An Ultimate Guide to Overcoming Problem Behavior in Autism

Mother struggles to address problem behavior in a child with autism

One of the biggest challenges parents with children on the autism spectrum face is managing their problem behaviors. Every parent wants their child to feel happy, safe, and accepted within their home and other environments. However, this can be difficult when dealing with complex and unpredictable behavior issues in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These complicated behaviors can lead to adverse outcomes, unwanted attention, and intensified stigma. 

In adulthood, challenging behavior often carries heavier consequences, making it critical to address them as early as possible. We at ABA Centers of Virginia understand the value of utilizing positive behavioral interventions in helping children and teenagers with autism reach their maximum potential. We’ve put together this guide to overcoming problem behaviors in autism specifically for caregivers of children with autism, neurodivergent individuals, educators, and autism providers.  

This blog will describe the benefits of understanding behavior and how to manage harsh emotional and behavioral triggers more effectively. Whether you’re just starting your autism journey or looking for fresh ideas about handling specific disruptive episodes, we hope this blog helps you tremendously.  

For more information about ABA Centers of Virginia, click here. 

Understanding the Causes of Problem Behaviors in Autism 

Problem behaviors can manifest in various forms and affect individuals of all ages. Maladaptive behaviors in autism can range from minor disturbances like talking without raising their hand in class to severe issues like aggression and violence. However, no matter how trivial or profound the behavior may seem, it is crucial to address them adequately. Ignoring problem behaviors can lead to negative consequences, hindering social and emotional development.  

Addressing problem behaviors requires understanding the underlying reasons for such conduct. Ultimately, it is essential to collaborate with everyone who knows the neurodivergent child to understand their behavior and establish an effective action plan. Identifying and addressing problem behaviors can help individuals overcome these challenges and pave the way for healthier relationships and personal development. Many caregivers address problem behaviors through ABA therapy 

Understanding Different Types of Problem Behaviors in Autism 

Understanding the causes behind challenging behaviors is crucial for devising effective interventions to maximize their impact. Problem behaviors often stem from a lack of communication skills, sensory processing difficulties, and an inability to regulate emotions. Still, there are other variables related to autism that can lead to the demonstration of these behaviors. It’s vital for all who work with the neurodiverse population to recognize and acknowledge all behavior is communication, whether seemingly appropriate or not.  

Comprehending your child’s complex behaviors can be easier said than done, as these behaviors can arise from various factors, as described. Here are some examples of problem behaviors often exhibited by those with autism: 

  • Aggression 
  • Self-harm 
  • Repetitive behavior patterns (flapping, spitting, repeating phrases, and more)
  • Property destruction
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Increased anxiety
  • Noncompliance or complete demand avoidance 
  • Running away, also called elopement 
  • Outbursts and tantrums 
  • Pica 
  • Other disruptive behaviors like scripting or screaming that impair life 

A comprehensive approach to understanding the source of problem behaviors in autism involves looking at the biological and environmental factors contributing to them. This approach can help identify patterns and triggers, leading to more targeted and effective interventions. Here are a few examples of problem behavior in autism: 

  • A child acts out in a classroom by repeatedly throwing their worksheets to the floor. This behavior is disruptive to the class and frustrating for the teacher. But perhaps the child is exhibiting distress, i.e., the problem behavior because the sun is hitting their eyes, and they can’t verbally explain their discomfort. 
  • A teenager may begin screaming in the middle of a public restaurant because they desire a refill of fruit juice and don’t know how to request it appropriately.  

As illustrated in the examples above, all behavior serves a function. For those on the autism spectrum, problem behavior most often serves as: 

  • Attention  
  • Escape 
  • Sensory or automatic reinforcement 
  • Access 

In almost all cases, at some point, the child’s challenging behavior was incidentally reinforced, which they must unlearn. Autism specialists, including Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs), often work tirelessly to understand a behavior’s function to improve their client’s communication skills so they can achieve their desired outcome without expressing maladaptive behavior.  

What Is ABA Therapy, and How Can It Help Problem Behaviors? 

