Behavior as Desire for Control in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Occasionally we all need a gentle reminder that autism is not an abstraction floating around in the ether. Autism is real precisely because people experience it, and separate cases of autism spectrum disorders differ so markedly because their subjects are unique individuals with different personalities, experiences, genetic and environmental influences, etc.

For that reason, in my opinion, any exploration of behavioral issues in autism should be prefaced by a consideration of human behavior in general.

Certain behavioral issues are particular to autism. This is especially true of sensory-related behaviors, and I would say that the sensory component, after consideration of possible medical concerns, should come first.

At the same time, there are as many reasons for human behavior as there are ways of behaving, and people on the autism spectrum are no different in that regard. That said, I want to focus on a motivation for human behavior that is perhaps not attended to as much as it might be: Control.

No one likes to lose control. Most of us – even if unconsciously – will latch onto it wherever we can, however superficial our control might be in any instance. So imagine being a child on the autism spectrum: Your sensory sensitivities are such that the world seems always to be either attacking you or preparing to do so; your understanding of social, personal and practical norms are so different from those of the world around you as to make you feel like you are on another planet some days; and you find yourself often unable to comply with what is expected of you.

Doesn’t sound so easy, does it? In similar circumstances, who wouldn’t look for and seize whatever little control they could? Here is where behavioral concerns can come into play.

If you think about it, disruptive behavior is almost like a kind of magic. In your mind, play the part of the misbehaving child a moment: With a single word, gesture, action or refusal, you can exercise a powerful influence on your environment. Facial expressions change, adults turn their attention away from whatever they were doing before in order to handle the situation you are creating, the whole mood and atmosphere of your surroundings change, and your peers might even have behaviors of their own. Quite possibly, you may even be able to get out of unwanted situations or obtain something that you desire.

How’s That for Control?

Again, there are many kinds of behavior. For people on the autism spectrum as well as for everyone else, these tend to be rooted in deeply ingrained habits and patterns of thought. To be sure, an individual person’s free will is the only factor in direct causal relationship with his/her behavior (except in cases of severe intellectual incapacitation). But there are a variety of key influences that are, like so much else in human life, a combination of nature and nurture, heredity and environment, inner and outer. I would say, therefore, that we need to look at behavioral issues in autism in reference not only to autism as a diagnosis, but also to autism as a human phenomenon – which is to say, we have to look outside as well as in. The whole “dance” of nature and nurture, which profoundly influences behavioral habits, starts in the formative years of infancy. For that reason, I make a momentary digression.

Why do babies cry? In a word, desire. They want to be fed. They want to be put to bed. They want to have their diapers changed. They want to be cuddled and loved. And lest we think that crying is the only infantile behavior associated with such needs, let us keep in mind the “sucking” gestures a baby will make with his/her mouth in anticipation of receiving milk from the breast (or from the bottle, depending on the mother’s method).

Many psychologists will tell us that this is part of the infant’s desire for integration of experience, for correspondence of inner needs and outer reality. A major need of the infant is, of course, learning to understand his world and himself. But s/he is so radically dependent on adult caregivers that his/her self-confidence and self-control will only attain healthy development to the degree that adult controls and aids assist, rather than hinder, this development.

Erikson (1963) touched on something like this when referring to the phenomenon of “mutual regulation” (p. 68), and elaborated on it in the following passage:

The unavoidable imposition on the child of outer controls which are not in sufficient accord with his inner control at the time, is apt to produce in him a cycle of anger and anxiety. This leaves a residue of an intolerance of being manipulated and coerced beyond the point at which outer control can be experienced as self-control. Connected with this is an intolerance of being interrupted in a vital act, or of not being permitted to conclude an act in an idiosyncratically important way. All of these anxieties lead to impulsive self-will—or, by contrast, to exaggerated self-coercion by stereotypy and lonely repetition. Here we find the origins of compulsion and obsession and the concomitant need for the vengeful manipulation and coercion of others (p. 409, italics included).

This reinforces my earlier point about behavior being rooted in a quest for control, and about how relative lack of control can provoke unwelcome behavioral responses. As far as autism goes, I ask that the reader not misunderstand me. I am not trying to resurrect the outdated and very offensive notion that a child’s autism is the fault of his/her parents (this may be true in rare and extreme cases, but not for the most part). Rather, it is precisely the genetic and interior component of autism that prompts me to cite the above passage from Erikson’s book.

Presumably, the brain of someone on the autism spectrum differs (that is, in some respects) from the neurotypical brain right from the very beginning. So already, infants with autism spectrum disorders are at a disadvantage when it comes to “mutual regulation.” Their modes of “inner control” will differ from those of neurotypical children, and will likely be in conflict with standard modes of “outer control.” If we follow Erikson, we must conclude that self-confidence and personal adjustment will inevitably suffer as a result (not irreparably, but enough to cause problems).
This is why I would heartily support research into signs of autism in the early stages of infancy; this could perhaps give us some clues as to how the receptivity of children on the spectrum to modes of environmental conditioning, in combination with the latter, might influence later autistic behaviors. Something makes me think that this would be much more fruitful than focusing only on the neurological component of autism, as if these children came “pre-wired” for later behavioral patterns.

Again, I am not suggesting that parents are to be blamed for their children’s autistic behaviors – any more than fluorescent lights should be “blamed” for an autistic child’s sensory meltdowns. But autistic children, like all other human beings, are social beings, and the interaction of inherited traits and exterior influences (both interpersonal and environmental) is as important for them as for anyone else. That said, I think it would be helpful to both parents and children if we knew a little more about this, and if we were able to detect (and respond to) signs of autism spectrum disorders earlier.

In the meantime, let us remember that behavior is a language. Bad behavior should not be tolerated, but neither should we just try to “squash” it, and in so doing stifle the symptom at the expense of the underlying issue. There is a whole personal history, a whole story to be told in anyone’s behavior – a story of needs, fears, wants, anxieties, and perhaps even a desire to communicate.

Daniel Crofts is a 30-year-old man with Asperger Syndrome. He has an MA in English/Literature from the State University of New York College at Brockport and experience in the fields of freelance journalism, substance abuse prevention, online higher education, and service to people with developmental disabilities. He may be contacted at danielcrofts31@yahoo.com.

References

Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and Society (2nd ed.). NY: Norton.

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