Why Do Autistic Children Throw Toys?
Almost all children throw toys. They get angry or feel helpless when they don’t get their way. Without thinking about the consequences, they pick up whatever is handy and throw it. That may be a toy, but it could also be anything in the child’s environment. Some children even use throwing things as part of a manipulation scheme. If they try to control you through throwing a toy or some other object, and it works, they will do it again.
Autistic children throw toys for similar reasons, but the thought process behind the action and its continuance is different from typical kids. Lack of communication skills, inability to interact socially, sensory issues, and not dealing with stress and frustration appropriately all contribute to the problem. Since autism is a spectrum of disorders, each child is affected differently. That makes the solution unique as well.
Teaching autistic kids to stop throwing toys isn’t easy if you don’t understand why your child is doing it. Step one is always understanding. Once you understand why your child is throwing toys, then you can begin to teach them to stop.
Previous Events Help You Learn Why Your Child Throws Toys
While all children continue doing what works for them, sensory overload, stimming, a need to escape from their current environment, feeling ill, or communication difficulties can all fuel the problem. Most of the time, throwing rocks, toys, or other items isn’t an act of defiance or even mischief. There’s a reason behind it, even if you currently don’t know what that is.
While setting up consequences can help to deter the behavior, before you can find consequences that work, you must understand why your child throws things.
Start by looking at the events that preceded the behavior. Autistic individuals don’t handle change very well. Even when you help them prepare for what’s coming, they may still experience excessive stress, agitation, and frustration that needs to be dissipated.
Apprehensiveness about upcoming events, such as having to do something or go somewhere different creates fear and desperation. Fear of the unknown is a big issue with autistic children, but sometimes, the child just wants to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Once they’ve learned that throwing toys will help them do that, their attraction to routine will cause them to use that same behavior until it no longer works for them.
Some children want to avoid doing something you have just asked them to do. If they throw a toy, and it distracts you, it can easily become a habit. So take some time to become aware of what was going on before your child threw the toy.
What Happened Before Your Child Threw His Toys?
Examining everything you did or said, and what others did or said, before your child threw something can show you patterns and similarities to previous events you might not have noticed before. It’s a good idea to write down everything you can remember, no matter how insignificant you think it might be.
Writing things down can help to clarify the situation and will jog your memory. Looking back to what preceded an incident isn’t always easy. While an actual trigger can be quite difficult to find, asking yourself the following questions can help:
- Was the room noisy?
- Was anyone close to your child?
- Does your child appear to enjoy throwing things?
- Was your child angry or frustrated?
- Was it time to change activities?
- Was it almost time to go somewhere?
- Did you ask your child to do something?
- Does your child throw things when you are with someone else? Who?
- How many toys does your child have?
While some autistic individuals talk well, many nonverbal children – or nearly so – struggle with how to share what’s bothering them. Since you can’t read their thoughts, behavior is often the only way these kids can communicate. That can be particularly problematic if the issue is touch sensitivity and they're reacting something they're wearing.
What You Do or Say Can Reinforce the Behavior
Examining the events that follow the behavior is probably even more important than what came before, because your reaction, or the reaction of others, can reinforce the problem you’re trying to correct. If your child receives what they want, there’s no incentive to stop throwing, especially if other methods didn’t work as well.
However, Ennio Cipani, licensed psychologist and author of the book Functional Behavioral Assessment, Diagnosis, and Treatment cautions the reader not to assume the first thing you think of is what’s reinforcing the behavior. Discovery requires examining everything that happened.
Falling back on the tired excuse that autistic children always seek attention or that they can’t help throwing things since they are mentally impaired or confused, not only keeps them frustrated, but also prevents you from helping them learn to find more appropriate methods of solving their problems.
What Benefit Does Your Child Get From Throwing Toys?
The main purpose of looking at your positive or negative reinforcements is to discover what reward your child is getting when he or she throws things:
- Does your child get attention or physical contact?
- Does someone leave your child’s environment?
- Is an unpleasant experience or task delayed?
- Does your child get their way faster?
- When your child throws toys, do they receive a different one?
- Does your child hit someone? How does that person react?
- What does your child do?
- Does your child find throwing toys funny?
- Where does the toy land? Does it make a sound?
- Do you let your child choose a different activity when they become angry?
Discovering the reasons can take awhile. When I worked at a small group home for developmentally challenged individuals, we wrote up detailed observation notes of their actions and reactions at the end of each shift. It took several weeks before someone even attempted to interpret the data, so don’t be in a rush to figure it out. If you take a wild guess, and you’re wrong, you won’t be able to correct the inappropriate behavior. Wait until you actually see patterns began to emerge.
When a particular autistic resident didn’t want to stop watching TV and take a shower, zeroing in on the benefit she received included interpreting the staff‘s reaction. When screaming and throwing things resulted in staff backing off and delaying the autistic resident’s shower, it became her method of choice to avoid the change. Since it always worked, that’s what she used habitually.
