It can be challenging to handle common problem behaviors in children with autism. The good news is, you can help your child work through them by understanding their triggers and developing healthy coping strategies. Every child with autism is wonderfully unique, and they’ll have their own set of problem behaviors, but some of the most common include:
- Aggression toward others
- Elopement (wandering off)
Problem behaviors in children with autism can make everyday life more stressful and overwhelming. Not just for you, but them as well. That’s because challenging behaviors often stem from their desire to communicate what they need or want. But they often don’t know how to do that effectively.
Step One: Identify Your Child’s Needs
Helping your child overcome problem behaviors may seem daunting, especially if they display several challenging behaviors you’d like to change. First, make a list of these behaviors, from the most disruptive or dangerous to the least common. Tackling these behaviors one at a time can help the process run more smoothly. Many times, when you start addressing one behavior, the occurrence of other problem behaviors may also diminish.
Step Two: Determine Triggers
Identifying what triggers your child’s problem behaviors can take some time since several variables are involved. Keep a journal of the behaviors you identified in step one, spanning over a couple of weeks. Since changes in routine often trigger challenging behaviors, it’s best to include both weekdays and weekends when schedules change.
It’s crucial to keep in mind you may not understand why your child gets triggered by certain things. Try your best to remain nonjudgmental. Instead, look at it as a scientist would observe a subject. Yes, this can be challenging, especially when your child’s problematic autism behaviors disrupt daily living. But remember, by observing your child’s behaviors, you’re learning how you can help them reach their full potential.
Common triggers for children with autism can be broken down into two categories:
- External environment
- Internal environment
External Environment Triggers
Understanding problem behavior triggers in your child’s external environment, meaning outside of themselves, is critical. When you identify these triggers, you can anticipate things that may cause your child to act out and make any necessary changes to avoid issues going forward.
- Social: Social situations can be difficult for children with autism, causing them anxiety. Whether in a controlled environment where you are with your child as they attempt to interact with another child or in large gatherings like assemblies, play dates with lots of children, picnics, or recess time at school.
Any kind of unplanned or unannounced social event can trigger your child with autism to display problem behaviors.
- Sensory overload: One common trigger for children with autism is an overwhelming amount of sensory information. Sensory overload can occur at any time and in any space. Your child could be triggered by loud noises, crowds, smells, food, dental or medical issues, bathing, clothing, or even ambient sounds like your refrigerator humming.
Problem behaviors in children with autism often arise when they are overstimulated by their senses, making it difficult for them to control their actions.
- Disinterest: Really, this means boredom. Suppose your child is uninterested in something, such as listening to a teacher talk about animals when they are more interested in construction equipment. In that case, they are more likely to display challenging behaviors.
- Unrealistic expectations: Sometimes, parents, caregivers, peers, and teachers can put too much pressure on a child with autism to do certain things they “think” they should be able to do. For example, some children with autism have difficulty dressing themselves. So when they are expected to perform this task when they don’t have the skills to do so, they may get frustrated, leading to problem behavior.
It’s essential to understand your child’s needs before putting too much pressure on them to do things they aren’t ready to do on their own.
- Communication issues: Problem behaviors in children with autism can stem from an inability to communicate their wants and needs to you, their teacher, or their peers. Whether your child is verbal or nonverbal, they could have issues communicating effectively. This leads to frustration and challenging behavior.
Internal Environment Triggers
These problem behavior triggers can be a little more challenging to pinpoint, but they are crucial to understanding how to help your child. And because communication skills aren’t always strong in children with autism, determining these triggers may take a little more work on your part.
- Food allergies or sensitivities: Keep a close eye on how your child responds to food. Keep a diary of what they are eating and any possible physical triggers such as diarrhea or flushed cheeks. If a particular food is bothering your child with autism, they may not communicate it properly. Instead, they may display challenging behaviors such as flapping their arms are exhibiting repetitive behaviors. If you notice any negative responses, try eliminating the food to see if it helps.
- Physical Pain: If your child with autism has a cut, abscess, bruise, cavity, acid reflux, or a sprain, they may not be able to communicate that to you. Pay attention to any localized behaviors, as they may indicate to you where your child could be experiencing pain.
- Seizures: Sometimes, seizures can be difficult to spot. You may think your child is just exhibiting typical challenging behaviors. But if you see any unmotivated, odd behaviors that seem out of the norm, it may be time to make an appointment with your child’s doctor.
