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Managing Difficult Behavior in Autism: All You Need to Know

April 1, 2024

Dealing with autism behavior problems can be an immense task, often leaving families feeling overwhelmed. Instances where a child expresses intense emotions, such as screaming or physical aggression, can be particularly distressing for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, these situations are not uncommon. Understanding the underlying reasons for these behaviors and learning how to manage them can significantly improve the overall well-being of both autistic individuals and their families.

Today, I would like to talk about ways of managing challenging behaviors in autism. Your child’s behavior doesn’t have to have you walking on eggshells. There are helpful ways to get through with your sanity and relationships intact.

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Examples of problem behaviors in autism

A recent study found that beyond the characteristic symptoms of autism, many individuals also exhibit additional problem behaviors that prompt families to seek clinical assessment and intervention.

Many children with ASD engage in challenging behaviors. These behaviors can include tantrums, meltdowns, or shutdowns and may include the following:

  • self-injury,
  • throwing things,
  • punching, kicking, or harming others,
  • screaming and yelling,
  • refusal to cooperate,
  • aggression,
  • mean, dismissive, or insulting to others verbally.

Although it happens often, it can be frustrating to have a child throw things and yell at you for an hour and suddenly calm down as if nothing happened. It is difficult for me to make my own sudden switch from survival mode to being ready to engage happily with my child.

As parents of the neurodivergent, we are often called to do the seemingly impossible and do it well. As part of our search for strategies, I want to build our understanding of why these things happen and what we can do about it.

What causes challenging behaviors in autistic children?

When thinking about why problematic behaviors occur in autism, it is important to understand the core symptoms of the disorder. When you get a sense of what could be going on in your child’s world, their inability to behave appropriately makes much more sense.

To reduce challenging behaviors, we must first understand what is causing them. Since severe behaviors rarely occur without cause, figuring out the trigger is a good first step. A little investigation, reflection, and tracking can help.

After each incident, consider the factors that were at play before, during, and after the meltdown or problematic behaviors occurred. Sometimes, patterns emerge, and we can see what exactly is triggering our child with autism.

For example, here are some triggers common to children with ASD:

  • too much sensory stimulation
  • too little sensory stimulation
  • sudden change
  • transitions
  • poor social skills
  • frustration or stress
  • poor impulse control
  • difficulty regulating emotions
  • trouble understanding language
  • lack of focus
  • mental and physical exhaustion
  • trouble with executive functioning
  • co-morbid conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, depression

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Specific circumstances within these triggers may be more or less tailored to your child. For instance, sensory overload could cause your child to become frustrated with others as they try to focus on school work.

This happened to my child. His challenging behavior at school stemmed from irritability because other children were making a noise that was distracting for him. Using noise-canceling headphones really helped.

How to manage autism behavior problems

To employ effective behavior management strategies, we must examine how we engage with everyone in our lives before we find the approach that works best for our child. Here are some things you can do to help with autism behavior problems.

1. Communicate openly with everyone involved

Communication will be the base level of behavior management. If everyone is on the same page, the strategies implemented will be much more effective.

Start with your child’s school. Letting them know what is going on with your child, their diagnosis, triggers, strengths, and weaknesses is important. 

They may need to evaluate your child for an individualized education plan (IEP). The accommodations your child receives at school will only be available if the school understands their needs.

Next, communicate with your child in whatever way is best. Find out how they feel, ask questions, and provide options for them. Work together to let them know how you feel as well.

When challenging behaviors arise, work with them in safe ways, treat them with respect, and set boundaries to keep everyone safe.

Communicating with your partner is important, too. My husband and I found that we work best as a team and often as a tag team. If one of us loses patience and becomes too overwhelmed, angry, or exhausted, the other steps in.

When things are calm again it is good to have a conversation about what went right, what didn’t, what triggers were identified, and learn from each experience.

Of course, never forget about yourself. Learn from each instance of behavior, be kind to yourself, and celebrate wins – no matter how small they seem to others.

2. Manage your expectations

My mom always says, “Choose your battles”. Sometimes, that cliche is annoying, but it is true. Expectations can make or break a situation.

We should not set the bar so low that our children don’t have to be challenged. Setting the bar too high will set our children up for failure.

If your child has severe difficulty wearing dress clothes, for example, don’t expect them to attend events where they have to wear them. You can allow them to wear what is comfortable for them or buy dress clothes designed for sensory needs.

Remember who your child is. I often remind myself to drink in the triumphs and treasure happy moments to store for the times when things get hard for me.

We cannot expect our neurodivergent child with autism to react in neurotypical ways in all circumstances. We also cannot change the world for them.

What we can do is build a relationship with our children, get to know them, empower them to engage with the world on their terms, and create safe places for others to interact with them as well.

3. Have a plan in place

For a child who is resistant to change, having a plan is the key to managing challenging behaviors. Preparing in advance reduces anxiety, empowers us in the moment, and is helpful in preventing problem behaviors before they occur.

Always be aware of your environment. Just because you want your child to experience something, it doesn’t mean they have to experience it in a traditional way. Providing an environment that promotes calm, exploration, and safety will go a long way.

