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.
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.
Many things can lead to challenging behavior in kids with autism:
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:
There are a few observational questions you can ask to determine the motivation behind certain behaviors:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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