Understanding and Managing Your Autistic Child's Behavior

Knowing why your child misbehaves can make a world of difference

When typical children misbehave, they often have an agenda in mind. Yell loudly enough in the grocery store, and Mom will quiet me with a treat. Behave badly at a formal event and I'll get to stay at home next time. After a while, even toddlers learn to manipulate their parents and caregivers through a strategic use of behaviors.

Children with autism often behave inappropriately; some are aggressive or prone to catastrophic meltdowns. Their behaviors, however, are rarely intentional. Autistic children, in general, lack something called "theory of mind," which is the understanding that other people don't know what we know or think what we think. This makes it extremely difficult for young children with autism to intentionally annoy or manipulate others.

Autistic children's apparent bad behaviors, such as bolting from the room, whacking a peer, refusing to take part in circle time, or climbing the fridge, are rarely attempts to get attention or wrest power from their parents. Instead, the behaviors are often caused by external issues that can be solved by calm, creative parents. These hints and tips may make for a calmer family life.


Know Your Child

Teen Boy Hands on Ears

Chris Ward / Getty Images

Few autistic children are intentionally naughty, but many have difficult behaviors. So what's going on? Each child is different, and knowing your own child is key to taking action. Is your child extra-sensitive to sound and light? Does she need lots of sensory input? Is he likely to misunderstand a close approach by a stranger? Are there words, sounds, or smells that can set your child off? The more you know, the easier it is to troubleshoot a situation.


Modify Your Expectations

Your mother may have expected you to sit still through a full dinner hour, but that's not a reasonable expectation for most children with autism. Many have unusually short attention spans or need physical movement to stay calm. Consider starting with a smaller goal, such as sitting still for three minutes or eating with a fork, and building toward the larger goal of sitting through a full meal. Break larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps so that your child can be successful.


Modify the Environment

Safety is key, and for autistic children, creating a safe environment is a challenge. Since so many of your child's behaviors may have the potential to be dangerous, it's important to take precautions such as bolting shelves to the walls and floor, putting a deadbolt on the front door, and latching cabinets securely. Some parents even put plexiglass on the fronts of bookshelves to keep children from climbing.


Consider the Possible Sources of the Behavior

Many children on the autism spectrum either crave or over-respond to sensory input (lights, smells, sounds, or even the sensation of particular fabrics). Some alternate between the two extremes. Very often, "bad" behavior is actually a reaction to too much or too little sensory input. By carefully observing your child, you may be able to figure out what's setting him off.


Remove Overwhelming Sensory Input

If your child is over-reacting to sensory input, there are many ways to change the situation. Of course, the first step is to simply avoid overwhelming sensory settings such as parades, amusement parks, and loud venues such as movie theaters. You can also make changes in your home such as replacing fluorescent lamps with incandescent bulbs or turning down the music. When that's not an option, consider ear plugs, distracting sensory toys, or plain old bribery to get through difficult moments.


Provide Sensory Input

If your child is crashing into couches, climbing the walls or spinning in circles, chances are she's craving sensory input. You can provide that in any number of more appropriate ways. Some people recommend bear hugs; other suggest squeezing youngsters between sofa cushions, rolling them up like "hot dogs" in blankets, or providing them with weighted vests or quilts. For some children, physical activity can be a great way to provide sensory input; horseback riding therapy, kickball, or just running and jumping can help.


Look for Positive Outlets for Unusual Behaviors

While climbing the entertainment center may be "bad" behavior, climbing at a rock gym can be a great way to build muscles and friendships at the same time. While spinning at the grocery store may be odd, it's ok to twirl on a tire swing. What's a problem in one place may be a virtue in another.


Enjoy Your Child's Successes

When you're the parent of a child with autism, you have extra opportunities to celebrate successes. While other parents may get angry when their child lies, you can cheer your child's new understanding of other people's thoughts and feelings. While other parents may find their child's chattering annoying, you can delight in knowing that your autistic child is finding his voice. In other words, when your an autism parent you can sometimes delight in "naughty" behaviors that are actually exciting signs of development.


Worry Less About Others' Opinions

Your child is really doing a fine job in the grocery store. He may be flapping a bit, but it's no big deal. Until you catch the eye of the mom with the perfect little girl, and she's staring at your son. Suddenly the flapping seems like a very big deal, and you find yourself snapping at your son to "just put his hands down!" It's not easy, but it's important to remember that he's autistic and not intentionally embarrassing!


Find Ways to Have Fun Together

It's not always easy to associate autism and fun. But if you think about it, rolling your child up like a hot dog, bouncing on a trampoline, or even sitting and cuddling together can be a lot of fun. Instead of worrying about the therapeutic value of each action, try just enjoying the silliness, the tickling, the cuddling...and the child. At least for a little while.

Keep Calm and Carry On

It's easy to get upset, embarrassed, or even frightened by an autistic child's behaviors. But by staying calm, relaxed, and supportive, you can turn anxiety into a positive experience for you and your child.

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