Strategies for Handling Challenging Behaviours

Children with autism often have difficulty regulating their emotions and may display challenging behaviours that manifest in a variety of ways, such as non-compliance, repetitive vocalizations or physical aggression. 

The repercussions can be felt by both children and caregivers. Children and teens may experience struggles in their daily lives, reduced access to social and educational opportunities, and difficulties at school, home and in public settings. For caregivers, the challenging behaviours of an autistic child leads to increased stress, isolation, and burnout, and can negatively impact relationships with other household family members. 

What is a challenging behaviour?

Challenging behaviours can include actions that disrupt the child’s own ability to learn, interferes with the daily life of others (for example, yelling at school, which hampers other children’s ability to listen), or is harmful to the child or others.

Challenging behaviours can include:

  • Property destruction (throwing or breaking items)  
  • Self-injurious behaviour (head banging, hitting or biting oneself) 
  • Aggression toward others (hitting, kicking or biting others) 
  • Shouting or swearing 
  • Sexualized behaviour in public 
  • Non-compliance or protesting to instructions 
  • Pica (ingesting non-edible objects) 
  • Obsessive or ritualistic behaviours 

Why do challenging behaviours occur?

Challenging behaviours are driven by a need that the child is trying to meet. Behaviour analysts assess the following four functions of behaviour when trying to identify the reason behind a challenging behaviour: 

  • Escape or avoidance (for example, yelling and screaming when faced with a difficult math problem in school, which leads to a teacher telling the child they can skip it) 
  • Access to attention (for example, engaging in disruptive behaviour to get a parent’s attention, whether positive or negative) 
  • Access to tangibles (for example, engaging in disruptive or self-injurious behaviour to gain access to something the child wants, like an iPad) 
  • Sensory stimulation (for example, rocking back and forth  or engaging in other behaviours that provide the child with a desirable sensory input) 

Strategies for caregivers: how to manage challenging behaviours

  • Educate yourself: become knowledgeable about the functions of behaviour and why a behaviour is occurring.  
  • If the function of behaviour is escape or avoidance (e.g., avoiding a task or activity) you may want to try:
    • Teach your child how to ask for a break. This can mean teaching them how to verbalize this appropriately or how to use a picture card that indicates a break.  
    • Use a visual schedule that shows when an activity ends and what comes next, so the child sees that a fun activity follows a less enjoyable one 
    • Modify the task to make it easier or more interesting for the child, or break it down into simple steps so it’s less overwhelming for the child 
  • If the function of behaviour is sensory seeking you may try:
    • Look to create a more enriched environment for the child so they can meet their sensory needs throughout the day 
    • Teach the child to engage in a behaviour that is more socially acceptable but still meets their sensory need (for example, banging on a toy drum instead of a table) 
    • Reinforce behaviours that are incompatible with the challenging behaviour (for example, if a child engages in hand flapping which prevents them from listening, reinforce when they keep their hands folded, which prevents the hand flapping) 
  • If the function of behaviour is to get attention you may try:
    • Increase positive attention throughout the day 
    • Teach the child how to get attention appropriately (for example, if they yell or hit, teach them how to tap someone on the shoulder or say “excuse me”) 
  • If the function of behaviour is to gain access to tangible items you may try:
    • Teach the child to request items in a more appropriate way 
    • Give transitional warnings to help prepare a child when they need to give up a preferred item (for example, using countdowns or a timer so they know how much time they have left with an item) 
  • When it comes to dealing with challenging behaviour, broadly speaking, consistency is important. This means the same strategies should be applied in different environments, including at home, at school, and in public. 
  • While consistency is important, caregivers can modify strategies in specific scenarios. For example, at home, caregivers may ignore mild disruptive behaviour to avoid reinforcing it if the child is engaging in the behaviour for attention. However, in public, caregivers may choose to leave the setting (for example, a park or mall) when mild disruptive behaviour occurs to avoid accidental attention being provided to the child by bystanders. 

Tips for caregivers

  • When caregivers take care of themselves, they’re better equipped to care for their child; find ways to reduce stress levels and take time to recharge. 
  • Openly communicate with all individuals involved in the child’s life (e.g. daycare staff, teachers, family members and clinicians.) Touch base regularly about the child’s progress and any changes (e.g. strategies that are working or not working, changes in treatment protocol, etc) to ensure consistency across all environments. 
  • Be aware of your own behaviour. Caregivers have an important role to play when it comes to modeling positive behaviour for their children. 
  • Having the right team in place is critical to support a decrease in a behaviour as well as teach a child new skills. The team may include board-certified behaviour analysts, psychiatrists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, psychologists and case managers. The team should also include caregivers and the autistic individual.

