By Raising Children Network
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The challenging behaviour of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often causes parents and families the most stress. Sometimes the first step in managing challenging behaviour can be spotting the things that trigger it.

Challenging behaviour in children with autism spectrum disorder

All children can behave in ways that parents find difficult or challenging to manage. But children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to do so.

Children with ASD might:

  • refuse or ignore requests
  • behave in socially inappropriate ways, such as taking their clothes off in public
  • be aggressive or have tantrums 
  • engage in self-stimulatory behaviour, such as rocking or hand-flicking
  • hurt themselves or other children – for example, by head-banging or biting. 

Why children with autism spectrum disorder behave in challenging ways

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are more likely to behave in challenging ways because they might:

  • have trouble understanding what’s happening around them – for example, what other people are saying or communicating through facial expressions and body language
  • not have effective ways of communicating their own wants and needs, which leads to frustration
  • be very anxious.

Your child’s difficult behaviour might also have triggers such as the following.

Routines and rituals
Children with ASD often like predictable environments and can get very upset if their familiar routines are broken. For example, your child might be upset if you change the route you usually take home from school.

Your child might not understand it’s time to move on from one activity to another. Or like typically developing children, she just might not want to.

Sensory sensitivities
If your child has sensory sensitivities, he might like feeling or touching particular surfaces or objects. He might get upset if he isn’t allowed to.

Sensory overload
Your child might get upset if too much is happening around her, or if she finds a particular noise overwhelming, or it’s too bright for her.

Unrealistic expectations
Like all children, a child with ASD can get frustrated if he’s expected to do something he doesn’t have the skills for, such as getting dressed by himself.

Children with ASD can have sleep problems, and poor sleep can cause difficult daytime behaviour.

This could include things like the feeling of clothes against skin, a prickly label, wet pants, a bump or pain. Check with your GP if you suspect there could be a medical condition causing your child’s behaviour.

Other conditions
Your child might have other conditions as well as ASD, such as epilepsy, mood disorder or ADHD. These can all cause difficult behaviour. A medical assessment will help you to identify and manage these conditions.

Managing challenging behaviour: things to try at home

To change your child’s behaviour, you need to understand what’s causing it and what she’s getting out of it.

Think of the behaviour as an ABC sandwich:

  • Antecedents – the ‘triggers’ for the behaviour
  • Behaviour – the way your child responds to the trigger
  • Consequences or ‘rewards’ – what your child gets out of behaving this way, such as being allowed to go on with a favourite activity, or to leave a stressful situation.

You can work on your child’s difficult or challenging behaviour by changing either the behaviour’s triggers or the ‘rewards’ your child gets from the behaviour. Here’s how.

Step 1: choose a behaviour
Choose one behaviour to focus on. For example, maybe your child rocks back and forth while crying.

Step 2: identify triggers and rewards of the behaviour you’ve chosen
You can identify triggers and rewards by keeping a diary of the difficult behaviour for 1-2 weeks. It’s a good idea to include two weekends in the diary. Family routines and behaviour can be different on weekends and weekdays.

Here’s an example of a diary for difficult behaviour, using the ABC sandwich method.

Behaviour: rocking and crying

Date (and time) Where What happened just before behaviour
What happened after behaviour
4 pm, Monday 7 June In the car on the way home from school
Stopped at shop, intended to buy milk
Briefly tried soothing child, then continued home without buying milk

Sometimes there might be more than one trigger for the behaviour.

In the example above, the trigger seems to be the change to child’s usual after-school routine. By rocking and crying, the child gets that routine back (because the parent didn’t go into the shop after all).

Step 3: make changes
Once you know what’s triggering the behaviour and what your child is getting from it, you can use the information to make changes. Here are some examples:

  • Organise predictable routines, perhaps using picture timetables.
  • Prepare your child for changing routines – for example, by giving your child a five-minute warning (this could be a visual like a clock) before stopping for milk, or other breaks in routine. Using pictures can also help. In the example above, it could be a picture of a shop or milk. Social Stories™ can also be useful – for example, a picture of school, then the shop, then home with a story such as ’First mum picks you up from school, then you go to the shop, then you go home’.
  • Set up gradual introductions to environments that might be overstimulating. For example, start with short visits during which your child gets something he likes, or go when it’s less busy.
  • Communicate clearly with your child. For example, make sure your child is paying attention when you tell her what’s going to happen. Use only one request or instruction at a time. Use language, symbols or pictures your child understands. Pictures are particularly useful, especially if your child is stressed or anxious. The more anxious she is, the less likely she is to understand what you’re saying.
  • Teach your child how to ask for things he wants or needs. For example, your child might say ‘help’ or use a ‘help’ sign when he finds a task difficult.
  • Plan for situations you know might be difficult. For example, don’t do new things when your child is tired, or let your child take a favourite toy.
  • Calmly ignore your child’s protests. But when she’s doing the right thing, give her plenty of praise.
You might like to look at our article on encouraging cooperative behaviour in children with ASD. You can also encourage good behaviour by using our 15 behaviour tips. Although these tips are written for typically developing children, many can also be applied to your child with ASD. You might need to modify them to suit your child’s level of development and communication.

Therapies to improve communication and social skills

Improved communication and social understanding can lead to lower anxiety and less challenging behaviour in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are many therapies that might help improve your child’s skills in these areas, and help you manage your child’s behaviour.

These therapies include the following:

Your medical practitioner or local autism adviser can help you find appropriate therapies for your child. Other health professionals, such as psychologists or speech pathologists, can help you with behaviour management if the behaviour continues to be a problem, or if you feel you need support to deal with it.

Our Parent Guide to Therapies offers reliable information about a wide range of therapies and interventions for children with ASD. Each guide gives an overview of the therapy, what research says about the therapy, and the approximate time and costs involved.
  • Last updated or reviewed 20-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was written with help from Amanda Richdale, La Trobe University.