Understand Where Behaviours Come From

Understand Where Behaviours Come From

Autism can come with several differences that may affect the way the person behaves. It is important to understand where these behaviors are coming from to help you and your child address the behaviors.

Communication Differences

It’s fair to say that all individuals with ASD have difficulty communicating with others, expressing themselves and understanding what others are trying to say. It is common for children with autism to have delays in the development of speech – or not develop the ability to speak at all, and may need to use other ways to learn to communicate (such as AAC or writing).

People with autism generally have difficulty with social interactions others take for granted. It is a mistake to think that they don’t want to build close relationships and make connections with others, but they may not have the skills to interact in expected ways.

For individuals who may not be able to successfully share their wants, needs, and reasons for their emotional states, engaging in challenging behaviours can be an extremely effective way of letting others know that something is not right.

Building communication skills is extremely important to prevent behavior issues and improve the quality of life and independence of a person with autism.

Sensory Differences

Individuals with ASD often have a sensory system that interprets sights, sounds, tastes, and other sensory information in an especially strong or weak way compared to the average person. One or more of their senses may be either hypo (“under”) sensitive or hyper (“over”) sensitive to things going on in their environment. Every individual is unique in their sensitivities and these can change over time.

Sensory systems include:

  • Touch: The individual with ASD may be soothed or get very upset when certain textures come into contact with their body. For example, particular clothing, hot vs. cold temperatures, soft vs. sharp textures, etc.
  • Balance: An individual with ASD may or may not like particular movements. For example, twirling, rocking, spinning, bending, etc.
  • Body Awareness: Individuals with ASD may have difficultly being aware of where their body is in location to others and their environment. Challenging behaviors may occur if a person is easily startled, cannot get on and off items, has difficulty with personal space, etc.
  • Sight: Some individuals with ASD will cover their eyes to particular visual effects, or gaze and become fixated on ones that they enjoy. For example, objects that are shiny, bright, or flicker could result in different challenging behaviours.
  • Hearing: Some individuals with ASD will be extremely sensitive to particular sounds in their environment and may become easily distressed as a result. Alternatively, some individuals will appear deaf to sounds occurring in their environment. Some individuals can only focus on one sound at a time, so if there are multiple auditory sounds occurring in a person’s environment they may be distracted or distressed.
  • Taste: Some individuals with ASD will only eat particular foods. They may become anxious if foods are given to them that they do not want to eat.
  • Smell: Some individuals with ASD will enjoy particular smells and want to seek them out, as other smells may cause distress.

If there is a certain sensation (particular noise, light, smell, etc.) that is bothering a person with ASD, they can act out in challenging ways to express or avoid the discomfort they are feeling. Likewise, if there is a particular sensation that the person with ASD enjoys, they will want to seek out that sensory input and may exhibit challenging behaviours if sensation is not met.

An individual with ASD may:

  • Have difficulty tolerating new experiences/environments
  • Have difficulty tolerating particular smells, sounds, lights, textures or movements
  • Enjoy and fixate on particular smells, sounds, lights, textures or movements
    • Eat unusual things that are not food
    • Find unusual ways to feel deep pressure
  • Be very selective to the types of food they will eat
    • Show discomfort when being held or touched by others

Developmental Differences

Every person goes through developmental stages throughout their lifespan. People with ASD may have a wide range in their levels of intellectual and developmental abilities and stages. In some cases, individuals are profoundly delayed in parts of their development compared to an individual who does not have ASD, while in others, they seem to progress in a more typical way. All people continue to grow and develop through their lifespan.

If they are delayed in their development, behaviours that would typically occur at earlier ages may be occurring later on. For example, exploring the contents of a house without regard to safety or privacy, temper tantrums, hitting, biting, or putting items in one’s mouth all typically occur during the younger years of child development. Some of these activities are to be celebrated (and encouraged with guidance), if they are an indication of growth to the next stage and a desire to learn about the world. But if the demands for the child with ASD are too high for their intellectual and developmental level, they may act out to let you know that they are frustrated. It is important to be aware of your child’s developmental stage and to make sure that what you are expecting of them is a good fit to their abilities and developmental stage.

Movement Differences

Movement differences include both excessive, atypical movement and the loss or delay of typical movement abilities. People with autism may also find that they need to move in ways that others don’t, such as flapping or spinning. Individuals with ASD may also have delays in physical coordination, affecting their ability to play and perform tasks. They may have problems with gross motor activities (running, balancing) or fine motor tasks (manipulating eating utensils or writing). Just as for anyone else, it’s important to have opportunities to practice and improve motor abilities.


  • Poor coordination
  • Clumsiness
  • Toe-walking or uneven gait
  • Drooling
  • Depth perception problems
  • Extra movements such as flapping, rocking, or pacing
  • Unintentional speech

Movement differences may persist, or may change over time. They may bother or distract the person with autism quite a bit, or they may be helpful in calming and regulating their attention and focus.