break devices or furniture, or take them apart. What many frustrated parents and caregivers may not understand is that there is usually a reason behind these urges; it’s not just random autistic behavior. And if parents can try to figure out why their children have these needs, and then accommodate them as much as they can, everyone can have a much easier time. Not always, but in many cases.
With this in mind, we talked to two advocates with both personal and professional experience in this area: Ivanova Smith, and Aiyana Bailin. Here’s what they had to say; we hope it is helpful to you.
Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism: Tell us a little bit about yourselves
Ivanova Smith: I am a self advocate leader in Washington State. I am Chair of Self Advocates in Leadership, and Member of People First of Washington.
Aiyana Bailin: I’ve been a respite care worker for over seven years. I’ve worked with kids and young adults with various developmental disabilities (Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc.), but I specialize in “severe” autism. Or rather, I prefer “profoundly autistic clients,” because we generally get along really well. I’m probably on the spectrum, but have never tried to get diagnosed.
TPGA: When you see parents complain about autistic children or youths destroying furniture or other household objects, how does that make you feel?
Ivanova: When I see the media complaining about autistic people it makes me feel sad. I also think it is not an effective way of helping the situation. There are ways to work with autistic people that help, but that do not stop autistic people from having freedom of experience.
Aiyana: I don’t have a general answer to this. There are a lot of factors—tone, intended audience, etc. But often, I think parents need to be more careful about how they discuss their autistic (or otherwise disabled) kids. These kids already feel like they cause their parents a lot of stress, and they can be very sensitive about it.
TPGA: What do you think makes some autistic children need to take things apart?
Ivanova: For many autistic people, we do not only have sensory experiences that are negative. Lots of autistics, especially those with intellectual disabilities, and/or who are non-speaking, also sensory seek. Sensory seeking is when the autistic person seeks out a sensory stimulus. Stimming is actually a form of this.
Staring at certain objects and taking them apart is stimulating. Have you ever taken a pen apart? For me I really like lights and water, I like touching fountains, water, and feeling water move.
Lots of times autistics need to avoid sudden sensory things, but can also seek out sensory things. Autistic people need understanding for both sensory issues, and sensory seeking. It is important to allow autistics to sensory seek. It as important as allowing us to stim.
TPGA: Do you have ideas for how parents might be able to help those children?
Ivanova: I understand that property damage can be frustrating. I know my family struggled with it when I didn’t understand. I wore out the lazy boy armchairs because of my intense rocking. It would been helpful to have armchairs that were adapted for autistics who wear things out.
Some ideas I have for this issue: Find things that person enjoys to sensory seek with, and make sure they have access to those things easily. It also can be a form of communication, like an autistic person who is non-speaking ripping up a mattress—they may be trying communicate that the mattress is uncomfortable. If it seems like sensory seeking, then get cheap things that are OK for them to sensory seek and take apart.
Another factor is that a person may need support in learning what property is. When I was adopted, I didn’t understand property because everything in the institution I had lived in was collective, and none of the orphans had property. I would just take things, not knowing it belonged to someone else. Helping to understand by using plain language and social stories can be helpful. It took a couple of years for me understand. It may take time to learn, but there are ways to teach.
Aiyana: I’m going to answer your last two questions together, because they are closely related. How to help depends on the reason for what the kid is doing. Parents usually focus on stopping a particular behavior, and that rarely works. They need to provide alternatives instead, or solve an underlying problem.
Curiosity can be a reason. One of my clients always wanted to see how things worked, and what was inside things. He couldn’t ask questions, so he tried to figure it out himself by dismantling everything he could. And since things were usually taken away once he broke them, he learned to break things quickly, or in secret.
The answer was to respond to his curiosity. I started explaining more about how things worked. I tried showing him books (which he wasn’t very interested in), and videos and shows about how things are made. He went through a phase of grabbing for people’s cameras whenever he saw one, which was scary because cameras are fragile and expensive. Eventually I bought an old one from a thrift store for $10 and we took it apart together. He stopped trying to grab them after that.
Boredom, restlessness, and dysregulation can lead to destructive behavior. They’re related, but not quite the same. The answer is more input to occupy their mind and body. This can be physical exercise, like long walks or swimming, or mental stimuli like audiobooks, educational videos, puzzles, and building/crafting toys. Often, they need a “sensory diet.” I have a hard time with that phrase, because it’s not a food diet. It means getting the right amount of different sensory inputs. For example, a person might need a hammock or swing at home, being rolled tightly in a blanket every morning, a few hours of music, low lighting, a bath before bed, and a toy for chewing on.
Dysregulation can also have medical causes. A lot of autistic people have allergies, difficulty sleeping, and other conditions that cause general discomfort. Dietary or medication changes may help. If a kid suddenly develops a new distressing behavior, the most likely reason is that they are feeling sick or in pain.
Emotional stress is another reason kids get destructive. They may need more downtime, when they aren’t scheduled to do anything or reminded to act “normal” (no demands to speak, make eye contact, or sit still). They might need hours alone in silence. Sometimes it means just letting them do whatever makes them happy, including stimming and making noises. Be aware that nonverbal kids often understand everything they hear, even if they don’t respond. That includes overhearing how their parents talk about them.
