5 insights into the behavior of children with autism

Autism Behavior Intervention Strategies

Behavior challenges are very common among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As with any child, the causes of their behavior—and the best ways to respond—may not always be what they seem.

Dr. Casey Clay, director of the Behavior Program at the Thompson Autism Center at CHOC, explains five of the most common misunderstandings about autism and behavior. You’ll learn healthy autism behavior intervention strategies for challenging behavior.

Dr. Casey Clay, director of the Behavior Program at the Thompson Autism Center at CHOC
Dr. Casey Clay, director of the Behavior Program at the Thompson Autism Center at CHOC

1. Children with autism don’t often “misbehave.”

At first glance, behaviors in a child on the autism spectrum might appear to be discipline problems, such as:

  • Yelling
  • Running from the room
  • Hitting others or themselves
  • Refusing to listen or sit still

“When a child with autism shows what we call maladaptive behavior, in the majority of those cases, the child is doing that to communicate something,” Dr. Clay says. “They’re really not having their needs met, so they have to engage in behaviors because that is going to get them what they need.”

2. Behavior is changeable.

Another myth about behavior is that it is part of a child’s personality and diagnosis, and therefore can’t be changed. As with any person, children with autism can adapt their behavior, with the right help.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the most effective interventions to change behavior, and it is backed by evidence-based research. Through ABA, therapists can determine a child’s preferred items, activities and ways of communicating, as well as the unique triggers and consequences that are influencing a child’s behavior.

For example, if a child wants to be left alone but can’t express it vocally, they might be able to select a card that says “alone” or touch an icon on a tablet that says “alone” instead.

“The goal is to stop the behavior it before it happens,” Dr. Clay says. “We can change the environment so it addresses their needs and sets them up for success. ABA is highly individualized and in doing that, we respect the individual and their needs and preferences.”

3. Punishment is not the answer.

Researchers have shown that positive reinforcement and rewards are more effective for overall better behavioral outcomes than punishment alone, for all people, not just children with autism.

Try to look for examples of your child showing appropriate behavior and praise them when you catch them doing something well. For example, tell them, “I love how you shared that toy, I love how you waited your turn or I love how you asked me very nicely.” You can also practice a desired behavior by role-playing and reward your child for putting in the effort.

4. Children with autism are not always averse to social interaction.

If interacting with a child with autism causes them to behave inappropriately, the assumption may be that they don’t like interaction. In fact, they may just prefer a different type of interaction.

“Although those challenges exist, some social interactions are really rewarding for them,” Dr. Clay says. “It’s a matter of seeing what they prefer and approaching them or communicating with them in that way. They may not like physical touch, but instead they might like to talk about a preferred topic like baseball cards. If they like a thumbs up or a high five, those things might be better than a hug.”

5. Parents, it’s not your fault.

Parents and caregivers often come to Dr. Clay feeling guilty about their child’s behavior. While changing behavior does require a lot of parent involvement, there is nothing they’ve done to cause a diagnosis of autism.

“We are here to help families, and that starts with understanding why and when challenging behavior is happening, and how to move forward,” Dr. Clay says. “Your child can adapt, as we all can, and reach their goals in life. It starts through small steps, but usually leads to large improvements.”

Learn more about the Thompson Autism Center at CHOC.

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