How to Manage Challenging Behavior in Children With Autism
If you want to manage challenging behavior in autism, it helps to understand the “why.” Our expert explains.
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.
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.
“There’s a reason we focus on the “why” so much: It helps us determine the proper response.”
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.
There’s a reason we focus on the “why” so much: It helps us determine the proper response.
For example, when children are being aggressive, wandering off or self-injuring to escape a demand, these steps may help:
For children whose behavior stems from a desire for attention, the steps are different:
If the behavior comes from a desire for something, try these steps:
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.