ABA therapy, or Applied Behavior Analysis therapy, is a scientifically proven approach to behavioral management that helps individuals with autism and other developmental disorders who struggle with complex behavior and other deficits. ABA therapy focuses on building new skill sets, such as communication and socialization, while reducing challenging behaviors that hinder life. Additionally, ABA celebrates the client’s passions, strengths, and special interests, always including them in ABA sessions. 

For decades, ABA therapy has proven to be one of the most effective methods for addressing problem behaviors in children, teenagers, and adults. When a behavior function is determined, BCBAs develop individualized ABA treatment plans to diminish or redirect the problem behavior while increasing adaptive, socially acceptable behaviors.  

ABA treatment supports learners with autism by breaking up new skills or routines into smaller, more manageable parts. Whether it’s reducing temper tantrums, increasing cooperation, or teaching daily living skills, ABA therapy is a valuable tool for families seeking to address the challenges posed by problem behaviors.  

Can Problem Behavior in Autism Be a Trauma Response? 

Problem behaviors in autism can sometimes result from underlying issues like trauma from past abuse, neglect, or negative sensory experiences. Research shows that individuals with autism are more likely to experience traumatic events than their neurotypical peers due to various features related to their condition. These include negative experiences common for those on the spectrum, including bullying, shaming, or forced “masking.”   

When something perceived as traumatic occurs to a neurodivergent individual, it can cause emotional and behavioral reactions that manifest through complicated problem behaviors. It is essential to recognize that problem behaviors may not always result from autism. Still, they always communicate a need or feeling that needs caregivers and providers must address.  

With this understanding, it is essential to work with mental health professionals and other specialists to develop an effective plan for addressing problem behaviors if you believe they may be related to trauma, not autism. By doing so, individuals can begin to heal and move towards healthier relationships and personal growth in the best way for them.  

Tips for Parents for Dealing with Challenging Behaviors 

As a parent, dealing with challenging behaviors from your child with autism can be incredibly stressful and discouraging. It can be tough to navigate tantrums, perceived defiance, or other problematic facets of parenting a child with autism, especially in public. However, it’s important to remember that these challenging behaviors do not reflect your parenting skills or your child’s character but are a normal part of living with autism. 

With that said, there are some tips you can follow to help manage your child’s problem behaviors when they arise: 

1. Focus On Positive Reinforcement Rather than Punishment 

You can encourage your child to demonstrate positive actions by offering praise and rewards for appropriate behavior and response.  

2. Establish Clear Expectations and Consequences for Negative Behaviors 

Children with autism are often literal. Ensure you establish acceptable conduct and thoroughly explain what needs to be clarified. 

3. Remain Patient and Compassionate 

Keeping calm and confident with your child expressing problem behavior can help you work together to overcome the challenges these expressions can present.  

Addressing Challenging Behaviors in the Context of Autism 

It is important to remember that problem behaviors in autism are often a form of communication. By understanding the causes and dynamics behind problem behaviors, you can support better outcomes and develop an effective behavior management plan if you choose ABA therapy. Remember, structure, consistent follow-through, support, and positive reinforcement are essential to a successful behavior modification, all integral components of ABA treatment for autism.  

Lastly, it is necessary to empathize with your child’s unique needs as much as possible. Hence, they feel secure in their environment and can succeed. As a parent, you will almost always be your child’s best and most informed advocate. With the right plan, you can help your child learn new, positive behaviors, the foundation of a brighter future for you and them.  

More About ABA Centers of Virginia 

An ABA therapy program can help individuals with autism develop more appropriate behaviors and improve cognitive functioning and socialization. No matter what type of problem behavior your child displays or their functionality level, ABA Centers of Virginia can help.  

Our incredible ABA team has the tools to manage your neurodivergent child or teenager’s challenging behavior effectively. If you have any questions about our ABA therapy programs or would like more information about our services for individuals with autism, please do not hesitate to reach out today 

Call us at (855) 957-1892 to learn about our ABA care services and how we can help your family. 

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