The Role of Stimming in Throwing Toys
Since autistic individuals perceive the world differently, the distress can become overwhelming. For many children, a defense mechanism called stimming is the only way to relieve the stress. Rocking back and forth, flapping their hands in front of their face, or spinning the wheels of their favorite car are typical stim behaviors, but they are not the only forms of stimming that autistic children use. If you don't know what stimming is, the following video can help:
Stress Causes Autistic Children to Stim
But The Stress Can Sometimes Be Excitement
Watching toys soar through the air and then fall, or hearing the sound a toy makes when it hits something can be both the reason and the benefit for throwing toys. However, there can also be other problems involved. By examining the events that lead up to throwing toys, brainstorming the possible reward, keeping sensory issues in mind, and listening to what your autistic child says, you can begin to understand why your child behaves the way they do.
Once you discover the cause, then you can begin teaching them a better way of handling their problems.
Typical Disciplinary Measures Don’t Work
When a typical child consistently touches or throws things, many parents decide to childproof their home. Breakable stuff disappears or you move it to higher ground. You remind your child not to touch or throw anything that’s left, and you implement standard discipline techniques whenever they decide to test the boundaries.
However, an autistic child doesn’t perceive the world in the same way. While you can eliminate temptation, telling a child with autism not to do something doesn’t work. Neither do typical disciplinary measures. If your autistic child can’t control their anger and frustration, need to escape a situation or command, or has difficulty with sensory integration, the following tried-and-true techniques can help you teach your child to stop throwing toys.
1. Sensory Issues: Get Rid of as Many Triggers as Possible
You can’t correct sensory issues themselves, but sometimes throwing comes from giving your child too many toys, a noisy room, a funny smell, or even bright lights. If the problem is too many toys, the solution is simple:
- Take away at least half of the toys, making sure you remove the offending toy.
- Simplify the environment to avoid visual overload.
- Get rid of as many additional triggers as possible.
A sensory integration problem frustrates, confuses, and often causes pain, but don’t look at what bothers you. Your child’s brain doesn’t process noises, smells, and lights in the same way that you do.
If your child has vestibular problems, the world may tip sideways or actually spin around inside their head. If they have proprioceptive issues, your child may not be able to control his hands. Your child might have actually dropped the toy or experienced a hand-jerking movement that released it unintentionally.
Overloaded senses make remembering difficult. In my own experience, when my senses scramble, I can forget how to do many common, everyday things such as setting the table. I can have difficulty understanding plain instructions. Sometimes that’s because speech sounds garbled, but other times, it’s because I can’t comprehend what my husband just said. Many times I can see his mouth moving, and know he’s talking to me, but I can’t hear anything.
2. Cause and Effect Must Be Taught
While you may have plainly told your child what you want him to do, some children can’t understand what’s appropriate until you’ve repetitively shown them enough times to make it automatic. That’s because cause and effect has little meaning for autistic children and must be taught. Until a child understands that they can make something happen, each time they throw something, no previous experience of working with you exists. For them, it’s a completely new event.
When you take away an inappropriate action or reaction, however, you need something to replace it. That might be redirection, a substitute, or a more appropriate way of handling things. For some children, that might mean setting up a trampoline in the backyard, or investigating the possibility of music therapy. If your child learns visually, sometimes creating a social story about how to play with toys can help. But for kids with a strong need to throw, giving them something more acceptable – like a squeeze ball, Frisbee, homemade bean bag, or a waded up piece of paper and a child’s basketball hoop – can solve the problem.
3. When the Issue is Anger and Frustration
Many autistic children have difficulty controlling their frustration and anger. While a lengthy “time out” won’t mean or do much to help, it can actually backfire if your child wants to leave the current situation. Some parents have found an extremely short period of a minute or two gives their child the space to calm before things reach the point of meltdown.
Taking away the toy is another technique that often works. For some children, depriving them for an hour or two does the trick, but for others, you’ll need to make a rule that says they can’t play with it for the rest of the day once they throw it. However, for some autistic children, nothing except giving the toy away permanently will have any impact.
4. When All Else Fails Take Away Something They Care About
Sometimes more drastic measures are called for, as both positive and negative reinforcement can interfere with teaching. A close friend recently shared that for her autistic teenage son, nothing short of taking away his favorite obsession has any effect. I’ve heard many parents on autistic forums say the same thing, especially for those with high-functioning autism. If taking away something your child cares about is the only way your child can learn to stop throwing toys, then maybe that’s what you need to do.
Parenting an autistic child is difficult. These children need to learn how to learn, how to calm themselves, how to control their behavior, what’s acceptable and what’s not. They also need to learn how to communicate in an appropriate way. While behavior problems reveal anger, frustration, helplessness, and stress, working through those challenges and teaching your autistic child how to cope with the problems of life is essential.