Challenging behavior

"Difficult, or challenging, behavior in children with autism is not easily understood and its roots are often tangled and multi-faceted. However, speech, language and non-verbal communication difficulties that come hand in hand with autism are always part of the reason.

  • Difficult behavior happens for complex reasons
  • Difficult behavior is nobody’s fault
  • Difficult behavior takes time and gets better with time

When we equip autistic children with the skills and tools they need, surround them with opportunities to communicate and fill them with motivation to connect to the people world around them we may reduce the challenging behavior.

Telling a child what we want them to do and how we want them to behave seldom works. Instead it is better to use a system that supports self-advocacy, choices, and problem solving. When we get the mix between what’s important to a child and what’s important for them, we start to get somewhere!"

— Chris Barson

Watch our recorded webinar on Autism and Challenging bahviour

Visual Schedules and Sequences

Sometimes your child’s morning routine might be a little more hectic than it should be, right? Try using a visual schedule to help smooth transitions and stay on task! Visual schedules can help to facilitate communication and therefore minimize behavioral issues. Visual schedules help provide predictability to individuals with autism. When individuals with autism are able to better understand and anticipate what is going to happen next, it helps them to adapt more easily to their schedule and environment.

First Then

Does your child respond to reinforcers as a part of day to day activities? Does your child respond to acitivities in which he or she has a definite structure? When difficulties arise, using a visual support to explain the sequence of any activity to your child can be very supportive and calming. Additionally understanding the sequence of required events to obtain a reinforcer can provide the kind of support a child needs. First then strategies are one of the simplest forms of this type of support. First then contain 2 components, either a simple sequence around activities (first we go the store, then we go home) or a sequence that results in a reinforcer (first you eat the carrots, then you have a cookie).

Social Narrative

Sometimes it’s easier for a child with autism to understand an experience or event with more information in a short narrative format. This will include what the individual might expect to happen, how they might feel, and how to respond. Could your child use more information about how a situation will work?

Visual Rules

Sometimes it might be hard for a child with autism to understand when things don’t work out the same way in different situations? A visual rule script is a support that can help them understand why things happen in certain ways, based on a set of circumstances. For instance, if it rains we play indoors but if it’s sunny we go outside.

Rewards Chart

Does your child like to earn reinforcers or rewards for participation or good behavior? Of course! We all do! A token reward system allows them to earn rewards by completing a preset number of tasks or trials.

Contingency maps

Children with autism may have difficulty predicting the consquence or outcome to their decisons or behaviors. A contingency map provides a visual path that shows the outcome to two possible behaviors. For instance, if they clean up the room, we will have a friend over to play. If we don’t clean up the room, we must stay home with no guests.


Is it hard for your child to understand how much longer they need to wait for something? Or do you find it difficult to keep them engaged in an activity when they just wonder when it will be over? Timers help support transitions either in to or out of an activity. When a timer signals the end to something fun, it helps eliminate behavior by de-personalizing the message. Individuals with autism learn to expect the timer and can plan accordingly.

Support Templates

Familiar behavior supports allow individuals with autism to rely on structures they know with information that can be comforting and empowering in difficult situations. Do you think it would help to have templates premade that you could customize to support your child and help with meltdowns?

Compass has behavioral supports for over 60 specific communication scenarios – see Communicating want and needs.

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