Autism and challenging behaviour

Home Autism Autism and challenging behaviour
sad child, stress and depression, pain, sorrow

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by a wide range of challenges, including difficulties in social interaction, communication, and restricted interests. One aspect that often accompanies ASD is the presence of challenging behaviours. These behaviours can manifest in various forms, such as aggression, self-injury, meltdowns, and repetitive movements. To support individuals with autism effectively, it is crucial to understand why these behaviours occur and how to overcome these challenging behaviours.

Table of Contents

Understand why these behaviours occur and how to overcome these challenging behaviours.

1. Sensory Sensitivities

Individuals with autism often have atypical sensory processing, which means they experience the world differently than neurotypical individuals. Sensory sensitivities can be overwhelming, leading to distress and frustration. For example, bright lights, loud noises, certain textures, or even subtle changes in the environment can trigger a negative response, causing the individual to engage in challenging behaviours as a way to cope or communicate their discomfort.

2. Communication Difficulties

Language and communication challenges are a hallmark of autism. Some individuals may struggle with expressive language, finding it difficult to articulate their needs, desires, or feelings. When communication barriers arise, individuals with autism may resort to challenging behaviours as a way to express their frustration or communicate their needs indirectly. It is crucial to promote alternative communication methods, such as visual supports or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), to empower individuals with autism and reduce their reliance on challenging behaviours.

3. Social Interaction and Understanding

Navigating social interactions can be immensely challenging for individuals with autism. Difficulties in understanding non-verbal cues, recognizing emotions, or interpreting social situations accurately can lead to anxiety and frustration. In some cases, challenging behaviours may emerge as a response to overwhelming social demands or an inability to meet societal expectations. Educating others about autism and fostering inclusive environments can help reduce the triggers for these behaviours and promote understanding and acceptance.

4. Cognitive Overload and Executive Functioning

Individuals with autism often experience cognitive overload, which occurs when their brains struggle to process and integrate information effectively. This overload can stem from sensory inputs, social demands, or cognitive tasks that require multitasking or quick decision-making. When overwhelmed, individuals with autism may exhibit challenging behaviours as a result of the stress and difficulty in managing the situation. Providing structure, predictability, and support can alleviate cognitive overload and reduce the occurrence of challenging behaviours.

5. Co-occurring Conditions

Autism frequently coexists with other conditions such as anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or sensory processing disorder (SPD). These comorbid conditions can exacerbate the challenges faced by individuals with autism, making them more susceptible to engaging in challenging behaviours. It is essential to identify and address these co-occurring conditions through appropriate interventions and therapies, in conjunction with autism specific support.

Understanding the underlying causes of challenging behaviours in individuals with autism is crucial for providing effective support and creating inclusive environments. By recognizing the sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, social challenges, cognitive overload, and the impact of co-occurring conditions, we can work towards developing strategies that promote positive behaviour and enhance the well-being of individuals with autism.

Teenager with Celebral Palsy and mother laughing.
Helping individuals with autism overcome challenging behaviours requires a person-centred approach that takes into account their unique needs and strengths. While it’s important to consult with professionals who specialize in autism spectrum disorders for personalized strategies, here are some general steps that can be helpful:

Overcome challenging behaviours

Helping individuals with autism overcome challenging behaviours requires a person-centred approach that takes into account their unique needs and strengths. While it’s important to consult with professionals who specialize in autism spectrum disorders for personalized strategies, here are some general steps that can be helpful:

1. Understand the Behaviour:

Start by observing and understanding the challenging behaviour. Look for triggers, patterns, and possible underlying causes. Consider factors such as sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, social challenges, or anxiety. It is also important to understand the functions (causes) of underlying behaviours, which include escape/avoidance, wanting something tangible, sensory stimulation or attention. Working with a behaviour support practitioner can help identify and overcome these causes of behaviours.

2. Create a Supportive Environment:

Make modifications to the environment to promote a sense of calm and reduce triggers. This can include minimizing noise, providing a quiet space for relaxation, using visual schedules or cues, and maintaining a predictable routine.

3. Use Visual Supports:

Visual aids, such as visual schedules, social stories, and visual cues, can help individuals with autism better understand and follow expectations. These supports provide structure, clarify expectations, and enhance communication.

4. Develop Communication Skills:

Many challenging behaviours stem from difficulties in expressing needs, wants, or frustrations. Encourage the use of alternative communication methods, such as sign language, picture exchange communication systems (PECS), or assistive technology, to facilitate effective communication.

5. Teach Alternative Coping Strategies:

Help individuals develop alternative ways to cope with stress, anxiety, or frustration. This can involve teaching relaxation techniques, self-regulation strategies, or providing sensory tools that offer a calming effect, like stress balls or sensory breaks. Mindset coaching can also help to overcome the challenges of stress and anxiety and teach positive behaviour.

6. Reinforce Positive Behaviours:

Focus on reinforcing positive behaviours and providing immediate feedback and rewards. Positive reinforcement can include verbal praise, tokens, or preferred activities. This approach helps individuals understand the desired behaviours and motivates them to engage in them more often.

7. Collaborate with Professionals:

Work closely with professionals experienced in autism, such as behaviour analysts, therapists, or educators. They can provide additional guidance, develop behaviour intervention plans, and offer strategies tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

8. Involve Family and Caregivers:

Collaborate with family members and caregivers to maintain consistency across different environments. Provide them with strategies, resources, and training to support the individual’s development and address challenging behaviours effectively.

9. Focus on Skill Development:

Encourage the development of skills that can replace challenging behaviours. This can include social skills training, self-care routines, leisure activities, or functional communication skills. Building these skills helps individuals find alternative ways to meet their needs.

10. Practice Patience and Empathy:

Remember that overcoming challenging behaviours takes time and patience. Approach the process with empathy, understanding that the individual may be struggling with underlying difficulties. Celebrate progress, no matter how small, and continue to offer support and encouragement.

It’s important to note that every individual with autism is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Customizing interventions and seeking professional guidance are essential for developing effective strategies tailored to the individual’s needs and promoting their overall well-being.


Transform Life is an Australian owned provider specialising in evidence based therapeutic support including Positive Behaviour Support, Occupational Therapy, Psychology, Speech Therapy and Behavioural Interventions helping transform lives and families across Australia.

Recent Posts
Don’t wait another moment to experience the life changing benefits

Book a 15 minute consultation