If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior, it’s good to realize that behavior is communication. If we can understand more about why our children act the way they do, and have strategies to put in place, we can help them (and ourselves) stay calmer and happier.
Kids act up when something’s not right. Throwing a tantrum in the grocery store…crying uncontrollably on their first day of pre-school…They all do it, and we’ve all been there as parents, trying desperately to calm them down and not attract more attention.
Autistic kids and others with developmental disabilities often have unique additional reasons why things aren’t “right”. This is because of the way their brains experience the world around them. (And because the world is usually not set up for their needs). They also may have a harder time expressing themselves in other ways, so behavior is their go-to way to communicate.
We’ll describe some common habits and behavior challenges of autism, and how to address them. The first thing to know is that you’re not alone! These habits are all very common, and many parents have found creative ways to ease the stress and make things easier. Read more about supporting your child at home.
Understanding the reasons for your child’s behaviors
Try to understand things from your child’s point of view.
Often a habit or behavior happens because of the way a child experiences their environment. Many kids on the spectrum get overwhelmed by sensory input like noises, lights, or textures. It can also be highly frustrating if they have trouble communicating their needs.
Be patient and realize that their behavior is a response to things beyond their control, and often helps them to cope. Here are some tips to figure out the reasons for your child’s behavior.
Talk to other parents to learn how they have handled similar challenges.
The best advice comes from people who have been there, especially from autistic adults who have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be autistic. Other parents of kids on the autism spectrum can also have useful advice, tips, tricks, and solutions.
But remember that you still know your child best. You don’t have to take every piece of advice you get! Learn more about connecting with support programs and other parents.
Common behavior challenges of autism
Like all kids, autistic kids have unique habits. You can’t assume they will all have the same ones. But here are some behaviors and habits that are common in autistic kids. It’s worth taking note of these, and trying to understand what triggers them and what they mean for your child.
Repetitive movements: “stimming”
Autistics often have repetitive patterns of movement. Here are some common ones:
- Pacing back and forth
- Flapping their hands
- Rocking back and forth
These are often called self-stimming behaviors, or stimming. This means a person is giving themselves the sensory stimulation that they need. This need comes from how autism affects their experience of sensory information. Stimming habits also tend to soothe kids when they are stressed.
There is nothing wrong with stimming unless the action is hurting them. If this is the case, you might talk to their doctor and therapists to find a solution. For example, kids who bang their head may have to wear a helmet. Kids who chew on their wrist may have to wrap it in a cloth or learn to use a rubber chew item instead. (There’s even a line of “chewelry” — jewelry you can chew! )
Getting upset and stressed – or having full on meltdowns
There are many reasons why kids on the spectrum get upset easily. They experience the world differently than neurotypical people and can get overwhelmed. Some things that you may barely notice can be very stressful to them – like lights, sounds, smells, or textures. And they may have trouble self-regulating, or keeping calm in times of stress.
Many autistic kids also have trouble communicating their needs. This makes everything more stressful. Imagine if you had to walk around all day with a stone in your shoe and a loud buzzing in your ear, but you couldn’t tell anyone what was annoying you.
Here’s what you can do:
- Understand your child’s triggers. (These are the things that make them upset.) Ask your child what kinds of things bother them. Try to notice what situations make them upset. Keep a log and write notes if this helps
- Whenever possible, adjust your child’s environment to minimize these triggers at home, school, and wherever they spend time
- Set up a place they can go to calm down, or a process that they can use. This may be going to a quiet corner of the room, putting on headphones and listening to music, sitting in your lap, or taking a lap around the room or block. Some parents set up a tent or fort made of sheets or blankets as a calm, quiet place to go
- Create a strategy to warn and prepare your child if they are going to be in a stressful situation (“We have guests coming tonight. If you start to feel overwhelmed you can go to your quiet corner for a while”)
- Work on ways to help your child communicate their feelings and needs. Practice using words, signs, or pictures to say things like “It’s too loud in here”, or “I need a break”. Speech therapists can help with this
- Use visual supports to help them know what to expect and what to do. For example, a simple chart, with pictures if possible. On one side list their triggers; on the other side list options to calm down
|If this happens:||You can do this:|
|Noisy room is making my head hurt.||Put on your headphones.|
|I’m worried about ___.||Tell a parent or teacher. Say “I am worried about___” Together, list ways to feel less worried.|
|I’m mad at my classmate. I want to throw something!||Count to 10 in your head. Then do 10 jumping jacks.|
|There’s too many people and too much going on. I am about to get really upset.||Ask for a break and go to your quiet corner.|
|I’m feeling unsettled and I don’t know why.||Turn down the lights, take 5 slow deep breaths, and tell an adult. Together, you can explore why you feel this way, and what to do.|
Social interactions that seem “different”
Many autistics interact socially in ways that seem unusual to those who are neurotypical. This can come out in different ways, and change as a child gets older. This is one of many times we have to remember that “different” doesn’t mean “bad”.
These are some things you may notice in your child:
- Not making eye contact with others
- Not liking physical contact with others
- Taking words literally, and not recognizing things like joking or sarcasm
- Not understanding the social cues of those around them. This means a kid may not be able to “read” facial expressions or body language
- Social anxiety. This means someone gets stressed when they are with other people
It’s easy to interpret this way of interacting as rude or anti-social. Neurotypical peers often make initial negative judgements about autistic people based on these social habits. But we can learn to think about it differently: maybe neurotypicals should learn how to read the social cues of our autistic friends instead of the other way around. We can accept their social cues, instead of expecting them to use “typical” ones, like eye contact. Imagine you’re in a country where the culture is very different, social cues are not what you’re used to, and you’re never sure how to act around people. The experience would be so much easier and richer if they could read your cues.
