Tips For Parents of Children With Autism: Managing Difficult Behaviors

Managing any child’s ‘bad’ behaviors is stressful and confusing for any parent, but if that child is on the autism spectrum, it can induce panic in parents and meltdowns in their children. Add to that the difficulties with verbal communication common to many children with autism spectrum disorders, and it is no wonder that the stress levels of parents of children with ASD are often compared to combat veterans. That’s why we’ve pulled together a few tips for managing your child’s behavior – to help you stay calm and stave off the panic.

When danger is imminent, do not hesitate

If your child is acting in a way that is aggressive or harmful to others or themselves, seek help immediately. Sometimes what seems relatively harmless, like scratches on an arm, can quickly escalate to harmful wounds. Don’t wait for the behavior to resolve itself. Seek medical help first, if necessary, then see a psychologist or certified behavioral therapist. They can help you help your child to stop engaging in a dangerous behavior.

Find the “why” behind the behavior

There is almost always a reason for children with autism to engage in challenging behavior. Don’t assume they are acting out because that’s just what they do; they are probably trying to communicate something to you. Perhaps they don’t want to do what you asked; or maybe they are having trouble adjusting to an environmental transition or are experiencing sensory overload. They may want attention or even a snack. Look for patterns in your child’s behaviors and once you crack the code of the “why” it’ll be much easier to manage the “what” behind their behavior.

Respond to the “why,” not the “what”

When your child is being aggressive, wandering off, or injuring himself or others, follow these basic steps:

1)   Require them to complete some part of whatever they are reacting to. By helping them to finish one part of that homework assignment or cleaning up some of their toys, they will feel some form of accomplishment attached to the “why” instead of their aversion alone.

2)   Devise a system for them to communicate the “why” without the harmful behavior. This may be verbal, the use of symbols, a tablet device, or a less aggressive behavior.

3)   Reassess your demands because they may be overwhelming or inappropriate for your child’s abilities.

If your child is seeking attention, the steps are different:

1)   Stop the behavior but don’t give the attention. If they are acting out to get attention and they get attention, the aggressive behavior is only being rewarded and reinforced.

2)   Reward good behavior with plenty of attention. They will quickly learn that aggression = no attention while non-aggression = plenty of attention.

3)   Work together to develop healthier ways to communicate their need for attention.

If your child is acting out because they want something more tangible, the steps are similar but have important differences.

1)   Stop the behavior but don’t give them what they want right away. Try to get them to calm down a bit first and then give them what they want. Pacifying their desire may work as a quick fix, but it will only teach them that if they want candy, they will get it with aggressive behavior.

2)   Work together to find a better way for them to communicate what they want.

These are just some very basic tips for training your child to behave safely, without aggression. But we want to hear from you – please join the conversation by sharing below. What works for you? What doesn’t work for you?