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How Can I Handle Challenging Behavior From a Child with Autism?

Many parents first seek professional support when their child with autism begins to engage in challenging behaviors. 

Challenging behaviors can mean lots of different things from tantrums to aggression, from self-injury to elopement. 

Having strategies to handle challenging behavior in children with ASD should be one of the first goals of any parent coaching program.

Know the Function of Challenging Behaviors

One of the first questions parents want to know about challenging behavior is, “Why is my child doing this?”  In Applied Behavior Analysis, we sort all responses into four functions or reasons ‘why’ a behavior occurs. Some behavior analysts use the acronym “SEAT” to describe the four functions of behavior: 

S–  Sensory Stimulation – Behaviors that function to obtain sensory stimulation. 

These behaviors occur because they feel good, or they meet a sensory need that the individual has. These behaviors occur in all environments and are generally not socially-driven. Sensory related behaviors may also be called ‘automatically reinforced behaviors.’

– Escape – Escape-maintained behaviors help us escape, delay, avoid an undesirable thing from occurring in the environment. The action also usually happens in response to a specific person, event, or a request to perform an activity.  

A – Attention – Behaviors that serve the function of attention get some reaction out of others. 

Attention-seeking behaviors can happen because of both positive (e.g., compliments, praise, conversation) and negative attention (e.g., scolding, reprimands, redirection).

T – Tangibles – Access to a tangible item or activity is the last function. Many challenging behaviors in ASD result because a child cannot communicate their wants and needs. Using maladaptive behaviors in the past has helped them access basic needs (e.g., an infant cries and gets comfort, food, or a diaper change) and so continuing to use those strategies may also help them. Many children with ASD have underdeveloped communication skills and still use challenging behaviors to access tangible items they need.

Autism Behavior Management Strategies for the Classroom and At Home 

Strategies to Prevent or Minimize Challenging Behavior

Most behavior analysts and autism professionals will tell you that the best approach to handle challenging behavior from a child with autism is to prevent it in the first place. For many children with autism, proactive strategies–those that happen outside of problem behavior– have the most significant impact. Among the many proactive behavior management strategies for the classroom and at home, these may be helpful:

●    Focus on communication skills.  So often, parents and teachers become laser-focused on challenging behavior. Yet many of these problems occur because the child lacks the skills needed to communicate effectively. Studies show that boosting the communication skills of a child with ASD–even a small amount–can have monumental differences in all areas. Spend as much time focusing on communication as you do on developing responses to challenging behavior. 

●    Give directions and demands clearly. Given how vital boosting communication skills can be to children with ASD, it becomes even more critical for parents to communicate effectively as well. 

Challenging behaviors often result from children with ASD not understanding expectations. Give precise directions, avoid jargon or metaphorical language, and phrase instructions as statements rather than questions. Children with ASD may be easily distracted. Gain their attention before giving a direction as well.   

●    Provide choices whenever possible.  Choice can be a powerful tool for all children, including those with ASD. Reduce challenging behaviors by providing options when appropriate. Allow children the freedom to select the order of less-preferred demands (e.g., “Do you want to do homework or pick up your toys first?”). Allow choice in the type of task presented (e.g., “Do you want to read a book about trains or a book about birds?”). Or allow choice in when to stop an activity (e.g., “Do you want to keep playing outside or go inside?”) can minimize the number of challenging behaviors across the day.

●    Provide a warning about transitions and prime your child with unexpected changes.  Many parents report transitions between activities and between locations as one of the primary triggers for challenging behaviors. If you know your child struggles with transitions, providing warnings about upcoming changes, using visuals to indicate a change in activities, or setting a timer can be helpful strategies to avoid tantrums and meltdowns. 

If an unexpected change happens in schedules, don’t assume a child can manage the sudden change. Stop and spend a few minutes to ‘prime’ or prepare your child for what’s about to occur.

Strategies to Handle Challenging Behavior When It Occurs

Although focusing on the pro-active strategies above can dramatically reduce the frequency and severity of challenging behaviors, they’re likely not failsafe. If challenging behavior occurs at home or in the classroom, these strategies may be helpful:

●    Follow consistent behavior expectations at home and school.  Children with ASD thrive on consistency. If your child has a behavior plan set up for success in the classroom, many of the same strategies for challenging behavior may also be effective at home. Ask for training from your child’s school or seek professional guidance from a behavior analyst or experienced autism professional. 

●    Ignore ‘junk’ behavior.  Eye rolling, whining, crying, and or refusals all fall into a category known as junk behavior. These behaviors may be ‘annoying’ to parents, but they aren’t particularly dangerous or harmful to a child. Sometimes parents get wrapped up in behavior management strategies for these mild or nuisance behaviors when they should instead focus on challenging severe behaviors like aggression, property destruction, or self-injury. As much as possible, when it’s not harmful to your child, others, or the environment, do your best to ignore it.

●    Redirect, rather than saying “Stop!” or “No!” to problem behavior.  When challenging behavior begins, parents make the common mistake of labeling the behavior. 

“No hitting!” Or “Stop biting!” may seem like a natural response to a child’s behavior, but ultimately it’s not likely to help at the moment. Instead, focus on responding with a redirection to what the child should be doing instead. “Have a seat at the table.” or “Hands in your pockets, please,” give a child a clear direction of what they should do instead.  

●    Have a crisis management plan. Along with having a consistent behavior plan, it’s also essential to have a crisis management plan for children with autism who engage in challenging behavior. The way adults respond in a crisis can significantly impact what a child does the next time. If parents and teachers react in similar ways each time a child is in crisis, it can promote safety and reduce the stress of not knowing how to handle the situation.

One final tip among all of these items is a reminder to individualize autism behavior management strategies for your child. 

Every child with autism has different needs and strengths. Some of the tips above will work well for your child, and others may not. What works to manage challenging behavior right now may not work in three months or three years from now. Understanding how important it is to customize and adapt will only help you and your child be more successful at home and in the classroom.

Amy Sippl

Applied Behavior Analysis | Saint Cloud State University

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Psychology | University of Minnesota

March 2020

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