Autism and Impulse Control: What You Need to Know

Why is lack of impulse control dangerous?

Most of the time, a lack of impulse control is just inconvenient, not dangerous. Sometimes it can even be endearing. But depending on the level of dysfunction and the situations in which the person’s impulses become a problem, the inability to control those impulses could endanger a person with autism.

Imagine a young man on the spectrum who has a passion for trains, for example. In theory, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this man’s impulsive need to pick up every toy train he comes across or read every book that has a photo of a train on the cover. But if you take the same young man to a busy train station, where several trains are coming and going at the same time, his desire to see a real train up close and personal could put him in a life-threatening situation, especially if he has little understanding of danger. Controlling his impulses in a situation like this is important to ensure that he remains safe.

Photo: Adobe Stock/alex57111
Photo: Adobe Stock/alex57111

Tips for teaching impulse control

Teaching someone with autism to control their impulses is likely going to be a long process. You can’t give a lecture on impulse control or expect one “practice round” to do the trick. But a little patience and understanding can go a long way to helping a person develop better executive function.

The most important part of teaching impulse control is to look for teachable moments but be flexible when they don’t go exactly right. Try and try again, as often as you can, to exercise the person’s ability to control their behavior, but always allow do-overs too. The person is more likely to learn something from the extra opportunity to do it right than they are from verbal correction.

Photo: Adobe Stock/lordn
Photo: Adobe Stock/lordn

It’s also a good idea to utilize teachable moments more when the person is having a good day rather than a bad one; someone who is already frustrated and cranky will be less likely to succeed at controlling their impulses, which leaves everyone involved with a negative feeling. While you may not always be able to wait for the “right” time to practice impulse control, it’s vital to know when the person has had enough.

Being a good model is also key to teaching impulse control. If you’re a parent or caretaker of someone with autism and impulsivity, you can share your frustrations with them as an example. Talk them through the situation, telling them why you’re frustrated and then discuss potential solutions to the issue without getting emotional about it.

Talk to a doctor or therapist about other ways you might be able to help someone with autism learn better impulse control and other skills in the executive function realm.

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