Dealing with Challenging Behaviors in ASD Children: Valuable Lessons from Parents

Children with Autism experience the world differently than neurotypical kids. Children on the spectrum may use challenging behavior as means of expressing themselves. This behavior may also be a coping strategy for the child. A study published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research found that children with autism and severe speech impairments used challenging behavior as a form of expressive communication in their school environments (Chiang, 2008).

Challenging behaviors might manifest in different ways in children. They can range from ignoring or refusing requests and behaving in socially inappropriate ways to hurting themselves or other children and aggressive behaviors like shouting or using derogatory language.

Understanding how and why these behaviors manifest, and most importantly, how they can be dealt with effectively is a common and frequent question faced by parents of children with ASD. A meta-synthesis study of how parents manage irritability, challenging behavior, non-compliance, and anxiety in children with ASD gives important insights into understanding the intricacies of challenging behavior through a practical and constructive perspective.

The study conducted by O’Nions and colleagues sought to analyze and bring to the forefront the everyday strategies used by parents to manage challenging behaviors in children. Let’s take a look at some of the key findings from the study:


  1. Accommodating the Child –

Accommodating the child was done by following the child’s ‘unique rules’ for things to be done. This involved abiding by the child’s need for sameness in terms of providing the same meal every night or following the same sequence of actions leading up to bedtime. Parents set achievable behavioral goals and gave extra time to the child to complete tasks whenever needed. To reduce the risk of outbursts, parents carefully prioritized the things to insist on in a particular situation.


  1. Modifying the Environment –

One of the techniques commonly used by parents was making necessary changes to the environment. One simple thing parents did was avoiding using noisy appliances when the child was nearby. They were also careful about exposing the child to situations that he/she might find difficult. These included overcrowded spaces, loud surroundings, or even events that could be overly stimulating.


  1. Providing Structure, Routine, and Familiarity –

Parents reported following and sticking to fixed routines when it came to bath-time, mealtime, dressing, etc. One important thing reported by parents was making sure to set a structured routine for the ‘empty’ days like weekends or public holidays. Parents used visual aid like picture schedules or writing the steps down on a whiteboard to inform the child of exactly what to expect so as to avoid any unwanted surprises. Parents made sure to inform the child well in advance of any changes in the routine. Parents reported following the key principles of ‘predictability’ and ‘familiarity’. One important thing reported by parents was following a step-by-step plan before venturing into an unfamiliar situation by initially just letting the child look around and explore before placing any demands on him/her.


  1. Handling Non-Compliance with Everyday Tasks –

Parents reported giving their children repeated cues like verbal demands and physical prompts to encourage them to perform a task. Strategies like linking the activity to the child’s special interest or giving choices to the child were used. Parents also used reward systems. One technique used by a parent was rewarding the child with his preferred food if he took two bites of the non-preferred food. Praise was also used as a reward for appropriate behavior.


  1. Responding to Problem Behavior –

Parents used various forms of distractions in the form of ‘must-haves’ that each family had. These included specific items or activities. Tablets, phones, and other devices were commonly used by parents. Parents also used social stories to verbally explain to the child what behavior is appropriate and what isn’t.


  1. Managing Distress –

To manage meltdowns, parents reported providing additional sensory activities to the child. Parents also reported verbally communicating with the child by simply asking what was wrong and providing the child with physical attention by hugging or caressing the child.


This research provides us with valuable insights into tried and true parenting techniques employed by multiple parents. While not all of these strategies will prove effective for every single child, there is scope for exploring what works best for your child.


References –

Chiang, H. M. (2008). Expressive communication of children with autism: The use of challenging behaviour. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research52(11), 966-972.

O’Nions, E., Happé, F., Evers, K., Boonen, H., & Noens, I. (2018). How do parents manage irritability, challenging behaviour, non-compliance and anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorders? A meta-synthesis. Journal of autism and developmental disorders48(4), 1272-1286.

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