Here, we offer some top tips to minimise difficult behaviour and to identify the behaviour's purpose or function, and tell you how you can get support, further information and resources.
Each person and situation is unique. Not all information here will be relevant to everyone on the autism spectrum. It may seem as though the difficult behaviour is only ever directed at you - especially if it tends to happen at home, not at school. You are not the only one in this situation, although we know it can sometimes feel that way.
Identify the behaviour's purpose
Behaviour has a purpose.
It can be a way of communicating needs and feelings. It is important to rule out any medical or dental issues first, particularly if behaviour has started suddenly and become more intense. The person may feel unwell, tired, hungry, thirsty or uncomfortable. Biting may be due to pain in the mouth, teeth or jaw. Spitting may be related to a difficulty with swallowing or to producing too much saliva. Ear slapping or head banging may be a way of coping with pain or communicating discomfort. Aggression may be due to adolescent hormonal changes.
Visit the GP or dentist and seek a referral to a specialist with experience of autism if needed. Bring along any notes about when the behaviour happens (ie what time of day and in which situations), how often it happens, when it first started, and how long it lasts.
If medical issues have been ruled out, then everyone involved in the person's care can work on completing a behaviour diary. This should include date, time, place, what occurred before, during and after the behaviour, how the person was feeling and how people responded to the behaviour. A diary may be completed over a couple of weeks or longer if needed. Alternatively, completing a functional analysis questionnaire could help you to understand the behaviour's purpose and understand triggers. Consider whether any changes, however small, have occurred in the person's routine or timetable which could affect their behaviour.
Be patient and realistic
The behaviour generally won't change overnight. Tracking the behaviour in a diary may make it easier to notice small, positive change. Be realistic and set achievable goals.
Choose two behaviours to focus on at a time. Using too many new strategies at once may result in none of them working. Don't worry if things seem to get worse before they get better. It's important to continue with the strategies you are using.
If patterns of behaviour have emerged from the diary, a behaviour plan can be put in place. It's important that everyone involved has a consistent approach to the behaviour and regularly discusses how strategies are progressing.
Consider the sensory environment
Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Some may find it difficult to block out background noise and what they experience as excessive visual information. Some might not be able to manage some tastes or food textures, or find that someone touching them - even lightly - is painful. Others may be drawn to sensory stimuli that they find particularly pleasing.
Autistic people can be very sensitive to subtle changes in their environment. If there's a sudden change in behaviour, think about whether there has been a recent change in the environment.
Support effective communication
Some autistic people can have difficulty making themselves understood, understanding what's being said to them and asked of them, and understanding facial expressions and body language. Even those who speak quite fluently may struggle to tell you something when they are anxious or upset. This can cause considerable frustration and anxiety which may result in difficult, sometimes challenging behaviour.
Speak clearly and precisely using short sentences. By limiting your communication, the person is less likely to feel overloaded by information and more likely to be able to process what you say. Autistic people often find it easier to process visual information. Support the person to communicate their wants, needs and physical pain or discomfort, eg by using visual stress scales, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), pictures of body parts, symbols for symptoms, or pain scales, pain charts or apps.
Help to identify emotions
Many autistic people have difficulty with abstract concepts such as emotions, but there are ways to turn emotions into more 'concrete' concepts, eg by using stress scales. You can use a traffic light system, visual thermometer, or a scale of 1-5 to present emotions as colours or numbers. For example, a green traffic light or a number 1 can mean 'I am calm'; a red traffic light or number 5, 'I am angry'. You could help the person to understand what 'angry' means. One way to do this is to refer to physical changes in the body. For example, 'When I'm angry, my tummy hurts/my face gets red/I want to cry'. Once the extremes of angry and calm are better understood, you can start addressing the emotions in between.
If the person can identify that they're getting angry, they can try to do something to calm themselves down, can remove themselves from a situation, or other people can see what is happening and take action.
For children and some adults social stories can be a useful way of explaining how to manage a certain emotion. Adults can also use the Brain in hand app to manage anxiety.
