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Behavior Management Strategies for Children on the Spectrum

August 5, 2021

Behavior management strategies are essentially behavior intervention plans that can be used in a variety of environments to help parents, families, schoolteachers, and friends deal with behavioral challenges. Behavioral management strategies can help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) become more self aware of their actions so they gain a better understanding of the wider world.

Behavior Management Strategies for Children on the Spectrum

What are behavior management strategies for children with autism?

Children with autism often have a unique perspective on what is going on around them. Their outlook and perception of reality can sometimes be a little different than what their neurotypical peers are experiencing or by what “normal” is as defined by social norms and standards. There are some great teaching strategies that are available to families to help them deal with behavioral challenges and classroom management.

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Autism Behavior Interventions

ABA, or applied behavioral analysis, is commonly used for behavior management and challenging behavior issues. ABA practices are techniques that modify or change negative behaviors through positive reinforcement to help teach and manage skills and lessons that create positive and more appropriate behaviors.

ABA therapy techniques can be used in academic or educational settings as well as at home to address kids that have disruptive behavior and challenges with routines. ABA helps with parent education so that skills learned and expectations can be continued outside of therapy by the parents and family creating a consistency in support and resources. ABA is a proactive approach to helping kids learn in a variety of different settings and teaches each child to read social cues, to improve focus, talking or communication, as well as self advocacy.

Creating a routine for children with autism is another teaching strategy that is effective in behavior management as well as creating positive behavior in their environment. Something as small as changing the seating arrangement at school could be traumatic for kids with autism who thrive on routine. If the routine is disrupted, negative or disruptive behaviors may increase and it will be difficult for the student to pay attention and learn the lesson being taught. Use of social stories and “first-then-next” sequence boards can be helpful tools in providing support in education and home routines. The child will learn expectations and rules that are expected from him/her and will be able to exhibit more self control and engage in healthy peer relationships with prompts or reminders as needed throughout their day.

Allow children with autism to have access to tools that can be used with management techniques to help with student behavior and with behavior at home as well. Noise canceling headphones can make a huge difference with challenging behaviors that could be a result of auditory sensory disorders. Sometimes a child’s environment can be overstimulating and he/she may not be able to pick up on nonverbal cues or understand social relationships with students. Having access to noise canceling headphones could help teach the student to be proactive about self advocacy and assist with creating a positive environment where the child can focus on their lessons instead of behaviors.

Can you really modify the behavior of children with autism?

Modifying behavior in children with autism can be a challenge sometimes for parents and teachers. Understanding the trigger points in children with autism and using behavior management strategies can help increase positive behavior in class and at home.

Using praise and positive reinforcement to encourage better choices and positive behavior can help teachers with classroom management as well as helping students to understand expectations and rules within the establishment, while having access to resources and support to help teach those strategies and carry over those management techniques with them when they go home.

Token boards are great tools for modifying behavior in individuals with autism. Token boards are used in behavior management to clearly define expectations and positive reinforcement when expectations are met. Token boards can be used in class or at home and some individuals benefit from using a variety of token boards for different tasks. Token boards can also be used to help individuals with feeding issues who refuse to try new foods. They would earn a token with each bite of new food they eat.

For children who have elopement challenges, token boards can be used to reward each minute they are able to sit in a chair and focus on their lessons. The secret to success using a token board is to make sure the goals are realistic and rewarded often enough to maintain motivation and a desire for the positive reinforcer used. For example, if you are trying to get your child to sit in a chair to do an assignment, sitting in a chair for an hour may not be a realistic goal at first. Breaking that time into smaller increments allows the child to celebrate the little accomplishment along the way while working towards the bigger goal. Setting a timer for three minutes and earning a token for every three minutes of work might work better so the child is given praise often enough to encourage more positive choices in behavior. Finding what works best for you is important and can be a big asset with behavior management.

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If behaviors are still challenging, a behavior specialist, such as a BCBA therapist, can help evaluate behaviors to determine the function of why the behavior is happening so that external environmental factors that may be influencing the behaviors can be modified.

For example, if your child has a meltdown at the grocery store check-out line because he/she wants candy, the function is gaining access to a desirable reinforcer. If you give in to the child’s demands and give him/her the candy with hopes they will stop creating an embarrassing scene, you have just rewarded the negative behavior with positive reinforcement and you can almost guarantee each trip to the grocery store will end the same way because the child has learned you will grant them access to the candy if he/she cries and screams loud enough.

When you decide to use behavior management strategies, the behavior could seem like it is getting worse before it gets better. Using this same example, when you tell the child he/she cannot have the candy at the store on your next visit, they may have the biggest meltdown you’ve ever seen hoping to gain access to the candy. This may happen a couple of times and it is normal for behaviors to seem worse while the behaviors are being modified.

After a few noisy trips to the grocery store, if you stay strong and continue with your behavior management plan, the child will learn that those negative behaviors will not get him/her access to what they want. Since the behaviors no longer serve a purpose or function, they will decrease until they are no longer a problem or a disruption.

Managing behavioral challenges at home and in school

Most children with autism are just like other children and as they get older, they become embarrassed or ashamed over behaviors they are unable to self-regulate or independently manage. It is important with classroom management and behavior management at home to not call the child “bad” for engaging in negative behaviors. What appear to be bad behaviors are often a nonverbal method of communication for those with autism. Behaviors also serve a function. They could be seeking sensory input, attention, or wanting access to something. Determining what the function of the behavior is can help you implement a behavior intervention plan (BIP), so your child is getting the resources and tools he/she needs to be successful.

If you see a child struggling with behavior management, look around at his/her current environment to see what the problem might be that could be triggering and preventing the child from being able to control and regulate his/her emotions. Is the room too noisy? Are the lights too bright? Is he/she wearing new clothing that may not feel right? Has he/she eaten that day? Many individuals with autism are unable to verbally express exactly how they feel and a lack of communication can cause a disruption in their entire day over factors they cannot control.

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Autism Behavior Interventions

If you are a teacher watching students play at recess and one student is highly agitated, pull him/her to the side and ask if he/she is okay and how you can help. Sometimes, just having a person to listen to you and knowing you have been heard can be liberating, particularly for children with autism who struggle with talking and communication.
We all have a task to help make the world a better place and you can practice kindness everywhere you go. Maybe this student has been rejected by his/her peers and does not have a friend to play with in the playground? Maybe this student is upset over a grade on a project? Maybe the classroom was given a new seating arrangement? If you do not actively seek the student to help him/her, you are unable to give advice because you are unaware of what is causing the negative behaviors.


Autism parents have the responsibility to create a positive experience with behavior management tools so children with autism can excel at home or in class. Advice is plentiful from friends and family, but only a parent knows their child the best and is the best advocate for their family.

If you need additional family support to help learn where to start with behavior management strategies, teachers and technicians with ABA experience can assist. A BCBA can provide clinical support in different environments and provide specialized parent training sessions to compliment ABA therapy.

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