They might be expressing a specific emotion. Try to acknowledge their feelings respectfully. For example, you could say, “I understand that you’re mad right now, but don’t want you to throw dishes. I can give you some alone time if you like.” Don’t use the choppy baby language that therapists teach. You’d be amazed how many of my clients behave better once their family start talking to them more normally. Parents can also teach/allow other ways to deal with strong feelings, like yelling or punching pillows.
They may be deliberately communicating. This is likely when kids hide things or throw them away. All the backpacks went in the trash? Maybe she doesn’t want to go to school. He might hide Mom’s keys because he wants attention and doesn’t want her to go out. A ripped-up piece of clothing might have been uncomfortable. Encourage and be alert for other forms of communication. If they struggle while getting dressed, maybe they don’t like that type of clothing. Respect that choice, and they won’t feel the need to destroy it!
Sometimes there’s a sensory pleasure to taking something apart, or ripping it up. It can be slightly compulsive, like peeling at chipped nail-polish. In this case, you can usually provide a cheap alternative. Buy bargain, clearance, or second-hand objects for them to destroy.
TPGA: In your work (Ivanova, as a member of the I/DD community; Aiyana, as a direct support worker for disabled children), have you helped parents understand their children’s needs better? How did you do that?
Ivanova: Some ideas are: See if there is a way they have materials that are OK to sensory seek with and easy to get to. One possible idea is having your child help you repair the item, or rebuild it. When I figured out I could take apart a pen I thought now I want figure out put it back together.
Supporting your child in taking something apart and putting back together can be a positive stimulus activity, as long you’re positive and build their confidence in learning new skills. This also can help the person understand concept of property, if that is a struggle to learn.
Lots of intellectually disabled autistic learn by doing, and using hands. If writing, communication, or reading is a struggle then doing physical activities one is way we can learn. It is not going solve everything, but it’ll be a start. Remember, behavior is communication lots of the time.
Aiyana: I sure hope so! I try to explain to parents what their child may be communicating nonverbally. Of course I don’t always know, and I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes, but often I can read an autistic child’s body language or recognize a pattern in their behavior enough to figure it out. In my experience, it’s common for people on the spectrum to recognize the body language of other autistic people in the same way non-autistic people understand non-autistic body language and facial expressions. Every autism parent should have a few autistic adults around sometimes as translators!
TPGA: Some parents say they’ve “tried everything” and nothing worked, and things are still getting broken. What would you say to parents who feel like nothing will help them and their children?
Ivanova: It may feel frustrating when things keep getting broken. There should be supports for families in getting things replaced or repaired, and sometimes that’s an issue to bring up with the manufacturer. Businesses who create these properties might also find it good to have an education on making things more durable, and not fall apart.
Lots of autistics put more pressure on the things we use, to feel them. I experienced this by the fact that I slam doors, not realizing how much pressure I used. Getting furniture that is more firm and has a thick structure, for many autistics, can make these items more stable, and is useful to keep things working longer. I have a hard time sitting and or getting up from couches that are not firm. There are stores that sell adaptive furniture that may be more durable than department store furniture.
Aiyana: When parents say they’ve tried everything, they usually mean they’ve tried everything they can do TO their kid to get the kid to change. And that’s never the whole answer. The parents have to change too. It’s like couples’ therapy. Usually both people go in hoping the therapist will tell the other person to act different. But both partners have to make changes for the relationship to work.
Parents may need to change their expectations or their priorities or how they interact with their child. At a minimum, they need to make the household more autism-friendly. This might mean removing things that bother the autistic person, like certain lights, electronics, scents, or textures. It might mean providing more sources of input—white noise, fuzzy blankets, a bin of rice to play with, a rocking chair.
TPGA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Ivanova: For the I/DD community this is a struggle. We need more flexible housing options and education of landlords. My home is my home, and that has helped because I can control repairs and not worry about an angry landlord. I feel like we need to make home ownership more accessible for autistic people who need flexibility and control over maintenance, along with personal support systems.
Aiyana: Yes. My most important message for these parents is that they need to change their mindset. People often talk about autistic people having rigid thinking and wanting these exactly a certain way. Actually, most non-autistic people have this problem too! They just don’t recognize it because their rigid ideas come from the society around them.
A good home doesn’t have to look a certain way. Really. No one will die if all the furniture is covered in teeth marks. If your kid breaks normal dishes, use plastic or wooden ones instead. The happiest households I know are the ones that have made peace with these kinds of changes. Stop fighting the inevitable, and learn to be different.
If you have trouble with this idea, watch some shows about how people live in other parts of the world, or how they lived a hundred years ago. Not everyone sleeps on a bed. Some people wear the same clothes every day, and eat the same food every day. Torn and stained blankets are just as warm as pretty new ones.
If your kid keeps breaking electronics, only buy cheap ones. If they knock everything off shelves, keep stuff in drawers or bins instead. If they climb, make sure heavy furniture is bolted to the wall.
Reprioritize. Safety comes first. Next is comfort. Appearance is last. Most people weren’t raised believing that. TV and magazines try to convince us that appearance is more important than comfort. But that’s the wrong approach when someone in the family has special needs. You can change. And both you and your kid will be happier.