My 4 year old has recently began to hit his leg or furniture when he is hungry /angry/or sleepy. im scared he will begin to get violent or agressive. We usually calm him down and ask him what he want(since he can make some requests). He will just keep hitting his legs and yelling. Any advice on how to handle this?
Behavior analysts will do something like:
1. What is the function of the behavior? He's probably hitting things because it works for him in some way - attention, rewards, etc.
2. Block the function; if it's for attention or to get something, be sure the hitting NEVER results in getting any benefits.
3. Teach a better replacement behavior he can use for the same function. For example, teach him to make an appropriate request (using speech if he can, or pictures or other means if not).
The function could be that he gets what he wants, or it could be that he likes whatever you do to calm him down. An example from our behavior analyst was a parent who gave a big bear hug to stop self-injury, and so the child was doing the injury to get the hug.
To keep the behavior from working, an important thing behavior analysts will point out is that "intermittent reinforcement" is WORSE than consistent - this is the "slot machine" effect - if you give in or make an exception sometimes, this teaches someone to just keep trying harder/longer, just as people keep pulling the slot machine lever to see if they'll win this next time. So for example, if you're trying to reduce tantrums, the worst thing you can possibly do is wait 30 minutes and then "give in" and provide whatever the tantrum was demanding - this simply teaches that keeping it going 30 minutes is the way to get what you want. Or if you walk around a store and a child keeps asking if they can have this food and that food, and one time in ten you say yes, then they're going to ask more and more in order to get those "yes" answers. So you have to be absolutely, unfailingly consistent.
The other hard thing for parents is the "extinction burst" which is that if you correctly identify the function of the behavior and block it from working, a person's first reaction will be to try to do the behavior more often or more intensely, to try to get it to work again. Say you decide the hitting is a way to get food (just an example function), and you stop ever providing food in response to hitting. What would happen is that for a while you'd get more and more hitting. You have to ride it out. But it's tough to stay confident since it will appear at first that you're making things worse.
Here's where teaching replacement behavior comes in. After all, if someone wants a hug or wants food that's completely valid and wonderful. So they need a *good* way to ask for what they want. When they see that the hitting doesn't work and this other way does work, hopefully they switch.
That's the theory... real life is messy though!
It all hinges on identifying the function of the behavior. If you don't understand why a behavior works for someone you can't change it.
A common case is that attempts to calm a child (through hugs, talking to them, providing sensory or food rewards) can encourage them to be not-calm in the future because they like the calming procedure.
RHP is right on the money, in my opinion.
First, make sure the problem is impulse control, and not some deeper issue. It sounds like you understand the cause, though. Many ASD kids can't distinguish between "good attention" and "bad attention", so they will engage in all sorts of odd behaviors for attention. As long as it works, they will do it over and over.
Second, remember to reward the act of calming down, and not the self-injury. When he is doing it, try to deny him attention, and limit your emotional response. If he is banging his knee, then try to insert a pillow or pad between his leg and the furniture, and then pretend to look away.
If he is making a request, then promise to meet the request as soon as he calms down. Then, when he calms down, praise him for his ability to calm down. Then, as long as the calm remains, you can make your own request while you met his.
For example, if he is requesting a cup of milk, even if that is not what started the problem, make sure that he doesn't learn that he can get a cup of milk just by throwing an emotional fit. By making the request, the milk then becomes the reward, and it has to be earned by engaging in some positive behavior.
In our case, it was not enough just to calm down, because our son quickly figured out that meltdowns produced more opportunities to earn rewards. So after he calmed down, we then asked him to do an unrelated activity, such as standing on one foot, and then gave the reward for standing on one foot.