Positive Behavior Support for Children on the Autism Spectrum or Children Displaying Challenging Behaviors

autism high five


Although this article places emphasis on children on the autism spectrum, much of the article can be applied to any child displaying challenging behaviors.

When caring for or working with a child on the autism spectrum, a parent, teacher, or other adult may become frustrated with the child’s behavior. Behaviors can come on suddenly, last for hours, be hard to control, or make the adult scared or embarrassed.

Here are some common characteristics of children with autism to help you better understand the root of their behavior. Some of the characteristics below can also be common in very young children, or individuals with developmental or emotional disabilities.

Children with autism often have:
• trouble using and understanding language or certain aspects of language such as sarcasm, expressions, and body language.
• difficulty taking in sensory input in an ordinary way. For example, a vacuum cleaner may sound overly loud, a smell may be extra strong, or the feel of something may be extra itchy.
• a need for a particular routine so they know what to expect as they can become frustrated when things don’t go the way they had expected.
• trouble recognizing another person’s opinion or understanding another person’s feelings.
• difficulty switching from one activity to another, especially if they have to switch from something enjoyable to something not enjoyable (I think everyone can relate to that).
• difficulty organizing themselves in productive play when not directed or given specific instructions.
• trouble understanding the difference between public and private behavior.
• lack of concern of how others view them.

The characteristics mentioned above are common characteristics in individuals on the autism spectrum and are not anybody’s fault, nor are they purposeful on the part of the child. In all probability the child is doing the best he can to cope with what he perceives to be an unpredictable and confusing world.

Sometimes these characteristics lead to problem behaviors at home, in the classroom, or in the community which can be frustrating for the child and the adults caring for him.

Here are some strategies which can prevent problematic behaviors or promote positive behavioral changes:

(Note: the strategies below illustrate ways for the adult to behave in order to promote positive behavior in the child. Adults who work with children with behavior challenges are often surprised to hear that they have to change their own behaviors or change the environment to meet the needs of the child. As a behavior consultant, I have often heard “Why should I have to change?  He is the one acting out.”, “It is too much work to make these changes.” “Why should he be rewarded for doing what he is supposed to do?” In actuality the adult does not have to make any changes in their own behavior or the environment, but then the child’s behavior will not change. As far as rewards go, once the behavior starts to improve and the child understands what is expected, you can try to gradually fade them out.) However, it will always be beneficial to acknowledge and praise children for positive behavior.

1- Acknowledge your child or students for complying with your requests. For instance, if your child is using a loud voice in the movie theater and you say, “talk quietly in the theater”, praise the child with a comment such as “nice job talking quietly”, or “thank you for being respectful in the theater.”

2 – Tell the child specifically what you expect and reward him for complying. For instance, if your child often has a tantrum in a store when he can’t go to the toy aisle, tell him exactly what you expect of him in the store and reward him for following that expectation. For instance, “We are going to Target. We are going to the school supply aisle to buy paper and pens, and then we will pay and go home.”

Let the child know he can earn something for following the rule. Some reward ideas are getting a sticker of a favorite character, playing a favorite game once at home, watching a favorite show, staying up ten minutes past bed time, etc. Try to think of a reward that your child might like or ask him what he would like to work towards. You can also do a Google search for “reward ideas.”

When the child is rewarded, tell him specifically what he did to earn the reward. In this example you could say, “You followed the rules at the Target. Nice work! Here is a Spiderman sticker.” Make sure the reward is something the child wants. Children also benefit from nonverbal praise such as high fives, smiles, thumbs up, etc.

Side Note: *Children with difficulty understanding language often respond better to pictures, visual cues, demonstrations  or physical prompting than verbal instructions. For example, many children I have worked with with autism responded better to pointing or gently guiding them to their chair than they did to the verbal instruction “sit down” or they walked nicely in the hall after I demonstrated how, rather than after I said “walk nicely.”

4 – Let the child know what will happen next. For example, “After you finish the puzzle, it is time to brush your teeth”, or “In five minutes it is time to turn off the computer and start your writing assignment.” For children who have trouble understanding the concepts of time, using timers are an excellent way to help them transition from one activity to another. See my article Getting Kids Motivated With Timers for more on this topic.

