Addressing Behavioral Challenges in Children with Autism

Behavioral issues can be common among children with autism. Understanding behavior and how to respond to it, specifically in a positive way, can help parents or caregivers overcome some of these behavioral challenges.

What is Behavior?

Behavior is the way in which a person acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others. Behavior is measurable and observable and can be both positive and negative.


Challenging Behaviors:

  • Self-Injury
  • Scratching
  • Hitting
  • Disturbed Sleep Routines
  • Kicking
  • Severe and Rigid Routines/Behaviors
  • Biting
  • Restrictive Diet
  • Property Destruction
  • Refusal/Noncompliance
  • Yelling/Screaming
  • Pica
  • Elopement
  • Socially Inappropriate Behavior

Why Do These Behaviors Occur?

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may engage in inappropriate behavior in various situations. Identifying the function behind the behavior can help parents/caregivers/providers understand the “why” behind a child’s actions. Below are the four basic functions of behavior:

  • Attention: When a child wants attention from someone, they will behave in a way that will gain them access to the wanted attention. Children may try to get attention from parents, teachers, siblings, and peers.
  • Access: When children want access to something, such as toys, snacks, or a special activity, they might act out until they get it. This behavior is typical of all children, especially toddlers. Children may fall to the ground, throw a tantrum, or scream and yell until they get what they want.
  • Escape: Some behaviors may be a result of a child wanting to escape a situation that causes fear or stress. These behaviors may also be a result of a child wanting to avoid doing something they do not want to do like cleaning their room or completing ADL’s.
  • Automatic/Sensory: Children will engage in behavior that feels good to them. In regard to children with ASD, certain behaviors may relieve anxiety or stress such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth, or making noises.

How to Manage Challenging Behavior:

  • Use “first-then” language (First put away 5 toys, then you can have IPad time).
  • Create a daily schedule to eliminate the stress/anxiety of not knowing what is going to be happening that day.
  • Present tasks/chores in concrete ways (Instead of saying “you need to do your homework” you can say “you need to complete 5 problems on your math worksheet”).
  • Give children adult directed choices (Instead of asking, “what do you want for dinner” you can say, “do you want hamburgers or hot dogs for dinner”).
  • Use positive reinforcement as much as possible.
  • Use positive body language to show approval for good behavior.
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings/emotions with empathy and validation.
  • Be consistent.

Teach children to:

  • Request an item they want by using their words or picture exchange.
  • Request breaks appropriately.
  • Request help with challenging tasks.
  • Raise their hand or say “excuse me” to get someone’s attention.
  • Request a movement break.

Focus on your child’s communication skills:

  • Verbal
  • Picture exchange
  • Communication Device
  • Sign language
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