Praise and reward
Many autistic people don't understand the connection between their behaviour and a punishment. Punishment won't help the person to understand what you do want, or help to teach any new skills.
Using rewards and motivators can help to encourage a particular behaviour or a new coping strategy. Even if the behaviour or task is very short, if it is followed by lots of praise and a reward, the person can feel positive about their behaviour, coping strategy or skill.
Try to give praise and rewards immediately and in a way that is meaningful to the particular person. Some people like verbal praise, others might prefer to get another kind of reward, like a sticker or a star chart, or five minutes with their favourite activity or DVD.
Consider the impact of social situations
Understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family and social life can be harder if you're autistic. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to interact with each other, yet can also struggle to build rapport with autistic people. Unfamiliar social situations, with their unwritten rules, can be daunting and unpredictable. Some people may engage in behaviour to try to avoid social contact.
Manage change and transition times
Autistic people can find it difficult to cope with change, whether a temporary change such as needing to drive a different way to school due to roadworks, a more permanent change such as moving house, or the change from one activity to another.
Sequencing can be difficult - that is, putting what is going to happen in a day in a logical order in their mind. Abstract concepts such as time aren't easy to understand, and autistic people may find it hard to wait. You may find that behavioural difficulties occur more in transition times between activities. Using a visual timetable can often help the person to see what will be happening throughout the day. Unstructured time, such as break times at school, which can be noisy and chaotic, may be difficult to deal with.
It’s important to prepare the person in advance for what the change is likely to involve. Read about how you can help with change, sequencing, transition and breaktimes.
Find out if the person is being bullied
Autistic people are at more risk of being bullied than their peers. Some will have difficulty recognising what bullying is, and may not be able to describe what has happened. The feelings created by being bullied may lead to difficult behaviour.
Read more about bullying and what you can do.
Offer a safe space or 'time out'
A safe space, or time out can be a way to calm down, especially if environmental factors, such as flickering lights, are causing distress. This could be in a familiar place, like their bedroom, or doing a calming activity.
Build in relaxation
The person might find engaging in their special interest or favourite activity relaxing, but not being able to do their favourite activity when they want to can be the cause of behavioural difficulties. Build opportunities for relaxation, and engaging in favourite activities, into the daily routine. Relaxing activities could include looking at bubble lamps, smelling essential oils, listening to music, massages, or swinging on a swing.
Difficult behaviour can often be diffused by an activity that releases energy or pent-up anger or anxiety. This might be punching a punch bag, bouncing on a trampoline or running around the garden.
Generalise and maintain skills
Autistic people can find it difficult to transfer (or 'generalise') new skills they've learned from one situation to another. Find opportunities to use new skills or coping strategies in different situations.
Check that skills haven't been forgotten. If you have used strategies successfully in the past, it might help to revisit them from time to time. You may also need to use them during periods of stress, illness or change when old behaviours can return.
There are a number of ways you can get support.
- Our Specialist Behaviour Advice Service
- Meet up with other carers, or get support from, a local NAS branch or group, community service or family support service in your area. Other local support groups and services are listed in our Autism Services Directory.
- Get ideas from other families, and share your tips with them on the Community discussion forum.
- Call the NAS Parent to Parent line on 0808 800 4106, a UK-wide confidential telephone service providing emotional support to parents and carers of children or adults on the autism spectrum.
- Request a social care assessment for your family member or a carers assessment for yourself. You may be able to get respite care or the help of an outreach team who can support you with behaviour strategies.
- You may want to consider counselling for yourself and your family.
- If the person places themselves or others at risk of injury, or self-injures, the person resists any intervention and you are finding it difficult to cope, seek professional help after ruling out any medical or dental issues. It is important that the Professional has experience of autism. You can search for local Professionals including Clinical Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Occupational Therapists and Counsellors with autism experience in our Autism Services Directory.
- British Psychological Society
- British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
- British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)
- Challenging Behaviour Foundation, 0300 666 0126.
- College of Occupational Therapists Specialist Section - Independent Practice
Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/behaviourguidelines
Last reviewed 08 February 2017.