Quite often, a simple trip to the grocery store, mall, restaurant or the dreaded Wal-Mart can turn in to a source of anxiety for parents of a child with autism. Parents often even avoid these places completely while with their child for fear of a public spectacle. They envision onlookers making comments under their breath about their parenting skills as their child throws yet another tantrum.
This fear is completely understandable as nobody likes to be judged, but it becomes a problem when you begin intermittently reinforcing the same problem behaviors that you are working so hard to reduce. That means, even though the majority of the time the child is not receiving the outcome they desire, it is happening sporadically and enough to continue the behavior. Envision a slot machine, even though you don’t get a payout every time you pull the lever, if you win every so often it can be enough to continue playing.
In order to avoid this, you first must try to determine the function of behavior when it occurs. Since we’re talking about public places, most often the behavior will occur to gain access to something (i.e. a toy on the shelf) or avoid something (i.e. leave the store).
The key is to consistently not let the inappropriate behavior (tantrum, flopping to floor, etc.) result in the payoff. That means there will be times where you have to endure the difficult behavior and continue to remain in the store or not allow the child to have the desired item.
We do, however, want to be proactive and teach the child an appropriate way to request these things. This can include training an appropriate sign or verbal response that will result in the desired item or action. You could also use a reward system based on the non-occurrence of the problem behavior (ex. telling the child “if you can come to the store with mom/dad while staying quiet, you can pick out one small toy as we leave”). Based on the level of receptive communication the child has, you can also have a briefing in the parking lot where you go over what the child will encounter and the behaviors you expect to see, having the child repeat this back to you to verify understanding. Again, the key is only allowing the payoff to occur following appropriate behaviors and never following the inappropriate behaviors you are trying to reduce.