Challenging Behavior On The Autism Spectrum: Misconceptions and Helpful Ideas

Challenging Behavior On The Autism Spectrum: Misconceptions and Helpful Ideas

It is of a common perspective that children and adults on the autism spectrum behave inappropriately. At times, due to our current social norms, some behavior might be seen as "inappropriate" however if you understand why it is happening or where it is stemming from you may see this behavior in a different light and it does not seem so inappropriate anymore.

I always say that with understanding comes acceptance and that is why it is so important that there is more awareness about these kinds of topics as autistic adults and children are often just misunderstood. When a child is seen randomly screaming in a public area or acting out, what is perceived to be tantrum, may not actually be what it seems. The child may be having a meltdown and there are various sensory related reasons why an autistic child may "act out". There is a huge difference between a meltdown and and tantrum as you will see later on in this article.

There is always a reason for "challenging" behavior and this is what this article is going to discuss. What is important is trying to put yourself in their shoes to try and understand why this behavior is happening. That is why we need to change the current misconceptions or perspectives so that we can live in a society where an autistic child or adult's behavior is not viewed as strange or is misunderstood.

Reasons for behavior

Most of the time behavior has a function. It serves a purpose and is not just the child being "naughty" or "disobedient" (which are common misconceptions when some see an autistic child's behavior). There are many reasons that challenging behavior may arise and they include:

  • Automatic reasons: these types of behaviors can be attributed to being out of control of the child and are usually related to their sensory system. 
  • Attention seeking behavior: this is when a child needs attention in that moment for whatever the reason may be.
  • Access: this is when a child needs access to something and the only way they can see themselves attaining that is by that specific behavior.
  • Avoidance: this type of behavior occurs when a child really does not want to do something and is avoiding it at all costs.
  • Communication: try to keep in mind that all "challenging" behavior is some form of communication, we need to ask the question:

"What are you trying to communicate?"

Perceived challenging behavior

As seen above there is always a reason for the behavior and more often than not a child on the spectrum is misunderstood especially if they are non-verbal. In situations where there is non-verbal behavior present it is so important to try place yourself in the child's shoes and ask yourself "what are they experiencing?". Due to their sensory sensitivities, there could be a number of reasons why a child is acting out or perceived to be acting out.

For example if a child is hypersensitive and is hearing a lot of noises or experiencing a lot of sensory information at once and you tell the child to "no running in the hall way", the child may only hear "running" and thus will continue to run and it is perceived that the child is being "disobedient" but possibly he just did not hear you properly due to his hypersensitivity to his external environment.

Another example is if a child suddenly starts screaming every time a garbage truck goes by, if the child is non-verbal and cannot tell you that the truck is the external stimuli that is upsetting him/her, unless you make that connection again it will seem that the child is acting up for no apparent reason. This example illustrates further how important is is to be aware of our child's surroundings and to try to experience the world from their perspective. 

It may be very hard at times to do this but it is important to  continually explore and investigate the possible reasons for the behavior. Until you find solutions there are other ways to approach the behavior that will be discussed later in the article. First we are going to look at the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown as it is very important to know the difference. 

Tantrums versus meltdowns

  • Tantrums: a tantrum is a form of attention seeking behavior and can be classified as "challenging" as the child is trying to get what they want. They are often confused with meltdowns. These are more often than not within the child's control.
  • Meltdowns: a meltdown on the other hand is a sensory overload, a child (or adult) is not in control of this and can not help their behavior in response to this over stimulation. Due to the way their brain is wired they experience a sensory overload and if it gets too much, can result in a meltdown. This is a very unpleasant and  terrifying experience for the child (or adult) and that is why it is so important to learn the difference between the two.

*Note: to get a better understanding of the sensory system on the spectrum please see the article posted earlier on this year:

Helpful ideas

In cases where you have not yet discovered why challenging behavior is present, here are some helpful ides to try:

  • Distraction/deflection: distracting your child from whatever the cause may be, using something they really like or enjoy can be helpful in these situations. They will then hopefully forget what has upset them and engage in what makes them feel better or happy and move on to that rather than focusing on the trigger.
  • Knowing the triggers: if you know the triggers it is always helpful, in these cases you can try to hep your child overcome what ever is upsetting them and/or avoid the trigger (avoiding it is more a short term solution, whilst trying to work through it, as you can not avoid the trigger forever and it is unhealthy to do so).
  • Encouraging healthy positive behavior: by ignoring the negative behavior in situations where (it is attention seeking) your child is acting out, giving the behavior attention usually reinforces it. Traditional behavioral therapies use punishment and reward systems. I do not agree with these (in the traditional sense) as it is trying to almost "condition" your child. I prefer non-evasive approaches and positively reinforcing the "good" behavior with praise and ignoring the negative behavior. In cases where "punishment" is required that is up to your discretion and parenting style. Implementing a form of consequence is important in some cases however, giving attention to attention seeking behavior (whether it is negative or positive attention) will only reinforce the behavior as they are looking for that attention or response.
  • The use of incentives: in the situations mentioned above, presenting incentives also can come in handy. For example if your child is throwing a tantrum because they do not want to do a certain activity, shouting or punishing them (in some cases) makes it worse and can create negative associations with that activity. Presenting them with a negotiation may work better. For example if your child really loves a specific music video, tell them they can watch the video after they complete the activity. Showing it to them visually on a "now and next chart" or visual schedule may also help with this.
  • Calming techniques: this is an area of continual exploration, knowing what helps to calm your child is very helpful in challenging times. Whether it is music, noise cancelling head phones or a comfort toy, keeping it close by and especially in a situation or places that may have triggers, may deem to be  very helpful. Creating a calming area and/or toolkit for your child is also very effective. Including in the toolkit all the items that may help with calming. The calming area may be a space in your home where it is quiet and has the toolkit in it. What ever works best, try to help your child find what helps to calm them down.
  • Managing transitions: unexpected change or transitions are common triggers and can lead to upsetting your child. Countdowns, timers, routine/structure and visual schedules are some examples of helpful tools that assist in these cases. It is important that your child knows ahead of time what to expect or what is going on as that sudden change causes anxiety. Also transitioning from one activity or situation to the next. It is wise to avoid a sudden change IE: taking something away from your child without warning.
  • Keeping a behavior journal or tracking the behavior: this is helpful when exploring and trying to identify what the behavior is and where it is stemming from. Noting in this diary the details of the situation, environment and your child's emotions can further help with your investigation into the cause.

However you approach this make sure to be patient, understanding and consistent. Consistency is key! 

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