Many children will display behaviours at some point that parents or educators may refer to as challenging. For most of these children, the behaviour will be momentary and any concerns about such behaviour will disappear over time, as the child grows and develops language, self-regulation and social skills.
Individuals with Autism however, often struggle with language, self-regulation and social skill development and are at greater risk of developing persisting, interfering behaviours. Such behaviours may include not following directions, shouting and screaming or sometimes even more disruptive and potentially injurious behaviours such as hitting.
The first step in managing these behaviours is to ensure that structure and routine are commonplace. There must be clear rules, expectations and guidelines to follow; and consistent responses to both positive and pro-social behaviour, as well as to challenging or concerning behaviour.
Setting this strong foundation will encourage more engagement and positive interactions, while minimising the need for individualised and more intensive support.
Tips to Promote Positive Behaviour
Tip #1 Provide Structure: Maximise the use of routines and transition support
- Use of countdowns, or visual/audible timers can help reduce difficulties associated with transitions or having to stop one activity to move to another.
- Be consistent – you must be someone that the child can trust. Follow through with promises or warnings.
- Be clear about rules and expectations from the start using precise language that is appropriate to your child’s level of understanding. For example, instead of ‘let’s get ready to go,’ you may need to break it down into steps: 1. Get shoes, 2. Get coat, etc.
- Provide reminders of the rules, routines or expectations as necessary, visually supported where possible. Visual schedules and calendars can be very helpful in ensuring that children know where they should be and what they should be doing throughout the day.
- Use ‘do’ statements rather than ‘don’t’ statements. If needing to interrupt inappropriate behaviours, be sure to redirect the child telling them what to do rather than what not to do.
Tip #2 Maximise Engagement
- Many individuals with Autism have difficulty occupying themselves during down times. Try to encourage engagement through the use of visual schedules or choice boards. For some children it is very useful to establish a rotational system, putting some toys away and bringing then back out later to prevent boredom.
- Some children will be overwhelmed with too many choices or visually cluttered play areas. You may need to limit choice to 2-3 activities during free-play or less structured periods, and ensure that play areas are well organized on shelves and bins to reduce visual input.
- Explicitly teach play and leisure skills. Don’t assume that the child with autism knows how to engage with toys, or that he or she will explore new toys on his/her own. It may be helpful to discuss this with your child’s teacher to enlist their help.
- Recognise that it may be necessary for your child to change activities frequently to accommodate short attention spans and an increased need for movement.
- Intersperse quiet or structured activities with movement activities and easy/enjoyable activities with boring/difficult tasks.
Tip #3 Use Reinforcement Effectively
- Take every opportunity to praise your child for appropriate behaviour (“catch them being good”). Children should always receive more positive attention than reprimands.
- Ignore minor inappropriate behaviour, pick and choose your battle.
- If using rewards, make sure that they are meaningful to the child. The effort must be worth the ‘pay-off’.
- Try to avoid ‘rewarding’ the child when he or she is engaging in inappropriate behaviour.
What to Do When Challenges Persist
Behaviour is influenced by many different factors – like how tired or hungry we may be, how well we feel, whether or not we are wearing our favourite outfit, or what side of the bed we got up on, just to name a few.
For a person with Autism, frustrations will often be compounded by sensory challenges and the fact that he or she finds it difficult to communicate and/or fully understand themselves and what is bothering them.
When determining how to support a child who engages frequently in challenging behaviour, it is important to understand why the behaviour is occurring. It is important to observe triggers and responses to learn what he or she may be communicating or trying to accomplish, and then match the strategy or support to the reason.
This is when it can be helpful to seek the help of a behavioural healthbehavioural health specialist, who can advise on how the environment might be changed to support more appropriate behaviours, and help the family understand how to support the individual in learning better communication or coping strategies.