Childhood Behavioral Issues and Autism

Most children make loud noises, act impulsively, and run or climb when they shouldn't. Kids can be picky eaters, refuse to wear certain clothes, or have a tough time falling and staying asleep. And at some point, they have all had a full-blown meltdown in public.

A preschooler having a tantrum at day care
skynesher / Getty Images

Many adults see a child act in these ways and assume the child's behavior is due to bad parenting—parents who are too permissive, don't set limits, and can't control their child. But before you judge these as socially unacceptable behaviors, consider the possibility the child may have autism.

Autism spectrum disorder is a complex developmental disability that affects one in 59 children in the United States. There are gradient levels of autistic disability and no two people with autism are the same.

Autistic Behaviors

People with autism may be prone to unusual behaviors. Some children are inattentive, distracted, or even throw loud long-lasting tantrums or meltdowns.

When autistic children act this way it is not purposeful misbehaving. The child is reacting to sensory challenges, frustrations, communication difficulties, or other issues that a casual observer might fail to recognize.

There are no consistent physical or behavioral signs of autism. However, there are some behavioral traits that are more common in people with autism, such as self-stimulating behavior or stims—hand flapping, rocking back and forth, making repeated guttural sounds, or other repetitive movements.

People who have worked with a child on the autism spectrum or are the parent of an autistic child can usually pick up on relatively subtle behaviors and verbal cues that wouldn't be obvious to the average person.

Subtle Cues

While a person without experience or training may not be able to suspect an autism diagnosis at a glance, there are subtle cues. If you are interacting with a child you don't know, it can be helpful to try to determine if the child has signs of autism.

In children with autism, what appears to be misbehavior can be the result of anxiety and standard disciplinary methods can have the opposite of the desired result.

Here are a few signs to help you determine whether the child would benefit from your making small changes to accommodate his needs.

  • Tantrum occurs seemingly out of the blue. While typical kids might act out as a reaction to being denied what they want or annoyed by a peer, kids with autism are more likely to act out as a result of sensory challenges.

People with autism often have difficulty with sensory regulation. Loud noises, bright or flickering lights, strong smells, extreme temperatures, and uncomfortable clothing—things that may be invisible to the rest of us—can trigger a sensory meltdown.

  • Action is repetitive. A child who is opening and closing a door over and over again, perhaps positioning his eyes to watch the movement of the door, is unlikely trying to misbehave. She is probably enjoying the sensory experience and is oblivious to whether the behavior is appropriate.
  • It is not age-appropriate. When a bright 12-year-old can't stop blurting out answers in class or insists on talking incessantly about babyish videos or characters, he is unlikely to be doing so just to drive classmates crazy.

Impulsive behaviors and below age-level interests are often associated with autism.

  • The child isn't watching for a reaction. While typical kids will act out to get a reaction from peers or adults, children with autism behave in inappropriate ways for internal reasons.

If you see a child misbehaving—such as sitting under a desk, climbing onto a bench, running where they shouldn't—but they aren't interested in anyone's reaction to their behaviors, it may be a sign of autism.

  • The child misses social cues. Children with autism can have a very tough time reading other people's reactions, especially when they're subtle. As a result, they may inadvertently drive peers crazy by talking endlessly about a favorite topic, invading personal space, or assuming they are welcome when they're not.

While some people with autism miss social cues, others may overreact to them, such as feeling like they are being yelled at when someone speaks in a stern voice.

  • The child is unusually passive or relies on another child to speak for them. Children with autism, particularly girls, sometimes find it easiest to disappear in a group rather than assert their needs. In some cases, other members of the peer group will step up as caregivers, speaking for that child and helping to protect them from bullying.


1 Source
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  1. Martínez-Pedraza Fde L, Carter AS. Autism spectrum disorders in young children. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2009;18(3):645–663. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2009.02.002

Additional Reading

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.