ASD Children and Defiant Behavior: 10 Tips for Parents

Moms and dads with ASD level 1 (high-functioning autistic) kids are often shocked and worried about the defiant behaviors these young people sometimes exhibit. Corrective measures intended for a developmentally "normal" youngster seldom work for Autistic children, leaving parents at a loss as to how to deal with harmful behavior.

There are no hard and fast rules for treating ASD, because each youngster exhibits different behaviors that require different treatment plans. For moms and dads struggling with ASD defiant behavior, finding safe and effective ways to deal with it is difficult without help. Kids on the spectrum seldom respond to traditional parenting techniques (e.g., time outs, withholding privileges) leaving parents confused and desperate for fast-acting strategies.

1. Applied Behavioral Analysis— Therapies based on ABA methodology are customized based on the youngster’s ability, environment, and the behavior most in need of correction. For kids with a tendency towards defiant behavior, these methods focus on analyzing what environmental factors contribute to the behavior. As factors are identified, professionals, educators, and parents are able to use a variety of methods to help the youngster learn to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. ABA methods include Discrete Trial Training, Pivotal Response Therapy, and Reciprocal Imitation Training, to name a few. Often these therapies begin on an intensive basis in the youngster’s home. 
The theory being that the youngster’s own home environment lends to more realistic behavioral assessment and modification. However, for kids with excessively defiant behaviors, there are ways for parents to begin positive correction prior to or during the initial behavioral assessment period.

2. Low Expressed Emotion— ASD kids are taught early to mimic behaviors seen in others when they do not understand or grasp a social situation. Modeling low expressed emotions during difficult or frustrating experiences helps an autistic youngster learn to control their own response. For example, remaining calm and using a monotone voice no matter how frustrating or frightful a situation may be helps model a controlled response. 
No matter how hard the youngster tries to escalate a situation, remain calm, focused, and level headed. For most moms and dads, this is difficult to master. However, since kids on the spectrum typically feed off the emotionally-charged responses of those around them, it is an imperative skill to learn and model. The more the parent and other family members model calm, peaceful responses to situations, the more likely the youngster will learn to model such behavior.

3. Mood Journals— A diary of the youngster’s behaviors helps illuminate patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed. Make note of their moods, demeanors, and behaviors throughout the day, as well as responsiveness of the youngster to different corrective measures. Mood journaling not only illuminates patterns and documents progress, but also serves as a history for therapists.

4. Preparation— Kids with ASD and other developmental disabilities are understandably confused by and anxious during new or unexpected experiences. Planning ahead and preparing the youngster for a new routine, person, or environment helps ease anxiety. For kids on the spectrum, this requires repetition. For example, a new playmate can be both exciting and a cause for anxiety. As such, repeating age-appropriate reminders may help ease anxiety. 
Kids crave security, no matter if they are developmentally challenged or not. Knowing what they should expect of a situation and what is expected of them helps them prepare, thus reducing common defiant behavior triggers. Autistic kids are no different in this regard, save their need for more repetitive exposure to expectations. In this regard, social skills training should begin early. 
A parent’s explanation of expectations cannot be vague like “play nice.” Instead, children on the spectrum need specific explanations of what “play nice” means. For young kids, modeling and practice playtime is an excellent way to illustrate what is expected. For older kids, short and easy to remember rules (e.g., “no hitting” and “ask first”) can help reinforce expectations.

5. Rewards and Consequences— Increase rewards for positive behavior and keep them in the youngster’s preferred currency. If their favorite activity is coloring, use this activity to reward positive strides in their behavior. Minimize consequences to focus primarily on targeted behaviors. As positive changes progress, shift the focus of consequences to the next behavior on the list.

6. Safe Rooms— Moms and dads of kids in the grips of excessive defiant behaviors often find the youngster nearly impossible to reach. As such, there are times when parents must simply “ride out” a defiant outburst. In such cases, having a safe room where the youngster can safely vent their anger or frustration allows everyone time to cool down. Safe rooms can be the youngster’s bedroom or other room in the house. The key is the room should be safe, with nothing the youngster can throw, damage, or otherwise use to hurt themselves or others.

7. Start Small— These young people do better with shorter periods for new experiences. Whether a trip to the store, a play date, or new house rules, start with small changes and gradually increase duration as the youngster shows signs of being able to tolerate more. Play dates of a few hours may be more than a defiant child can tolerate. 
As such, limit play dates to only an hour or so. Be available to help guide activities and take advantage of redirection strategies. Be prepared to cut the play date or other experience short if the youngster exhibits signs of heightened frustration or anxiety, or other common triggers that could produce defiant behavior.

8. Supervision— A youngster known to exhibit defiant behavior related to ASD obviously requires supervision at all times, especially when playing with younger kids. However, supervision is not a safety-only mechanism. It is an opportunity to observe and record. Make note of what situations and factors most often precede violence. Factors can include frustration, anxiety about a new environment or person, or physical discomfort. As moms and dads note common triggers for defiant behaviors, the opportunity for proactive solutions presents itself. 
For example, a youngster who typically throws objects or hits others when frustrated often shows warning signs of early frustration. These signs become a cue to redirect the youngster to another activity. Some parents argue that a youngster should prepare for life, rather than life being prepared for the youngster. However, the first step to correcting defiant behavior is to reduce its frequency, which often requires controlling the youngster’s environment temporarily until the youngster learns how to self-regulate.

