Challenging behaviour in autistic children and teenagers
It’s common for autistic children to behave in challenging ways or ways that are difficult to manage.
For example, autistic children and teenagers might:
- refuse or ignore requests
- behave in socially inappropriate ways, like taking their clothes off in public
- behave aggressively
- hurt themselves or other children – for example, by head-banging or biting.
Why autistic children and teenagers behave in challenging ways
Autistic children and teenagers might behave in challenging ways because they:
- have trouble understanding what’s happening around them – for example, what other people are saying or communicating non-verbally
- have difficulty communicating their own wants and needs, which can lead to frustration
- are highly anxious and stressed
- feel overwhelmed by what’s going on around them.
Your child’s difficult behaviour might also have specific triggers, like the following.
Routines and rituals
Autistic children often like predictable environments, and they can get very upset if they can’t follow familiar routines. 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, your child just might not want to.
Autistic children often have sensory sensitivities – for example, they might like feeling or touching particular surfaces or objects. Your child might get upset if they aren’t allowed to touch.
Your child might get upset if too much is happening around them, if they find a particular noise overwhelming, or if the light is too bright.
Autistic children can get frustrated if they’re expected to do something they don’t have the skills for, like getting dressed independently.
Autistic children can have sleep problems. If your child isn’t getting enough good-quality sleep or is tired from an activity or situation, this can cause challenging behaviour.
Discomfort, pain or illness
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.
Your child might have other conditions as well as autism, like epilepsy, mood disorder or ADHD. These can all cause difficult behaviour. A medical assessment will help you to identify and manage these conditions.
Changing challenging behaviour in autistic children and teenagers
To change your child’s behaviour, you need to understand what’s triggering or causing it and what your child is getting out of it.
You can use the following steps to work on your child’s difficult or challenging behaviour.
Step 1: Choose a behaviour
Choose one behaviour to focus on. For example, maybe your child yells at others when they’re upset.
Step 2: Identify what triggers the behaviour and how it meets your child’s needs
Keep 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:
- Difficult behaviour: got upset and yelled at brother
- When: 4 pm, Monday 7 June
- Where: in the car on the way home from school
- What happened before behaviour: stopped at shop, intended to buy milk
- What happened after: briefly tried to soothe child, then went home without buying milk
In this example, the trigger seems to be the change to the child’s usual after-school routine. Note that sometimes there might be more than one trigger for a behaviour. And the behaviour met the child’s needs because they got their routine back when the family left the shop.
Step 3: Make changes
Once you know what’s triggering the behaviour and how it meets your child’s needs, you can use the information to make changes.
Here are some ideas:
- 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 warning like a clock). Using pictures can also help. In the example above, it could be a picture of a shop or milk. Social stories can be useful too – for example, a picture of school, then the shop, then home with a story like ’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 shopping trips during which your child gets something they like, or go when it’s less busy.
- Communicate clearly with your child. For example, make sure your child is paying attention when you explain what’s going to happen. Use only one request or instruction at a time. Use language, symbols or pictures your child understands.
- Teach your child how to ask for things they want or need. For example, your child could say ‘help’ or use a ‘help’ sign when doing a difficult task.
- 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 when you go somewhere that makes your child uncomfortable.
- Calmly ignore your child’s protests. But when your child is doing the right thing, give plenty of praise.
Therapies and supports to improve communication and social skills
Improved communication and social understanding can lead to lower anxiety and less challenging behaviour in autistic children and teenagers. There are many therapies and supports that might increase your child’s skills in these areas, and help you manage your child’s behaviour.
A good first step is talking with your child’s GP, paediatrician or psychologist, or another health professional who works with your child. They can help you find appropriate therapies and supports for your child. Psychologists, speech pathologists and experienced Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) practitioners can help you with behaviour management if the behaviour continues to be a problem or you need support to deal with it.