Resources & support

  • Surrey Place offers an Urgent Response Services for children with autism who are in crisis and at risk of harming themselves or others. 
  • For children who attend school, caregivers can access counsellors, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists through the school system. 

Want to Access Autism Services?

Call our Children & Youth Intake 1-833-575-KIDS (5437)

Written by Stacey Stein

By 2 months

Has your baby had their hearing screened? YES NO

By 6 months

Does the child?

Startle in response to loud noises? YES NO
Turn to where a sound is coming from? YES NO
Make different cries for different needs (hungry, tired)? YES NO
Watch your face as you talk? YES NO
Smile/laugh in response to your smiles and laughs? YES NO
Imitate coughs or other sounds such as ah, eh, buh YES NO

By 9 months

Does the child?

Respond to their name? YES NO
Respond to the telephone ringing or a knock at the door? YES NO
Understand being told no? YES NO
Get what they want through using gestures (reaching to be picked up)? YES NO
Play social games with you (Peek-a-Boo)? YES NO
Enjoy being around people? YES NO
Babble and repeat sounds such as babababa or duhduhduh? YES NO

By 12 months

Does the child?

Follow simple one-step directions (sit down)? YES NO
Look across the room to a toy when adult points at it? YES NO
Consistently use three to five words? YES NO
Use gestures to communicate (waves hi/bye, shakes head for no)? YES NO
Get your attention using sounds, gestures and pointing while looking at your eyes? YES NO
Bring you toys to show you? YES NO
Perform for social attention and praise? YES NO
Combine lots of sounds together as though talking (abada baduh abee)? YES NO
Show an interest in simple picture books? YES NO

By 18 months

Does the child?

Understand the meaning of in and out, off and on? YES NO
Point to more than 2 body parts when asked? YES NO
Use at least 20 words consistently? YES NO
Respond with words or gestures to simple questions (Where's teddy? What's that?)? YES NO
Demonstrate some pretend play with toys (gives teddy bear a drink, pretends a bowl is a hat)? YES NO
Make at least four different consonant sounds (p ,b, m, n, d, g, w, h)? YES NO
Enjoy being read to and sharing simple books with you? YES NO
Point to pictures using one finger? YES NO

By 2 years

Does the child?

Follow two-step directions (Go find your teddy bear and show it to Grandma.)? YES NO
Use 100 to 150 words? YES NO
Use at least two pronouns (you, me, mine)? YES NO
Consistently combine two to four words in short phrases (Daddy hat. Truck go down.)? YES NO
Enjoy being around other children? YES NO
Begin to offer toys to other children and imitate other children's actions and words? YES NO
Use words that are understood by others 50 to 60 per cent of the time? YES NO
Form words or sounds easily and without effort? YES NO
Hold books the right way up and turn the pages? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 30 months

Does the child?

Understand the concepts of size (big/little) and quantity (a little/a lot, more)? YES NO
Use some adult grammar (two cookies, bird flying, I jumped)? YES NO
Use over 350 words? YES NO
Use action words such as run, spill, fall? YES NO
Participate in some turn-taking activities with peers, using both words and toys? YES NO
Demonstrate concern when another child is hurt or sad? YES NO
Combine several actions in play (puts blocks in the train and drives the train, drops the blocks off.)? YES NO
Put sounds at the beginning of most words? YES NO
Use words with two or more syllables or beats (ba-na-na, com-pu-ter, a-pple)? YES NO
Recognize familiar logos and signs involving print (Stop sign)? YES NO
Remember and understand familiar stories? YES NO

By 3 years

Does the child?

Understand who, what, where and why questions? YES NO
Create long sentences using five to eight words? YES NO
Talk about past events (trip to grandparents house, day at child care)? YES NO
Tell simple stories? YES NO
Show affection for favourite playmates? YES NO
Engage in multi-step pretend play (pretending to cook a meal, repair a car)? YES NO
Talk in a way that most people outside of the family understand what she/he is saying most of the time? YES NO
Have an understanding of the function of print (menus, lists, signs)? YES NO
Show interest in, and awareness of, rhyming words? YES NO
Read to stuffed animals or toys? YES NO
Scribble with crayons? YES NO

By 4 years

Does the child?

Follow directions involving three or more steps (First get some paper, then draw a picture and give it to Mommy)? YES NO
Use adult type grammar? YES NO
Tell stories with a beginning, middle and end? YES NO
Talk to try and solve problems with adults and with other children? YES NO
Show increasingly complex imaginary play? YES NO
Talk in a way that is understood by strangers almost all the time? YES NO
Generate simple rhymes (cat-bat)? YES NO
Match some letters with their sounds (letter b says buh, letter t says tuh)? YES NO