Go Ahead and Ask: Telephone Calls

Question:  My 8-year old son with autism is usually very easy-going; however, he has a fit every time I talk on the telephone.  He screams and yells and throws himself on the floor, so I have to hang up immediately and make sure he’s okay.  As soon as I go to him, he stops. He uses sign language to communicate, but every so often he says a few words.  What can I do?  I have to use the phone sometimes!

Signed,
Exasperated in Englewood

Dear Exasperated,

That sounds very challenging and frustrating.  Without knowing your son, it’s a little tricky to make assumptions about exactly what’s happening, but here are a few suggestions for you to consider to help with this problem.

First, it’s important to think about why he is having a tantrum when you are on the phone.  It’s possible that (a) he wants your attention, (b) he doesn’t want the current activities to be interrupted, (c) he doesn’t know how to occupy his time independently, or (d) he has built up a habit or routine around your telephone use (i.e. you’re on the phone, he tantrums).   It could also be a combination of all four things.

Next, we want to come up with ways to address the tantrums based on each of these possibilities.  If your son is upset because you are not attending to him while you are one the telephone, think about these things:

  1. Can you teach him an appropriate way to communicate that he wants your attention?  (For example, giving you the sign for “all done”).  It is very important that your son have a better way of getting your attention than having a tantrum.  Probably the best way to teach this is to get help from two other adults – one to call you, and one to prompt your son.   There will be two phases to teaching this skill.  In the first phase, have your friend call you, pick up the phone and start to talk.  Have your other friend bring your son to you, and guide his hands to give the sign for “all done”.  Then, you respond by saying “Mommy’s all done.” And end the call.  In phase one, every time he makes the sign, you acknowledge his communication and hang up.  This lets him know that his communication is powerful.  Gradually, your friend will be able to reduce the amount of prompting she gives your son.  Once he is spontaneous with the communication, you should gradually stay on the phone longer and longer, helping him to tolerate a brief delay.  Now, you can move to phase two:  at this point, when he gives you the “all done” communication, you say “in a minute” (perhaps give him a gesture also) and continue for just a tiny bit longer and then hang up.  It would also be helpful to use these same communications (all done, in a minute) in other situations, so that he learns what they mean.  Eventually, he will learn to wait for increasingly longer periods of time before he has your attention. 
  2. When you are finished, be sure to give him special attention if he has tolerated waiting while you are on the telephone.
  3. If he has a tantrum, try your hardest to ignore it.  Keep him safe, obviously, but try not to let his problem behaviors be powerful enough to change your behavior.  When you are finished with your conversation, do what you normally would do, attending more to his good behaviors, than his challenging ones.

For children who have a difficult time being interrupted and/or children who have difficulty with independent play, the following suggestions may be helpful:

  1. Help your child to predict your use of the phone by during a given time period by using visual cues.  For example, consider limiting your telephone use to 3 calls between school’s end and dinnertime.  Place three photos/symbols of the phone on the refrigerator, or another spot in clear view of the child.  When the phone rings (or when you make a call), take down one of the pictures.  Make a habit/routine of not having more calls than visually depicted.  If the phone rings and you have no more pictures left, point to the spot on the fridge and say “no telephone.”  And let the machine get it.  After dinner, put up the pictures for the period between dinner and bedtime.
  2. Try to keep your telephone calls brief.  If you have difficulty with this, consider setting a timer for yourself and end the call at an appropriate time.  If you need to talk more, let the person know that later would be better.
  3. Teach him what to do while you are on the phone.  If he has a special interest or toys that he loves more than others, keep these items (toy store catalog, a book on trains, etc.) in a closed bin or cabinet near the telephone.  When the phone rings, make these items available to him.  He may choose to interact with them or not.  Be careful to change the contents of this bin frequently.  Depending on his play skills, you may need to help him develop independent play skills in other contexts, and then have him engage in the play skills during “phone” time. 
  4. Develop a routine around interruptions and use it in other situations.  For example, if you are playing with him and another person needs you, try to use the same simple phrase:  “Wait. Be back in a minute.” Attend to the other person.  Come back and say “Mommy’s all done.”  Giving him lots of practice with this routine in several different situations may help him better manage the telephone situation.

Finally, for children who seem to tantrum because that’s the routine, your challenge is to alter the routine.  Giving him a chance to communicate appropriately, adding visual cues (described above), using distractors during the call, and rewarding calm behavior after the call may all help by changing the routine.  Changing your behavior by not getting off the phone in response to his screams will also help over time (when you first start doing this, don’t be surprised if he yells more loudly and more often – it will take a while for him to understand that you are now going to behave differently).

If problems with tantrums persist, you may need to seek professional help, as other factors may be contributing to the behaviors. 

Perhaps the most important consideration is:  Don’t avoid talking on the telephone when your son is around.  He needs to learn how to cope with this situation and it is good for his overall social adjustment to have to practice good coping in situations that really aren’t harmful to him.  You can use these telephone calls as chances for him to learn to manage his own behavior better, and in this way, each telephone call is a learning opportunity for him. 

Best of luck to you with this!