Because their social styles are different from most of their peers, autistic kids can feel isolated and lonely. If your child needs help making friends, help facilitate this. Talk with them about what they like in friends. Help them make plans, and give them the words to explain why they seem “different”. (“I’m autistic. I may not look you in the eye, but I’m listening to you.”) Consider finding other autistic kids they can spend time with.
Here are some things you can do:
- Understand that this is because of how a child’s brain is “wired”, not because they are rude or insensitive, and not because they don’t love you. Be patient and know that they may connect with others and show their feelings in other ways
- Educate the people around your child so they, too, can understand instead of judge. Explain to teachers, classmates, and others that your child’s different ways of interacting are not because they are rude. Help other people learn to be patient and accepting. If possible, have your child be part of educating others
- Consider including some social skills learning in your goals for your child. Be careful–you don’t want to force them to socialize in a neurotypical way. But you can help them to explicitly learn about social cues, facial expressions, and body language, so they can have an easier time fitting into the world they must live in. If you’re getting services through Early Intervention, Special Education, or Transition to Adulthood, ask how to include these skills in your child’s plan. And keep checking in with your child to see if this is helping or hurting!
Many autistic kids and adults react to sensory information in very different ways than neurotypical people. This is because of how their brain signals sensory information. Non-autistic children can also have trouble with sensory processing.
Sensory means something that relates to our 5 senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. A piece of sensory information is often called a stimulus. (Plural: stimuli)
It’s very common for kids on the spectrum to be extra-sensitive to things like bright lights, loud noises, or textures that don’t feel good on their skin. As a result, they may be very picky eaters, hate to wear socks, or get stressed in busy places.
They may also be less sensitive than usual to some sensory stimuli. For example, they may not react to pain unless it’s very strong, or they may be able to sit next to a loudspeaker and not react.
But there are things you can do!
- Adjust their environment to make it easier for them to handle (Yes, you can get socks without seams!)
- Some developmental therapies can help a child get used to the sensory stimuli in their environment. Ask your child’s Early Intervention or IEP team about this
Frustration due to communication challenges
Communication challenges are not behavior problems, but they can contribute to frustration and acting out. Just as in non-autistic (neurotypical) kids, communication skills can vary widely for kids on the spectrum. The solution is a 2-way street: you can help your child learn to communicate in a way others can understand, and you can learn to better understand what your child’s behavior and cues are telling you.
Here are a few things to know:
Communication has 2 sides:
- Receptive language: understanding what people are saying to you
- Expressive language: making your own needs or comments known to others
Some kids have very good receptive language (they can understand everything) but have trouble communicating what they want to say to others. Make sure you don’t assume that a child who does not speak cannot understand!
Many autistic kids and adults have unusual speech patterns
They may repeat words or phrases over and over again, or echo what they hear. (Repeated or echoed speech is called echolalia.) They may blurt out things that don’t seem to fit with the situation. Or they may speak in a rhythm that seems odd to others. The good news is that they are learning language and communication. Many parents have come to see that, instead of discouraging these speech patterns, we can see this as a place to start helping them to communicate more effectively.
However, not all behavior or speech is a way for autistics to communicate. Echolalia (repeated speech), and other tics or movements that seem compulsive, are often not in the person’s control. This is called disinhibition, and is not communication. An autistic may not be able to control their body and speech in the moment, and may blurt something out that is not at all what they mean to say. Be patient and use other communication methods to help your child be understood.
Some autistic people do not talk at all
This is usually called being non-verbal, but now many people prefer the term non-speaking. (“Verbal” means using words, and there are other ways to use words besides speaking). This does not mean they can’t learn to communicate in other ways. Even as babies, kids can often learn simple sign language and gestures to tell you what they want. As they get older they can also use pictures. This is why visual schedules and other supports can be so helpful. There are also adaptive communication devices that use technology to help them “say” things by pushing buttons. These are systems that they can learn to use with help from speech therapists.
Speech therapy can help kids at any age–or ability–learn to communicate better
Whether it’s speaking or not, your child can learn strategies to help them communicate their needs and understand others. They may need to learn and use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) strategies. These may involve using pictures, signs, or a device that can “talk” for them (speech output device).
We all worry about our children wandering off and getting lost. Autistic children and others with developmental disabilities may be more likely than neurotypical kids to leave their supervised environment.
To help minimize the chance of your child getting out and getting lost, there are a few basic things you can do:
- Get special door locks and alarms
- Teach your child their address and phone number if possible, or have them wear an I.D., like a bracelet or shoe tag
Help your community get to know your child and tell them how to get in touch with you. A tight community can be an effective safety precaution.
We know that all autistic kids are unique and it’s hard to generalize. Yet there are some common behavior challenges of autism that can be frustrating for both child and parent. The good news is that you can help minimize these challenges. You can understand and acknowledge what causes the behaviors, take some steps to avoid the triggers, and have a plan to help your child calm down when they get upset.
- How to support your autistic child at home
- Is your child having behavior problems at school? Here’s how to help
- What is Sensory Processing? And can it help explain my child’s behavior?
- FAQs: Frequently asked questions about autism
- 20-minute video about understanding and managing your child’s behaviors. From LASARD: The Louisiana Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders Project