Autism and children: how to cope with challenging behaviors

Key points:

  • Several things can trigger challenging behaviors in children with autism, including changes in routine, sensory overload and unfamiliar settings.
  • When you identify what triggers your child’s challenging behavior, you can try to address it before it happens.
  • There are several things you can do to provide a safe, supportive and stable environment for your child with autism.

Children with autism experience the world differently, so it’s no surprise they can react to it differently, too. Let’s take a look at what can trigger challenging behavior in kids with autism, how to spot the signs your child is feeling overwhelmed, and what you can do to redirect their behavior and help them regulate their emotions.

Remember, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to autism. Every child is different, so be sure to adjust these tips to your child’s unique circumstances and needs.

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Examples of challenging behaviors in children with autism

Behavioral challenges can take many forms, and it’s important to remember that many of those mentioned below are the same for neurotypical children. Others may be more specific to children with autism.

  • Emotional outbursts such as screaming or crying
  • Not following instructions
  • Refusal to do routine activities such as sleeping, eating or dressing
  • Aggressive behavior directed at themselves or others
  • Stimming (self-stimulatory behavior) – that is, ritualistic or repetitive behaviors or sounds like hand flapping, rocking, repeating a noise or turning a light switch on and off
Young boy with autism having a pillow fight with his sister

What can trigger challenging behavior in children with autism?

Many things can lead to challenging behavior in kids with autism:

  • Communication challenges, making it difficult for some kids with autism to express themselves and/or understand what’s going on around them
  • Sensory overload, triggered by certain noises, lights, smells, or situations (for example, going to the store)
  • Changes in routine such as driving a different way to school, if a standing play date is cancelled, or when a school year begins or ends
  • Unfamiliar foods (children with autism can be especially sensitive to certain food textures)
  • Transitions between activities or settings
  • New environments
  • Exhaustion, including from prolonged social engagement
  • Anxiety
  • Physical concerns, including gastrointestinal issues, difficulty sleeping or other health problems that make it more challenging to cope with stressors during the day

How to know what triggers your child’s challenging behavior

If you notice a certain pattern of behavior from your child – for example, they have a meltdown every time they have to get ready for school – it can be helpful to try to work out what’s triggering the behavior.

Once you know, you can take steps to prevent problems before they arise. If you don’t know what’s behind it, you can examine triggers and responses to the challenging behavior, which is known as a functional analysis. By identifying possible triggers and responses, you can try to work out why the behavior might be happening – that is, what might be motivating it or what its function or purpose is.

Usually, challenging behavior is motivated by one of four reasons:

  1. To gain attention
  2. To escape or avoid a certain situation or person

There are a few observational questions you can ask to determine the motivation behind certain behaviors:

  • Does my child act out when I’m paying more attention to someone or something else? (This may indicate an attempt to get attention. For many kids, any attention, positive or negative, is better than no attention.)
  • Do they act a certain way when I say no to a request for something tangible – for example, a snack or more screen time?
  • Do they act a certain way to get a particular response from you – for example, a cuddle, a favorite activity or toy?
  • Do they respond negatively when asked to complete a task, like getting ready for school or finishing their homework? (This may suggest a desire to escape or avoid something – a difficult interaction at school, for example.)
  • Do they react strongly to certain sensory inputs such as loud noises?
  • Do they engage in the same challenging behaviors when left alone? (If so, it may be an indication that the behavior is an automated habit.)
  • Is there a consistent pattern or frequency to their behavior?

It may be helpful to observe your child’s challenging behavior for a week and write down every time it occurs. You can keep track of what triggers it (that is, what happens before the behavior), where and when it occurs and who is present, as well as the responses or consequences (that is, what happens after the behavior). This may help you identify patterns , triggers and any responses to the behavior that may inadvertently reward it.

Once you know the root cause or motivation for your child’s behavior, you can start addressing the inputs that trigger it, as well as the responses to it. For example, if their outbursts are an attempt to get your attention, try working with them on different strategies for signalling when they need you, and provide positive attention like hugs or praise at times when the challenging behaviors are not occurring.

You may also want to share your child’s triggers with any caregivers or teachers, so they’re equipped to manage difficult situations.

Young boy with autism climbing out of a window

10 practical ways to support a child with autism

  1. Communicate in ways your child can understand.

    Kids with autism can be highly literal. Keep your verbal communication simple and direct. Avoid abstract terms, symbolism, sarcasm, figures of speech, and other indirect expressions that don’t work well for your child.

  2. Provide as much structure and consistency as possible.

    Changes to their routine are inevitable. But the more you can stick to a set schedule for meals, activities, bedtime and other daily routines, the more secure your child will likely feel.

    Try to communicate any changes ahead of time. When going from one activity to the next, give your child a 5-minute warning. You can also use a timer or visual prompt to communicate transitions. For example, if you’re playing at the park, let your child know you’ll be leaving after 4 more turns on the slide. Then count down each turn with the child while reminding them you will be leaving shortly.

    Be aware of any ‘hot spots’ in your child’s routine where behavioral issues are more likely, or where there’s a greater chance they’ll get overwhelmed. If possible, incorporate calming activities or rewards for good behavior to help them through these hot spots.

    Prepare your child for any major changes as far ahead of time as possible. For example, before the school year begins, you could visit their new classroom together. Creating social stories about upcoming changes can also prepare your child for change.

  3. Practice calming exercises together.

    The more repetitive, the better. It could be taking several deep breaths or stretching. Try to think of exercises that appeal to your child’s interests and sensory preferences. For example, if they have a passion for numbers, try a counting exercise.

    You could also make your child a ‘calm-down box’ filled with calming activities and objects. Keep their box easily accessible for when they’re experiencing big feelings.

    One key: as much as possible, teach and practise calming exercises before your child is overwhelmed.

  4. Make sure your child gets lots of physical activity.

    It can be as simple as running around the yard or playing outside. For bonus points, get outside with your child and make this an opportunity for the two of you to connect.

  5. Spend quality time together.

    All kids need focused, one-on-one attention from their parents, including kids with autism. Try to put away any distractions (like your phone). This is also a great opportunity to engage in some child-directed play.

  6. Show your child unconditional love.

    Just because they might have difficulty expressing themselves doesn’t mean they don’t need you to express your love for them – clearly and often.

A coloured emotion thermometer that can help a child with autism better understand the emotions.
An 'Emotion Thermometer' is a tool that can help a child with autism better understand what emotion they are experiencing.

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