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Tips for Dealing With an Autistic Child Disrupting Class

April 1, 2024

What should you do if an autistic child is disrupting class? Like all children, those with autism may act out due to frustration, anxiety, or unmet needs. However, the intensity and frequency of disruptive behaviors can be more pronounced in autistic children who struggle with emotional regulation and communication.

Common disruptive behaviors in autistic children may include aggression toward others, self-injurious actions, severe tantrums, hyperactivity, property destruction, and attempts to run away or hide. But how do you deal with an autistic child disrupting class? Let’s learn all about it.

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Autism Behavior Interventions

Common challenges autistic students face in a classroom

Classrooms are intense environments. To understand and manage ASD students’ behavior and learning, it’s important to understand the challenges they face. 

Some common challenges include the following:

  • anxiety
  • communication 
  • social interaction  
  • sensory sensitivity
  • routine changes 
  • impulse control
  • emotional regulation

Anxiety is a major challenge faced by people with ASD. This is heightened in a classroom, which is filled with anxiety-triggering stressors that could cause disruptive behaviors. 

For example, an unexpected routine change may make an autistic child anxious, triggering a severe tantrum.

How to handle an autistic child disrupting class 

These eight practical tips for managing the behavior of autistic students are both preventative and interventionist. Even the non-ASD children in your class will benefit from many of them.

1. Follow their behavior plan 

Because each child with ASD is unique, it’s crucial to adhere to their Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), as outlined in their Individualized Education Program

The BIP is written by an expert. It outlines a child’s specific needs and behaviors and the positive steps that you can use to improve their classroom behavior.

It also includes measurable goals that can be monitored in class and updated as necessary.

2. Don’t forget about sensory sensitivities

Sensory sensitivities are common in people with ASD and can affect any sense or a combination of them. They may also affect non-ASD students in your class. 

These can manifest as both sensory seeking and sensory avoiding behaviors.

  • Sensory seeking occurs when someone underreacts to a stimulus or needs more of it to feel well-regulated. This may result, for instance, in someone being unintentionally rough or clumsy because they can’t gauge their physical impact on others/objects. 
  • Sensory avoiding occurs when someone overreacts to sensory input, becomes overstimulated/overwhelmed by it, or develops an aversion to it. For example, the feeling or sound of felt tip pens on paper may cause anxiety/discomfort. 

Addressing these can make a big difference in students’ stress and anxiety levels, which will help to prevent disruptive behaviors. 

Girl covering ears in classroom 
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You can’t remove every trigger, but simple adjustments can help, like moving a child away from the source of an irritating noise or providing noise-canceling headphones.

You could also have a calm, dimly lit space in your classroom where an ASD student can go if they feel overwhelmed.

Sensory support tools are also effective in helping children regulate their senses so they can focus and calm down. These tools include the following:

  • fidget toys 
  • sensory seat cushions
  • sensory mats 
  • bean bags
  • weighted objects 
  • alternative seating 
  • noise-cancelling headphones/earplugs
  • oral chew sticks
  • resistive hand materials 

3. Establish a routine

Children with ASD really struggle with anything unpredictable. Therefore, unexpected events can trigger their anxiety and cause disruptive behaviors. Establishing a clear daily routine can help to prevent these behaviors. 

For example, you could try the following: 

  • keep your classroom organized and uncluttered; 
  • have a predictable daily schedule reinforced by visual prompts; 
  • manage transitions between different activities using verbal or visual prompts to clarify expectations;
  • create physical boundaries to separate different zones, e.g., screens could separate the reading zone;
  • give autistic students regular jobs, e.g., giving out books/stacking chairs (such ‘heavy work’ also helps sensory seekers’ regulation).

When there’s going to be a change in routine, try to prepare your autistic students in advance – you could involve their parents in this. 

4. Incorporate calming techniques

Calming techniques help to manage challenging behaviors as they can stop escalation.

They can also be preventative measures if you spot the early warning signs of behavior meltdowns: covering ears and eyes, rocking, fidgeting, hand-wringing, pacing, etc.

Examples of calming techniques include the following:

  • deep breathing/meditation/yoga (can work well in the whole-class routine)
  • exercise/movement 
  • counting to 10
  • taking a break 
  • pushing on a wall 
  • using a quiet, slow, calm voice with them 

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5. Improve communication

Communication can be hard for ASD students, so it’s important to be very clear. They may not be able to follow your instructions if you’re vague. 

