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Tips for Behaviour That Challenges

Behaviour that Challenges workshop 2 May

In May of last year, we hosted a workshop in collaboration with Contact a Family. The event was very useful, and the 30+ parents and carers who attended were able to discuss the specific behavioural issues they experience with their children.

Many parents who have challenging children think that they are alone in what they are going through. I wanted to share with you the topics that we covered so that if you are experiencing any of these things, you’ll know it’s not just you.

Common behaviour issues

The group talked about what they are experiencing on a weekly or even daily basis:

  • Problems with getting to school – school refusal
  • Kicking, hitting, pinching – physical aggression / violence
  • Refusal to take part in or stopping an activity
  • Tantrums about activities needing to be done in a certain way or at unrealistic times
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Self harm
  • Rigid mindset, lack of compromise, inflexibility
  • Screaming
  • Verbal aggression
  • Controlling family members / friends
  • Inappropriate sexualised behaviour / language

‘Behaviour is communication’

Autistic children often have difficulty communicating, and may use behaviours such as these to tell us when something is wrong. Attendees brainstormed about what might cause negative behaviours, and came up with this list:

  • The child does not understand what is going on
  • Frustration
  • Need for stimulation
  • Anxiety
  • Short attention span
  • Lack of control
  • Uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, itchy, etc.)
  • Communication problems if non verbal
  • Rumination – going over and over something that has upset them
  • Change of routine
  • Transition of settings
  • Medical – pain / medication
  • Hangry (so hungry they are angry!)
  • Thirsty
  • Tired
  • Forgotten prompt
  • Being let down

What’s different about our children’s behaviour?

It’s critical to remember that challenging behaviour is not autism-specific.  All children exhibit these kinds of behaviours at some point. However, there are some distinct differences we can see in our kids. How might the challenging behaviour we experience differ from that of a neurotypical (and typically developing) child?

  • Out of the blue
  • The level of upset is out of proportion / extreme
  • It can take much longer to calm down
  • Or, child calms down very quickly, while the parent is left reeling!
  • Either overly sensitive to other’s feelings, or there appears to be no empathy
  • Not age appropriate
  • Anxiety underlying
  • There is a greater need for planning / visuals
  • The child may not respond to ‘normal’ behaviour sanctions or rewards (e.g., time outs, sticker charts)
  • Frequency
  • Persistent and more severe

What can we do to help reduce challenging behaviour?

Of course, every child is different. However, there are some strategies that can help to reduce anxiety and upset for our children, and thus reduce anger and aggression.

  • Use visuals to communicate what is happening (such as ‘Now/Next‘ cards, visual timetables, etc.
  • Use something like the ‘STAR’ system to try and pick apart the issue. What is the Setting, the Trigger, what Action was taken (by the child and what did you do) and what was the Result? The answers could help you do things differently next time.

STAR diagram for behaviourUse the STAR diagram to help
pick apart behaviours that challenge.

For every parent that is experiencing challenging behaviour, there is another who has found ways to manage it (at least to some extent). It requires work and patience but it can get better.


About the author

Kate Laine-Toner

Kate Laine-Toner

Kate Laine-Toner is the founder and Chief Executive of Bristol Autism Support.