Behavior Challenges—Autism Toolkit

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What kinds of behavior challenges might I face with my child?

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have a hard time relating to and communicating with other people. They may try to communicate through their behaviors.

For example, children with ASD may have a hard time telling their parents that they do not want to do an activity that parents want them to. They may then throw a tantrum from frustration instead of using words.

Many children with ASD are also impulsive (doing things without thinking). They may be more sensitive or less sensitive to their environment or to touch, sound, or other senses. They may not understand why another child may not want to play exactly the way they want to.

Children with ASD may also have repetitive behaviors or want things to always stay the same. This can lead to behavior challenges. They may become very upset when there is change in their routine.

Each child's behavior is unique. Learning behavioral principles can help you get more of the behaviors you want and less of the problem behaviors.

What should I know about behavior?

Basic behavioral principles can help explain how children learn to respond to what you ask them to do. Things that happen in the environment, just as much as emotions, can cause children's behaviors. Most behaviors help a child interact with others. Other behaviors might keep a child from participating in learning or social interaction.

Some problem behaviors that might happen are

Some behavioral problems can be treated using medications. (Ask your child's doctor about the "Your Child and Medications" handout.) However, it is important to first understand if there is a reason for the problem behavior.

Treatment works better if the reasons causing the behavior are also taken care of.

Some behaviors start out for one reason and then keep happening because they help get the child what she wants.

For example, a child who first bangs his head because of ear pain may continue to bang his head during a tantrum if head banging got him attention before.

Talk with your child's pediatrician, a school behavioral specialist, or a psychologist if your child has challenging behaviors that are hard for you and your family. The reasons that behaviors occur can be different for each child.

What can I do to change behavior?

You can increase behaviors you want and decrease problem behaviors by taking consistent action. That means trying to always have the same response when the behaviors occur.

How can I better understand behavioral problems?

Think about your child's behavior using the ABC method.

A = antecedent, or what happened before your child's behavior

B = behavior, or what your child did

C = consequence, or what happened after your child's behavior

This can help you think about why the behavior happened so that you can stop it in the future. The goal is to avoid situations that can lead to problem behaviors and to reward behaviors you want so that they happen more often. A chart can help you keep track of your child's behavior so that you can figure out why it is happening. It might look like this.

Date and Time of Behavior Antecedent Behavior Consequence
Monday 8:00?8:15 am Told to turn off TV "No" and tantrum I turned off TV and took her to school bus after she stopped.

Schools can also help you understand behaviors. You can ask your child's school about a functional behavioral assessment (FBA), a special test where a behavioral specialist watches your child at school or at home to understand the ABCs of the behavior. The specialist can then use this information to make a behavioral intervention plan (BIP). This plan shows the behaviors you want, the behaviors that need to be changed, and what should be done when a behavior happens. The best plans are positive and include rewards to encourage behaviors you want.

Many families benefit from talking with a behavioral health professional to understand their child's behavior and make a plan to help. You can ask your child's doctor or school psychologist for a referral to a specialist to help you and your family learn how to work on your child's behaviors.

Managing behaviors is hard and means that you need to be both consistent and flexible. Your child's behaviors and your expectations will change as your child grows up. The plan you use may change over time, but the ideas will be the same.