Behaviour is a form of communication. When an individual does not or cannot express themselves in a conventional or appropriate way, it could be because of underlying cognitive, emotional and/or physical impairments.
Some behaviours that may be indicative of an underlying disability include:
- confused or unintelligible speech
- repetitive motions or vocalisations
- loud speaking
- excessive swearing
- inappropriate sexual behaviour
- blackout (sometimes this may be assumed to be alcohol or drug related, when it could be medically related)
Some disabilities which may present escalated or unusual behaviour include:
- acquired brain injury
- degenerative brain disorders, such as dementia
- mental health impairment
- autism spectrum disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Tourette’s syndrome
Often, the behaviour is involuntary and the person cannot exercise much control over it. Carly Fleishman has described her autism as having “locked me in a body I can’t control”. An individual may also be expressing something through their behaviour – fear, happiness, anger, frustration, confusion, or any number of normal emotions and states that everyone feels.
Chronic conditions and behaviour
Some people who have chronic conditions may experience occasional medical emergencies that outwardly appear as unusual or escalated behaviour. Some examples include:
- epilepsy (seizure)
- diabetes (hypoglycaemic reaction, also known as low blood sugar)
- asthma (panic due to loss of breath)
In these situations, if the outward behaviour is recognised as being caused by a medical emergency, proper emergency procedures, as set out by your library policies, should be followed.
Escalated behaviour may occur as a reaction to a perceived threat. Whether or not this threat is real doesn’t matter – the escalated behaviour can indicate the person does not feel safe and is trying to protect themselves.
There is a mistaken perception that escalated behaviour will automatically lead to violence. This occurs less frequently than you might think. While escalated behaviour can appear scary and unpredictable, usually the frightened individual is more likely to self-harm or to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.
How to approach people exhibiting unusual or heightened behaviours
- First, ask yourself: is the behaviour creating risk to the person or others, and does it require your intervention?
- For people with behaviours caused by impairments, you can help create a more inclusive library space by modelling tolerance and acceptance for other staff and library patrons around you to see.
- If you need to approach the person, respect their personal space. Do not stand too close or touch the person, even to comfort. This could trigger an escalation in behaviour.
- Speak softly but directly in short, clear statements. Do not be overly wordy, and keep your tone friendly and non-critical.
- Say who you are and state your role in the library.
- Check that the person understands you (you can ask them). Repeat yourself using different words if necessary.
- Ask if you can assist them.
For distressed individuals
- If the individual is distressed, acknowledge their distress (e.g., “Yes, you must be feeling very worried right now”).
- If the person is experiencing delusions, avoid agreeing with the delusion or trying to talk them out of the delusions.
- Reassure them that they are safe and you are here to help them. Ask them how best you can help (“What can I do for you right now? How can I help you right now?”).
- Offer them a quieter space in the library where they may feel safer. Suggested a space where there are fewer onlookers. If there are onlookers, ask another staff member to discreetly move them on.