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8 Effective Behavior Management Strategies for Children with Autism

March 20, 2024

Autism 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.

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 what “normal” is as defined by social norms and standards.

Here are some of the most effective behavior strategies that are available for families and educators to help them deal with behavioral challenges and classroom management.

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Autism Behavior Interventions

1. Try Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis, is commonly used for behavior management and challenging behavior issues. ABA techniques modify or change negative behaviors through positive reinforcement-

That way, they help teach and manage skills and lessons that create positive and more appropriate behaviors. ABA therapy techniques can be used in educational settings as well as at home to address autistic children who struggle with routines and challenging behavior.

ABA therapy training for parents ensures that skills learned can be continued outside of therapy by the parents and family, creating 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 and improve focus, communication, as well as self-advocacy.

2. Create a routine

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 focus. 

Using social stories and “first-then-next” sequence boards can be helpful tools in providing support in education and home routines. The child will learn the expectations and rules that are expected from them and will be able to exhibit more self-control and engage in healthy peer relationships.

3. Provide them with the necessary tools

Allowing children with autism to have access to tools that can be used with management techniques can help with student behavior and with behavior at home as well.

Noise-canceling headphones, for example, can make a huge difference with challenging behaviors that could be a result of auditory sensory disorders.

A young boy wearing noise cancelling headphones and playing with a stim toy
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Sometimes, a child’s environment can be overstimulating, and they 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.

4. Use positive reinforcement

Using praise and positive reinforcement can be effective strategies for encouraging better choices and positive behavior in the classroom. These methods not only assist teachers with classroom management but also aid students in understanding expectations and rules within the establishment.

Providing access to resources and support can help teachers teach these strategies and ensure that students carry over these management techniques when they go home.

5. Use token boards

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.

They can be used in class or at home. Some individuals benefit from using a variety of token boards for different tasks. They can also be used to help kids with feeding issues who refuse to try new foods. Children 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 enough to keep them motivated. 

For example, if you are trying to get your child to sit in a chair, sitting for an hour may not be a realistic goal at first. Breaking that time into smaller increments allows the child to celebrate the little accomplishments 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. The child is given praise often enough to encourage more positive choices in behavior.


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6. Consult a behavior specialist

If behaviors are still challenging, a behavior specialist like a BCBA therapist can assess them to understand their underlying causes. This assessment helps identify environmental factors contributing to the behaviors, allowing for targeted modifications.

For example, if your child has a meltdown at the grocery store check-out line because they want candy, the function is gaining access to a desirable reinforcer.

If you give in to the child’s demands and give them the candy with the hopes they will stop creating an embarrassing scene, you have just rewarded the negative behavior with positive reinforcement.

Because of that, there’s a high chance each trip to the grocery store will end the same way. The child has learned you will grant them access to the candy if they cry or scream loud enough.

Instead, have 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 them 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.

7. Understand their triggers

If you see a child struggling with behavior management, look around at their current environment. What the problem might be that could be triggering and preventing the child from being able to control and regulate their emotions?

Is the room too noisy? Are the lights too bright? Are they wearing new clothing that may not feel right? Have they 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.

If you are a teacher watching students play at recess and one student is highly agitated, pull them to the side and ask if they are 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 communication.

8. Don’t make them feel bad about their behavior

Most children with autism are just like other children. As they get older, they become embarrassed or ashamed of behaviors they are unable to self-regulate or independently manage.

With autism behavior modification, it’s important to not call the child “bad” for engaging in negative behaviors. What appears to be bad behaviors are often a nonverbal method of communication for those with autism.

A therapist talking to a young boy
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Autism behavior management strategies should be a positive experience

Autism parents have the responsibility to create a positive experience with behavior management strategies so children on the spectrum can excel at home or in class. You’ll get plenty of advice from others, 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 complement ABA therapy.

FAQs

Q: How do you manage autistic behavior?

A: Managing autistic behavior involves understanding the individual’s triggers and needs and implementing tailored strategies such as visual supports or sensory accommodations. Seeking support from professionals like behavior specialists or therapists can provide additional guidance and intervention strategies.

Q: What are positive behavior strategies for autism?

A: Positive behavior strategies for autism include using praise and reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors while also providing clear expectations and consistent routines. Utilizing visual supports and incorporating individualized approaches tailored to the unique needs of each individual can further enhance positive behavior management.

Q: How do you discipline a child with autism?

A: Disciplining someone with autism requires understanding their individual needs and communication style. Implementing consistent and structured approaches tailored to their specific challenges and strengths can effectively promote positive behavior and growth.

Q: How do you motivate someone with autism?

A: Motivating someone with autism involves understanding their individual interests and preferences and then incorporating those into activities or tasks. Providing clear instructions, positive reinforcement, and utilizing their strengths can also enhance motivation and engagement.

References

Improving Behavioral and Academic Outcomes for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Alexandra Beckman, Benjamin A. Mason, Howard P. Wills, Linda Garrison-Kane and Jonathan Huffman, Education and Treatment of Children, Vol. 42, No. 2 (May 2019)

F. J. Alves, E. A. De Carvalho, J. Aguilar, L. L. De Brito and G. S. Bastos, “Applied Behavior Analysis for the Treatment of Autism: A Systematic Review of Assistive Technologies,” in IEEE Access, vol. 8, pp. 118664-118672, 2020, doi: 10.1109/ACCESS.2020.3005296.

Bolourian, Y., Losh, A., Hamsho, N. et al. General Education Teachers’ Perceptions of Autism, Inclusive Practices, and Relationship Building Strategies. J Autism Dev Disord 52, 3977–3990 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05266-4 

Wolpert, Katherine H. MD∗; Kodish, Ian MD, PhD†; Kim, Soo-Jeong MD†‡; Uspal, Neil G. MD∗. Behavioral Management of Children With Autism in the Emergency Department. Pediatric Emergency Care 39(1):p 45-50, January 2023. | DOI: 10.1097/PEC.0000000000002886 

Identification, Evaluation, and Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder, Volume 145, Issue 1, January 2020

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