Challenging Behaviors are the behaviors that individuals engage in that interrupt their and others functioning in everyday life. They can also be behaviors that parents and caregivers find difficult to manage.
The following are challenging behaviors that individuals with ASD may exhibit. They are listed here to let parents and caregivers know what others have experienced, but it’s important to know that these behaviors are not universal or to be expected. Effective therapy, helping a child with autism communicate, and providing a home and school environment responsive to their needs can go a long way towards preventing these expressions of distress.
This is any activity in which a person inflicts harm or injury to himself or herself. Every person with ASD is unique to what self-injurious behaviors and the severity of behaviors they will carry out.
Types of self-injurious behavior commonly seen in individuals with ASD:
- Head banging
- Hair pulling
- Face or head slapping
- Skin picking or scratching
- Head shaking
Individuals with ASD can be non-compliant with tasks expected or asked of them. The person may resist and refuse task instruction because they are uncertain of what is expected of them, they may fear failure, or what is asked of them doesn’t seem worthwhile. If the person with autism is pressured to engage in task they don’t want to do, they may act out in other challenging behaviors (for example, physical or verbal aggression towards others). It is very important to consider the situation from the person with autism’s point of view. We do not expect typical children to comply with everything they are asked to do, without question. But there is a place for learning that there are things we just have to do, and perhaps there is a way to address the situation so that everyone gets their needs met.
Physical and Verbal Aggression
Physical and verbal aggression is behaviour causing or threatening physical harm towards others. Individuals who have ASD may have a varying range of physical and verbal aggressiveness. Common physical and verbal aggressiveness observed in individuals with ASD includes verbal outbursts, engaging in name-calling, shouting, bolting from an area, kicking or hurting others. These behaviors may happen as a result of a particular personal feelings or environmental change that is occurring.
Property destruction is a challenging behavior that individuals with ASD may engage in. Individuals may rip materials, smash windows, smear feces, push or throw items around in their environment.
Pica is condition when people have persistent compulsive cravings to eat nonfood items. Pica is common in people who have ASD. Individuals may put items like clothes, toys, sand, paper, etc. in their mouth. There can be many reasons why individuals engage in this challenging behavior. In some cases it may relieve anxiety or stress, while in others the person “craves” the sensory input provided by the feel or taste of the nonfood item in their mouths.
Socially Inappropriate Behaviors
Interrupting may be an behavior individuals with ASD show because they have deficits in social and communication skills. They may:
-Have difficultly telling when someone is finished speaking or about to speak.
-Not understand the social rules around turn taking in conversations.
- Feel compelled to speak for fear of losing their train of thought
- Not be interested in what the other person has to say because they are hyper-focussed on their own pet topic.
Parents should know that when their child with ASD interrupts them it may not be intentional. There are techniques and tricks to help and you may want to contact a specialist in behavior, speech language pathology or occupational therapy for assistance.
Meltdowns and temper tantrums are a common behavior seen in individuals with ASD. This behavior can last a couple minutes to a couple hours. Individuals may appear to go into a state of rage, panic, anxiety, or fear for no reason. They might scream, cry, shut down or push others away.
Meltdowns and tantrums are commonly understood as a form of communication. If something within the environment becomes too overwhelming, or they are struggling to deal with strong emotions, meltdowns may be the only way people with ASD can let others know that something is bothering them. It is important to think about things that may have triggered the meltdown or tantrum – these can be things that occurred just prior to the onset of the episode (e.g. something that is supposed to happen at a certain time of day does not happen, a different respite worker shows up), or it may be the cumulative effect of smaller things in their lives that lead to the outburst (e.g. the build up of anxiety created by small changes in their daily routine – a different tooth brush, new soap, itchy clothes, etc.). Playing detective can help you in the future – you can gauge how your son/daughter is doing, begin to notice warning signs that they are becoming agitated, help them develop better coping skills, and eventually work with them to gain controlling of the behavior.
There are many websites and resources dedicated to Challenging Behavior among those with ASD. One of these is the Autism Speaks Family Services Challenging Behaviors Toolkit, available at: