How to Manage Challenging Behavior in Children With Autism

Practice begins with parents

Contributor: Thomas Frazier, II, PhD 

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Aggression toward a sibling or classmate. Self injury. Wandering off without warning. Many children with autism exhibit these challenging behaviors.

When they do, parents get frightened — understandably. We see it frequently in the children and parents we work with, and we take such behavior very seriously.

Anxious parents want to know, “What can I do?” Start with the steps below, and know that help is available.

If there is immediate danger, don’t delay

I can’t stress this enough. It is tough for parents to view their children as a threat to themselves or others, but sometimes that threat is very real.

If your child is acting aggressively toward other people or themselves, seek medical care immediately. Too often, it starts small but escalates quickly. For example, a child may start with scratches to the arm but move on to developing harmful wounds.

Don’t wait and hope this behavior resolves itself. If the threat is immediate, go to the ER. Then seek a psychologist or other behavior therapy provider to help with long-term solutions.

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“There’s a reason we focus on the “why” so much: It helps us determine the proper response.”

Understand the “why” behind the behavior

In general, there are three reasons children with autism act out with challenging behavior.

The first is to escape a demand: a challenging homework assignment that is overwhelming their senses, or a request to clean up an especially messy room.

The second is to get attention. Children with autism don’t always have the same mechanisms — even language — for getting attention that neurotypical children do. So sometimes they turn to challenging behaviors to get a parent’s attention.

The third big motivation is getting something they want: a snack or a favorite toy, for example.

Respond based on the motivation

There’s a reason we focus on the “why” so much: It helps us determine the proper response.

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For example, when children are being aggressive, wandering off or self-injuring to escape a demand, these steps may help:

  1. Require them to finish at least some of the demand. For example, help them finish part of a challenging homework assignment or clean up at least some of the toys in a room to develop a sense of accomplishment.
  2. Work out a system for them to request a break when they’re overwhelmed. For high-functioning children, that system may be verbal. But children without language may need the use of a symbolic system or tablet with a speech generator.
  3. Consider the demands you’re making. Are they appropriate for your child’s abilities? Challenging behavior sometimes comes from a child’s inability to handle tasks beyond their capabilities.

For children whose behavior stems from a desire for attention, the steps are different:

  1. Stop the behavior without giving direct attention. If the child is being physically aggressive, attempt to block them from engaging in the aggressive behavior — but don’t use language or reward the behavior by lavishing attention on them.
  2. Give lots of positive reinforcement and attention to your child when he or she is not being aggressive. Reward the positive, and the positive will start to become the norm.
  3. Work on healthier ways to get your attention — using language if they have it, or tapping your shoulder or other non-verbal means if they don’t. Many of us take such simple communications tools for granted, but people with autism have to practice them.

If the behavior comes from a desire for something, try these steps:

  1. Do not immediately give them what they want. Yes, it may work as a quick fix to stopping the challenging behavior. But it can lead to more challenging behavior down the road.
  2. Work on better ways to make the request. Again, if the child is nonverbal, you may need to look into symbols or tools such as a speech generator on a tablet, which can be really helpful.

You can start with the tips above, but I do recommend seeking help from a trained professional. Best of all, you can continue to build on any behavioral work that professional does with your child.

For children with autism, overcoming challenging behavior takes practice. Parents who reinforce that practice at home can go a long way toward ensuring success.

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