9. Ten Words or Ten Seconds— Corrective responses should be calm and limited to under 10 words or under 10 seconds. Short, calm responses are easier for a youngster in the grips of an emotional upheaval to register.

10. The Jar Approach— Determine ahead of time what behaviors are most pressing in terms of correction. Prioritize corrective measures according to the severity of the behavior. The most dangerous or troublesome behaviors belong in Jar A, while less imperative behaviors like hand flapping are Jar B or C. Focus only on correction of or consequences for Jar A behaviors. As the youngster conquers negative or harmful behaviors, choices from Jar B or C move up to Jar A.

It is difficult and emotionally draining to deal with a child who exhibits defiant behavior. In some cases, parents and doctors may find that adding medication to help relieve symptoms that lead to defiant tendencies is necessary. In other cases, moms and dads may need access to emergency response professionals trained to help de-escalate defiant outbursts in kids with this disorder.

The most important thing for parents to remember is that they know their youngster best. The parent is in the best position to help the youngster overcome defiant behaviors simply by listening to the youngster and responding on a level that works for him/her. As a mother or father, it is crucial to have supports in place, not only to help the youngster, but to help the parent as well.

Overcoming defiant behavior in an autistic youngster involves changes in parental responses, being prepared, and modeling therapeutic principles taught during behavior modification therapy sessions. The key to success is the parent and his/her willingness to advocate for the best solutions for their youngster.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD



  • Anonymous said...Mr. Hutten, I have a 13 yr old Aspie daughter who is exhibiting the anger and depression and we have been around the block with her school for years getting her help with all the issues that Aspies deal with. Until just a few days ago, they are beginning to only admit that they have not been doing things correctly for my daughter. The school now wants a new psychological/psychiatric workup done to move forward. We live north of Houston, Texas and are looking for someone in that area that could assist in getting a correct diagnosis. Do you know of anyone in that area who could do this? I would also like to know if you would be willing to come talk to our school, as a whole, in the area of dealing with special needs students. We have your book, The Comprehensive Handbook, and it is great. We wish others could hear this from you, that is the only way they will admit and do what is right for Asperger's children.Thank you, Joe Whitehead, M.Ed.
  • Anonymous said...Wow. That was both comforting and helpful, esp. the part about being calm and talking in a monotone voice, and the ten words or ten seconds idea. Thank you so much.  
  • Anonymous said...Hi Mark,My 14 yr old son with Asperger’s is really struggling now in a mainstream school in the UK, where they do not adapt the environment or their teaching sufficiently to meet his needs. He is academically average ability. He is getting increasingly isolated and unhappy. I have been looking at other schools with more specialist provision but there are other issues there about appropriate peer group for a boy who desperately wants to be social. I have come across a new school near to where we live that is proposing to use the Steiner/Waldorf approach to learning with the emphasis on teaching through the arts and experiential learning indoors and outdoors. This seems very in tune with what I thnk George needs, but I would like your view of the Steiner /Waldorf approach and its relevance to young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Any advice is very welcome. I really like your newsletters by the way!Best RegardsChristine
  • Anonymous said...I find many of your topics beneficial, especially the writings that pertain to teens/young adults. My son is 20 yrs old, but not properly diagnosed until he was 17 - so I am still learning much about Aspergers.I am hoping that I can still view your website, particulary the archived writings. I am looking for information regarding single parents (with Aspie kids) and dating. This seems to be a stumbling block for me since many people are not aware of what Asperger's is, and how it fits into my life.Lisa
  • Anonymous said...hello , we have custody of our 4yo grandson and will be raising him, he is a high end aspie , have not been able to get a full psych eval yet due to shortage of services here in good old NYS, but he is a handfull. currently he does go to a head start program but has had notes sent home due to behavioral issues , jumping spitting cussing temper tantrums.i am in progress of getting help from mwhere ever i can find it and some has been helpfull . if anyone is so inclined please message me . thanx walter, pooped grandpa
  • Ms. said...My son is Autism spectrum high funcitoning (so technically at school tested the autism spectrum does not count as autism but under "emotionally disturbed") Anyways, My heart goes out to caretakers of chidlren with these special needs. I have learned you have to robot it a bit. Like as soon as I see the situation happening its like auto robot voice mode (not easy and not 100 happens) but I use distraction and reminder a lot "you need to do this" "You choose not to do this you don't get this" And step by step by step until the situation is de escalated. I think a HUGE factor is that the caretaker often feels they dont' have a break and so its so important to find support or venting so that you can use your capabilities to help your children because they need it!
  • jenniferleeweeks said...I am also in the North Houston area with a newly diagnosed child, age 11. We are having a horrible time with his defiance at school. Conroe ISD is really struggling to handle him and I fear he will eventually get kicked out of he continues refusing to do any work. I too am looking for a doc to assess and begin whatever therapy will nip this in the bud. It would be great to have another ally in finding what works better. 
  • Unknown said...My son also has aspergers and is in Conroe ISD. 

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