  • For example: “Hang on, wait for me over there” vs. “Go to the quiet corner and wait for me. I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”

It’s also important to teach functional communication and social skills. Telling social stories to illustrate a point can help them to improve their communication and understanding. 

Visual schedules, communication boards, sign language, and pictures can also help promote effective communication with your autistic students. 

  • For example, placing color-coded feelings charts on students’ desks allows them to communicate their emotions and needs non-verbally.

6. Incorporate their strengths and special interests 

It can be challenging when an ASD child in your class refuses to engage in an activity. 

You could try personalizing the work by framing tasks around their interests and strengths and providing them with choices.  

For example, if a child who loves Dr Who struggles to engage with a descriptive writing task, you could let them pick a suitable picture from the series as a writing prompt. 

Or, if they have an amazing memory for historical facts, you could involve them in a history lesson by calling on their expertise.

7. Set reasonable expectations

Classroom expectations should be consistent, clearly explained, and manageable generally. However, these may have to be reinforced more often for your ASD students, using consistent visual/verbal prompts. 

For example, if a student struggles to complete their work, this may cause behavior problems during transitions, as incomplete tasks can cause anxiety and stress

Little boy stressed at school
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You could consider the following: 

  • make sure the allotted time is sufficient 
  • give extra verbal time prompts
  • reinforce time expectations visually, e.g., a timer on their desk/the whiteboard

8. Use lots of praise

We all thrive on praise, and ASD students are no different. They may need more positive reinforcement. 

When you recognize and praise your autistic students, they’re more likely to participate, work hard, and exhibit good classroom behavior. 

Showing such positivity is also a great behavior model for the rest of your class.

Inclusive classroom for happy learning

You can create a positive and inclusive learning environment for all your students with patience, empathy, training, and the right strategies. 

Understanding, preventing, and managing disruptive classroom behaviors in autistic students is crucial to achieving this.

Inclusive classrooms enable autistic students to learn social skills, behavioral norms, and cultural values from their peers. They also raise the other children’s awareness of autism (and other learning difficulties and disabilities).

Thus, happy, inclusive classrooms can help to create inclusive societies where everyone can thrive. 

FAQs

Q: How do you discipline an autistic child in the classroom?

A: Disciplining an autistic child in the classroom involves creating a structured environment with clear expectations and consistent routines while employing positive reinforcement techniques tailored to their individual needs and preferences. It’s essential to use empathy, patience, and understanding to teach appropriate behaviors rather than punishment.

Q: What happens when you yell at an autistic child?

A: Yelling at an autistic child can cause distress and heightened anxiety and may exacerbate sensory sensitivities, potentially leading to meltdowns or shutdowns. It can also damage trust and hinder communication, making it harder for the child to express their needs and feelings.

Q: What shouldn’t you say to an autistic child?

A: Avoid using sarcasm or making ambiguous statements, as autistic children may struggle with understanding abstract language. Additionally, refrain from using negative language or criticism, as it can be particularly distressing for them.

Q: What are the “bad” behaviors of autistic children?

A: Autistic children may exhibit behaviors such as repetitive movements or speech, difficulty with social interaction, and intense focus on specific interests, which can sometimes be misconstrued as “bad” but are often coping mechanisms or expressions of their unique neurology.

References:

Boonen, Hannah & Maljaars, Jarymke & Lambrechts, Greet & Zink, Inge & Leeuwen, Karla & Noens, Ilse. (2014). ‘Behavior problems among school-aged children with autism spectrum disorder: Associations with children’s communication difficulties and parenting behaviors.’ Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 8. 716–725. 10.1016/j.rasd.2014.03.008.

Dyer, R. (2022). Successful Inclusion of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. International Journal of Technology and Inclusive Education

Edelson S. M. (2022). ‘Understanding Challenging Behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Multi-Component, Interdisciplinary Model.’ Journal of personalized medicine, 12(7), 1127. https://doi.org/10.3390/jpm12071127 

Machalicek, Wendy & O’Reilly, Mark & Beretvas, Natasha & Sigafoos, Jeff & Lancioni, Guilio. (2007). ‘A review of interventions to reduce challenging behavior in school settings for students with autism spectrum disorders.’ Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 1. 229-246. 10.1016/j.rasd.2006.10.005. 

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