3 Ideas for Managing Difficult ASD Behaviours

During World Autism Awareness Week (27 March – 2 April), at Axcis, we are doing our bit to promote good practice and support the staff who work every day with ASD children in schools across the country. One of the things we are asked about the most often is how to manage challenging ASD behaviours. This article gives three ideas for identifying and managing challenging behaviour. 


What sort of behaviours are we talking about?


Challenging or difficult behaviour can be any behaviour which disrupts a child’s learning in the classroom, or is considered inappropriate in a social context. For example, it could be something as simple as talking while the teacher is talking, getting out of a seat when the child should be sitting, or taking belongings from another student without asking permission to borrow them first. Or for individuals with more complex needs, there are sometimes more challenging behaviours which can arise, for example hitting other children or adults, running away or breaking things – and a whole host of other possible behaviours. I have worked with specialist schools for autism for several years, and some of my staff have reported instances such as having their glasses taken off their face and stamped on, and working with teenagers who might express their anxieties through urinating or defecating on the floor of the classroom, or being spat at, bitten, kicked, punched etc.


Tips on Managing Challenging Behaviour


What follows are 3 simple ideas for managing challenging behaviour – specifically for children with an ASD, but this advice can also be useful in a range of other settings. The word simple should not be confused with easy – it can be a long and stressful task to gain control of challenging behaviour and you must be prepared to put in the work to see results.


1. Understand the range of possible root causes


Before trying to manage a specific behaviour, it is first important to try and understand the root cause. There can be a range of reasons for challenging behaviour, from sensory processing disorders (being under or over-responsive to stimulus in the environment), to feelings of stress, pain, pressure, anxiety and even simply feeling tired or hungry. (I know I am personally guilty of not being the nicest person to be around when I feel tired and

Tiredness can be a trigger for challenging behaviour. Photo credit alamosbasement, Flickr

Tiredness can be a trigger for challenging behaviour. Photo credit alamosbasement, Flickr

hungry and I am a professional 35 year old woman!) All of these reasons and plenty more can be the cause of perceived behavioural issues. When working with children with an ASD, it is also possible that some students may be non verbal, or partially verbal – this is something that can make it much more difficult to identify the root cause of the behaviour which is considered to be in need of management.


2. Link specific triggers to behaviours


I have spoken to lots of teachers and support staff who enter the SEND sector and can feel overwhelmed by some of the behaviours they encounter and really struggle to get to grips with how to handle such situations. As an NQT in a mainstream secondary school, I too found behaviour management to be a struggle, and this subject is always extremely popular when we run CPD seminars at Axcis – so this is an issue school staff across the board feel that they consistently need support with – you are not alone if you struggle with behaviour management! When starting to understand how to manage challenging behaviour, if the triggers can be identified, this can be a really useful initial step in the management process. Some teachers I’ve spoken with have found that keeping a diary can be useful. What times of day and other circumstances surround instances of challenging behaviour? The more detailed the diary, the more quickly a pattern may emerge. For example, a student may be much more likely to “act out” just before lunch time or at the end of the day/before meals if hunger is a trigger. Or it could be when there is lots of noise in the classroom if a child is highly sensitive to noise as part of a sensory processing disorder. So try keeping a diary and try to pin-point the triggers for the behaviour.


3. Formulate a behaviour plan and stick to it


When it comes to behaviour management, many teachers, parents and carers I have spoken to say things like “I tried that and it didn’t work, so I tried something else – that didn’t work either – now I am at the end of my tether and don’t know what to do”.  As a new mum, and an ex-teacher, I can sympathise with this approach. We look for a quick fix – something that will work every time, with all challenging behaviours. We want a magic wand which we can wave and regain immediate control of a situation. Unfortunately this does not exist. If it did, the inventor would be a very rich person indeed! Instead, we need to come up with a strategy, and implement it in a calm, consistent manner. In an ideal world, parents, teachers and carers would all work together and be united in the behaviour strategy and 100% consistent in it’s delivery.


There is no quick fix, and every child is different, just as every child with an ASD is different. Formulating a behaviour plan needs to include all people involved in the child’s everyday routine and time needs to be allowed to see results before reviewing and/or changing the plan. As already mentioned, children on the spectrum may exhibit a wide range of behaviours and there are many suggestions for managing each one. To give a full list here would take a long time, but the National Autistic Society gives some fantastic examples and suggestions for managing difficult behaviour in ASD individuals. Some examples are listed below, but there are far more on their website. 


Example 1 – Punching/Kicking/Slapping

Possible Reasons Suggested Strategies
  • frustration at not being able to communicate
  • difficulty waiting for something, because of difficulty with concept of time and abstract thinking
  • an unfamiliar person
  • a change in routine
  • over-sensitivity to noise, crowds, smells, touch, sight
  • under-sensitivity – seeking out sensory input from pinching or slapping
  • feeling unwell, tired, hungry, thirsty, uncomfortable
  • not wanting to do something.


  • use the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) and/or visual supports to help with communication and show your child the sequence of events and routine for the day
  • prepare for meeting unfamiliar people by showing photographs of them and introducing them in small stages. Tell your child when they will see them, using visual support
  • prepare for any changes in routine
  • use ear defenders to block out noise and sunglasses to reduce light, and reduce strong smells, replacing them with smells that your child prefers
  • create opportunities for sensory stimulation, eg pinching play-dough, clapping hands, singing a clapping song/rhyme, kicking a football or punch bag
  • reward your child for doing something they don’t want to do, straight after the desirable behaviour
  • say in a calm, monotone voice, without showing emotion: “(Child’s name) hands down/feet down. No pinching, slapping, kicking” and then redirect them.



Example 2: Spitting


Possible Reasons Suggested Strategies
  • enjoys the reaction from an adult or another child around them
  • is looking for attention/interaction
  • has difficulty swallowing and/or may be producing too much saliva
  • likes to play with the saliva and enjoys the way it feels
  • uses the behaviour to avoid doing something.


  • take your child to the GP and/or dentist to rule out any medical reasons
  • avoid making eye contact with your child
  • play this behaviour down as much as possible
  • limit verbal communication
  • wipe away the saliva as soon as it happens
  • do not give your child attention
  • redirect them to a more appropriate activity
  • provide alternative sensory activites, eg water play, finger painting, etc
  • give your child lots of positive attention for doing a more appropriate activity
  • give them a sweet or something to suck to keep their mouth busy
  • make sure they understand what is expected and redirect them to a visual timetable.



In Summary


So, to summarise, we must first understand the range of possible root causes, then identify the specific triggers, and then formulate an appropriate behaviour plan and approach it in a calm, consistent manner. Where a child exhibits a range of challenging behaviour, it can be helpful to select one or two of the most urgent behaviours which need addressing and work with those first. It can be very overwhelming to try and tackle everything at once. It won’t happen overnight, and if you are struggling to manage difficult behaviour, it is important to remember that there are professionals out there who can offer support and advice. The National Autistic Society is one such resource. The fantastic work they do is the key reason Axcis choose to sponsor the NAS year after year and plan to continue doing so.

Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.