Side Note: *Children who have difficulty understanding language may respond better to pictures telling them what is expected, rather than verbal directions. For example, if you want the child to work on math and then have a play activity, you can show them a “first/then board” rather than saying “First we will do math and then play a fun game.” See an example of a first then board below.

first then board

5 – If possible, use a schedule to let the child know how his day will go. For children who have trouble reading or understanding language, a visual schedule would be best. A schedule for after school could include “eating a snack”, “doing homework”, “watching tv”, “playing a game with the family”, “reading a book”, “taking a bath” and “going to bed.” A visual schedule at school could include “math”, “reading”, “gym”, “lunch”, “recess”, “art”, “science”, “packing up”, and “getting on the bus.” Below is an example of a visual schedule:

visual schedule

See my article How to Use Schedules for Behavior Support for more on this topic.

6 – Allow the child to bring a transitional object from one activity to the next. For instance, if the child has to leave the classroom to go with a new staff member such as a speech therapist, let him bring a preferred object from the classroom such as a stress ball. This can assist with helping him feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings.

7 – Distract and redirect problematic behavior instead of saying “stop” or “no.” For example, if the child is running in the store, find something interesting to show him and call his attention to it, rather than focusing on the problematic behavior. If he is running in the hall at school, redirect him back to the line, with a short directive such as, “Come back to your spot in line.”

8 – If the child seems over stimulated from sensory input, such as in a large crowd, bring him to a quieter place to de-stress.

9 – Make rules clear, short, and concrete. For example, if your child is throwing food at the table say, “eat your food” rather than “be good at the table” or “don’t throw your food.” For children with difficulty understanding language, show them a picture or a visual demonstration of the behavior you want to see.

10 – Teach the child how to do something in a socially acceptable way if necessary. If the child snatches a toy from another child, teach him how to use his words to ask for they toy, if he has the language capabilities to do so.

Finally, it is important to recognize that children on the autism spectrum have trouble generalizing expectations across situations so the same strategies must be used in situations that are similar to one another.

If you are looking for additional assistance on helping your child improve his or her behavior, I recommend looking into the following two programs.

1 – “The Complete Behavior Turn Around System” which was created by behavior specialist and mom of a child on the autism spectrum, Kerri Stocks. The program received a total of four out of five stars when reviewed by parents and educators.

2 -“How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior“, created by physician and former special educator, Anthony Kane. “How to Improve Your Child’s Behavior” is highly recommended by parents and educators. If you want to read more about this program, go to the extensive review written by expert author, Andrew Finlayson.

For materials to create a visual schedule like the one shown above, visit the “Behavior Support” section of the Wise Market at Wise Education and Behavior.

For additional suggestions to help your child with behavior, visit the E-Learning Center and Wise Market of Wise Education and Behavior.

Any questions? Contact us.

Stop by our Forum to discuss concerns, ask questions, or give advice regarding childhood learning and behavior.

For more tips on learning and behavior visit the Learning/Behavior Strategies section of Wise Education and Behavior. We share new tips on learning or behavior every week. Check out our articles on behavior, reading, math, writing, general learning, and educational products.

Need help for a child with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms? See my article Have You Tried These Strategies for Children With ADHD?

Thank you for reading.


13 thoughts on “Positive Behavior Support for Children on the Autism Spectrum or Children Displaying Challenging Behaviors

    • I feel so honored that you find my articles helpful! I hope there is a child benefiting from what I am sharing! Thank you so much for your support! I actually have a store on my website http://educationandbehavior.com/, devoted to child development. I haven’t gotten any feedback on it so it would be really nice to hear what you think!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I had such a hard time getting people to listen to my ideas in the workplace so I decided to write them down and share via the internet. It is nice to hear that I am helping. I have created a website http://educationandbehavior.com/. We have a store devoted to child development and I would love for you to take a look and let me know what you think.

  1. Pingback: How to Prevent and Handle Temper Tantrums | Wise Education and Behavior

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