- Coordination issues: If your child has trouble with their motor skills or is not very coordinated when they walk or play, they can become anxious and frustrated, leading to problem behaviors.
- Fatigue, thirst, and hunger: This is an easier internal trigger since it is the same for any child. If they are tired, hungry, or thirsty, they are more likely to display challenging behavior.
- Emotional concerns: Children pick up on emotions easily. If you are stressed, struggling with a difficult life or health situation, or experiencing anxiety and fear, your child will notice. And because they don’t have any control over your emotions, they may begin to display troubling behavior as a coping mechanism.
Step Three: Enact an Intervention Plan
Once you’ve identified your child’s triggers, it’s time to act on ensuring you minimize them. Before you begin, remind yourself, patience is key—patience with your child with autism and yourself. Sometimes avoiding triggers or teaching your child new coping mechanisms involves trial and error. But if you stick with it, you’ll set your child up for success.
Here are some ideas on helping your child overcome problem behaviors:
- Practice sensory breaks: If you see your child becoming overstimulated, you may want to add regular sensory breaks into your everyday routine. What your child needs greatly depends on their personality.
Sensory breaks help balance your child’s vestibular sense, which is the sense that controls balance and the sense of their body in a given space. Often when children with autism get overstimulated, they may resort to repetitive behavior because their vestibular sense is off-balance. To bring it more in balance, consider any of the following sensory break practices:
- Wearing a weighted vest or blanket
- Rubbing something with a desirable texture
- Listening to music
- Spinning or rocking
- Going for a walk or run
- Chewing something crunchy
How often your child needs sensory breaks varies. They may need one as often as every two hours. But if they are highly agitated or stressed on a given day, they may need more.
- Create a visual routine schedule: Children, especially children with autism, thrive on routine. Put together a routine on posterboard with visual cues, so your child knows what to expect each day. You could show a picture of them brushing their teeth, followed by breakfast with mom, dad, and siblings, then playtime, learning time, break time, snack time, etc.
- Prepare your child for changes in routine: This can be as simple as giving your child a 10-minute warning before going to do something different or leave to go somewhere. You could use pictures, a clock, or a timer. You could also use social stories.
- Introduce your child to overstimulating environments slowly: Overstimulation is a common trigger for many children with autism. You don’t want to avoid everything that may stimulate your child. Instead, consider slowly introducing an environment that may be difficult for them. For example, if your child with autism exhibits problem behaviors when you are out grocery shopping, try introducing the activity gradually. You could go to the store for five minutes on the first trip and then work your way up to a whole shopping trip.
- Set ground rules: Remember, when you are trying to change your child’s problem behaviors, they are learning new skills, and it can be challenging for them. It’s important to set ground rules slowly. Start small by showing them pictures of the rules, such as, “If you finish your breakfast, you get 15 minutes on the iPad,” with corresponding images. Or, “If you behave in the store, I’ll get you a treat.
- Use calming devices: There are several fidget tools, calming blankets, and sensory calming devices for children with autism. Keep these items in your car, purse, and backpack to make sure you have a way to calm down if they become agitated.
- Don’t give in to problem behaviors: Yes, it can be difficult not to give your child what they want when they exhibit problem behaviors, especially in public. Remind them of the ground rules. It’s okay to reinforce positive behaviors, but you make it more challenging to overcome them if you give into problem behaviors.
Ensure Your Child’s Success with ABA Therapy
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is one of the most studied and proven treatment approaches to help children with autism break problem behaviors. If you’re overwhelmed at the thought of trying to do this alone, arming yourself with the tools and skills to help your child succeed by getting them into an ABA treatment program is your best bet.
When you enroll your child in an ABA treatment plan at the Autism Therapy Group (ATG), you become a part of our family. At ATG, your child’s ABA therapy team is made up of an experienced group of Board Certified Behavior Analysts, Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT), and Client Services Managers with extensive training in helping children with autism achieve goals in:
- Social skills
Here at The Autism Therapy group, all you need to do is contact us, and we’ll walk you through the next steps. After your child’s initial evaluation, we’ll work with you to develop the perfect treatment plan, whether it takes place in your home or our brand new autism center in Lombard, IL. We’ve partnered with hundreds of parents and caregivers just like you to help their children breakthrough problem behaviors and achieve their full potential.