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Impulse Control and Autism

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Students with autism often move around in a wild fashion. They might climb or grab things. Some people assume they are engaging in sensory-seeking behavior, or are unaware that what they are doing is inappropriate or dangerous. However, sometimes they are simply having a hard time controlling their body due to problems in their motor cortex. To improve their quality of life, you need to teach them impulse control and reconnect their brains to their bodies. 

This is in my disclaimers (insert link), but I’ll say it again. I am only a SEIT, and cannot diagnose conditions. The information in this post should not be used for an official diagnosis, but for educational purposes.

I have seen children grab glasses, steal food, run wild with sticks, break glasses, climb on bookshelves, and laugh uncontrollably while crying. These students were struggling with impulse control and body betrayal. In certain moments their body would take over and they’d be unable to stop sensory seeking behavior. 

Imagine not being able to stop yourself, even if you want to. It’s horrible. 

To improve your student with autism’s quality of life, you have to teach them impulse control. 

Join my email list to get my goal setting and tracking sheets, so you can measure your student’s progress in mastering impulse control.

Child's hand smashes cookie dough with words impulse control and autism imposed over the top.

If a thought pops into your head, do you act on it instantly without thought? Do you fail to consider the consequences of your actions?


That’s because you have impulse control. 

Your impulse control is what stops you from doing whatever action or thought pops into your head. It helps you control your body and stay on task. Without impulse control, I would never be able to finish this blog post because I would have already run off and started doing something else. 

Children might not have impulse control if they move in wild or unsafe ways, act quickly, or do not give thought to consequences for their actions.

In short, yes. It matters a lot.

That kid, dancing around like there’s no tomorrow when they’re supposed to be working on their sorting or reading, is sick of getting in trouble.

Sometimes in fact that kid is having a hard time using their motor cortex appropriately.

The motor cortex is where we plan out our movements. If a student’s motor cortex is weak and not in full control of their body, they might not be able to control what they’re doing. They might actually want to do their sorting and reading instead of dancing around. 

As a SEIT we have to help students with autism. Teach impulse control.

Child pretends to be super hero with Impulse Control and Autism written over the top. Pin to Pinterest.

To teach impulse control you have to ask your student to engage in a simple movement for no purpose other than to purposefully engage in the movement itself. 

The goal is for the student to just move their feet, arms, or hands in an intentional way. This strengthens the neurons in their motor cortex and helps them learn to control their bodies. 

When teaching impulse control, start simple. You want your student to be successful to encourage them to continue. 

The first thing I do when teaching impulse control is to get some painter’s tape. Painters tape is great because it comes up without leaving a mark or any sticky residue. 

I run the tape in a line down the center of the room. I tell my student we are going to focus on walking heel to toe, pretending the tape is a high wire. The hire wire thing makes it seem more like a game. 

If they’re not into it, I might put on Johnny Cash’s song, I walk the line, to spice things up.

When they first start, I act as a guide, holding them and, sometimes even showing them proper foot placement by guiding their feet. 

As they get better I take my support away bit by bit. Removing the scaffold as it were. 

Once they can walk heel to toe on their own, I move them on to walking side to side, and then eventually backward. 

Backward in particular is great because it demands that their eyes get involved when they look behind them. In my experience kids with impulse control problems are also not in the habit of using their eyes to assess their surroundings. Two goals, one activity!

If your student with autism is in control when walking, you can start at a different level.

You and your student can work on more complex gross motor skills. You can jump from one side of that tape line to another. You can work on skipping, animal walks, or learning to jump with one leg. 

Hopscotch anyone? 

Eventually, you might even be able to progress to doing a dancing routine rather than random uncontrolled movements. 

You can also work on impulse control by putting something desirable on the table, and focus on keeping hands flat or engaged in another activity and not grabbing it. This breaks your student’s loop into seeing the thing and automatically grabbing it.

For example, if your student likes to grab drinking glasses and throw them, work on having a glass on the table for ten seconds and not grabbing it. Increase the time interval as they successfully control their impulses.

When a child learns impulse control, it can massively affect their quality of life. Especially if previously that child’s family was unable to take them out due to safety concerns. 

It takes time to learn. As with everything else, don’t expect results overnight. 

At first, make sure to keep things short and brief, so your student can feel successful. Most importantly though, be consistent. Work on impulse control little by little each day! 

Join my email list to get my goal tracking sheets to measure your student progress, as well as access to my free resource library! 

Also to learn more about how the motor cortex affects speech read this blog post.

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