How To Manage Challenging Behaviour

Raising a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) comes with many additional considerations compared to raising a neurotypical child, one of which is challenging behaviour.

Challenging behaviour can pose major barriers to participating in school, extra-curricular activities and social life. And by extension, they can have a major impact on your child’s development and education.

They can also be challenges for parents who aren’t prepared for them, and who don’t know what they can do to prevent them.

What is challenging behaviour?

ASD is accompanied by many different types of behaviours not typically found in neurotypical children. This can include rituals, repetitive behaviours, repeated words and phrases, and obsessive interests.

However, not all of these different behaviours are necessarily “challenging”.

Unlike each of these examples, challenging behaviour refers specifically to persistent behaviour that causes distress or causes physical danger, either to the individual in question or others around them. In addition, each of these examples of challenging behaviours can also limit and your child’s ability to engage in daily life.

Some examples of challenging behaviour include:

• Refusing or ignoring requests

• Aggressive language and behaviour

• Self-injury such as headbanging

• Socially-inappropriate behaviour

None of these are deliberate actions on your child’s part. People living with autism experience the world differently, which can result in considerable anxiety, stress, and frustration. Among children and teenagers living with autism, it can often boil over into challenging behaviour.

To help parents of children living with autism, here are a couple of tips that you can use to manage challenging behaviour and even prevent them altogether.

Tip 1: understand the triggers

Like all other behaviour, challenging behaviour occurs for a reason – it doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. In most cases, these behaviours are in response to something in the environment, distress, or specific events:

• Sensory overload

• Exhaustion and tiredness

• Changes to routine

• Pain or discomfort

By understanding what causes your child to engage in challenging behaviour, challenging behaviour can be averted.

When identifying triggers, it’s important that you don’t focus solely on the surface level. In many cases, a trigger for challenging behaviour is really only part of a larger problem. It’s important that you understand the root issue that a trigger poses so you can address it more effectively.

Tip 2: remove triggers

The best way to avoid challenging behaviour is to remove as much as possible the triggers that set it off – that’s why it’s so important that you begin by identifying and understanding triggers.

Once your child’s triggers have been identified, you can get to work coming up with ways to remove triggers. For example, one way to prevent challenging behaviour arising from sensory overstimulation is to take measures to reduce the impact of sensory information as much as possible. That can mean providing earplugs and sunglasses to block out noise and light.

Another option is to provide options that allow your child to isolate themselves from potential triggers. One option might be to talk to your child’s teacher and arrange for them to be given a time-out whenever they feel like they’re being overstimulated.

Tip 3: come up with coping mechanisms

Not all triggers can be removed or avoided altogether. While it would be great if you could avoid triggers altogether, this simply isn’t realistic, especially if your goal is to have your child participate in day-to-day life.

In these cases, the best thing you can do to prevent challenging behaviours is to come up with coming mechanisms for when triggers are unavoidable.

In cases like this, there are a wide range of different coping strategies that your child might be able to use to relieve anxiety and deal with challenging behaviour. The most effective methods will depend on your child.

Tip 4: introduce change gradually

Routine is important to children living with autism, and a lack of routine and predictability can cause upset. This can range from the time you pick your child up from school, to specific route you take home.

During childhood, there are many instances where a change to routine is unavoidable. While many are unpredictable, some can be anticipated: every year, your child goes up a year level and has their annual GP and dental check-up.

In cases like this, you can lessen the impact (and therefore, the possibility of challenging behaviour) by:

• Introducing the idea in advance and giving your child time to get used to the idea

• Slowly introducing new people (new teachers, new doctors, etc)

• Describing exactly what the change will entail

• Devising visual schedules, calendars and timetables

Tip 5: teach them how to disengage safely and appropriately

Sometimes, the best way to deal with a stressful situation is to remove yourself from it. The same applies to children living with autism. In many cases, the best course of action for your child might be to disengage from a situation before it boils over and results in challenging behaviour.

However, there are many situations where it isn’t socially-acceptable to simply get up and walk away. For example, your child can’t just abandon a conversation. As a parent, one way you can help by teaching them how to do so safely and appropriately.

That can mean teaching your child not only how to recognise when they’re starting to feel overwhelmed, but also how to disengage from a conversation politely and without coming across as rude.

Tip 6: Don’t feel compelled to do this on your own

While you may be their parent, you don’t need to do everything by yourself. There are some things that you just aren’t equipped to deal with – this is why you go to a dentist when your child has a toothache and don’t try fixing the pain on your own!

When it comes to challenging behaviour, the same rule applies. Contacting a professional who specialises in positive behaviour support and training can help you with each of these preceding steps and allow you to more effectively prevent challenging behaviour.

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