One thing I do is choose one activity, or two, out of the many involved in each event. This allows us to enjoy certain aspects of the event without taking on the overwhelming whole thing.

For example, birthday parties are usually events that our children want to attend. Naturally, we want them to experience joy and make good memories of these times.

If the noise and chaos are the triggers, it could be a good idea to go late to the party and then stay for a specified amount of time afterward. This way, the party is enjoyed by all, and chances for challenging behavior to occur are limited.

Finding a safe space for your child to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed is incredibly important, too. When your child knows where to go for self-regulation or to escape a triggering situation, they’ll be better equipped to respond appropriately.

4. Prepare a toolkit

Toolkits for autism https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/managing-difficult-behavior/

I like to travel with a toolkit at all times. For neurodivergent kids, it can be just as important as a diaper bag to an infant.

This toolkit can be as simple as a bag with as many “tools” as possible or contain what they will possibly need for a particular event. If your child has their kit ready, they can have the tools they need without being required to ask permission.

Toolkits can include:

  • a sensory activity,
  • noise-canceling or reducing headphones,
  • fidgets,
  • tablet or phone,
  • reward chart and rewards,
  • exercise ball and pump.
Toolkits for autism https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/managing-difficult-behavior/

5. Seek professional help

Aside from what we can do at home for our children, challenging behavior often requires assistance from professionals. The methods for dealing with challenging behavior have changed quite a bit over the years. The triggers for behavior will guide you in choosing the right behavior management strategies.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a common method for managing autism behavior problems. Although there has been some controversy over it in the past, it has changed over the years.

Applied behavior analysis used to include helping autistic children learn how to better fit into society. This included trying to change some of the “symptoms” of ASD and looking for a “cure” for the behaviors. 

However, autism advocates argue that autistic children do not need to fit the mold of society but rather need to learn more healthy ways of engaging with it. 

The new wave of ABA therapy is about helping people with autism feel accepted and function within society in ways that foster relationships, build on their skills and empower them to reach their own goals and dreams.

Stay calm and understanding

Challenging behaviors occur no matter how prepared you are. How you handle them matters. Keeping yourself calm is often the first challenge. Helping each person in our child’s life use the same strategies when challenging behaviors occur can go a long way.

Knowing what is behind the behavior is important. In order to stop biting, we must find out why the child chooses to bite in the moment. There are more articles here at Autism Parenting Magazine that may help you. Feel free to click the links in this article and explore others as well.


Q: How to deal with a stubborn autistic child?

A: When dealing with a stubborn autistic child, it’s helpful to maintain consistency in routines and expectations while also providing clear and simple explanations for any changes. Offering choices within limits can empower them to feel more in control of their environment and lessen the likelihood of resistance.

Q: How to deal with a child with autism refusing to cooperate?

A: First, it’s essential to remain calm and patient. Try using visual aids or clear, simple instructions to help them understand what’s expected and offer positive reinforcement for cooperation.

Q: How do you deal with autism behavior problems?

A: To manage challenging behavior in autism, it’s crucial to understand the triggers and implement strategies that promote calm and coping. Providing consistent support, clear communication, and a structured environment can help minimize difficulties.

Q: How do you deal with an autistic overwhelm?

A: When dealing with an autistic overwhelm, it’s helpful to create a safe space where the individual can retreat for self-regulation. Providing tools and strategies for coping, such as sensory toys or breathing exercises, can also help manage the overwhelm effectively.


Lindor, E., Sivaratnam, C., May, T., Stefanac, N., Howells, K., & Rinehart, N. (2019). Problem Behavior in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Considering Core Symptom Severity and Accompanying Sleep Disturbance. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 487. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00487

Linstead, E., Dixon, D. R., Hong, E., Burns, C. O., French, R., Novack, M. N., & Granpeesheh, D. (2017). An evaluation of the effects of intensity and duration on outcomes across treatment domains for children with autism spectrum disorder. Translational psychiatry, 7(9), e1234. https://doi.org/10.1038/tp.2017.207

Siu, Q.K.Y., Yi, H., Chan, R.C.H. et al. The Role of Child Problem Behaviors in Autism Spectrum Symptoms and Parenting Stress: A Primary School-Based Study. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 857–870 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-018-3791-7 

Tarver, J., Palmer, M., Webb, S., Scott, S., Slonims, V., Simonoff, E., & Charman, T. (2019). Child and parent outcomes following parent interventions for child emotional and behavioral problems in autism spectrum disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Autism, 23(7), 1630-1644. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319830042 

Kodak T, Bergmann S. Autism Spectrum Disorder: Characteristics, Associated Behaviors, and Early Intervention. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2020 Jun;67(3):525-535. doi: 10.1016/j.pcl.2020.02.007. Epub 2020 May 4. PMID: 32443991. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32443991/ 

Leaf, J.B., Cihon, J.H., Leaf, R. et al. Concerns About ABA-Based Intervention: An Evaluation and Recommendations. J Autism Dev Disord 52, 2838–2853 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-05137-y 

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