Behavioral Support for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Effective behavioral support for a student with special needs requires highly individualized strategies that address the primary areas of difficulty in managing anxiety, communication, preferences for sameness and rules, ritualistic behaviors, social understanding and interactions, and sensory sensitivities.

While the specific components of a positive behavioral support plan will vary from child to child, the following tips will assist teachers as they work towards achieving the best outcomes on behalf of their special needs student:

1. Students with special needs experience communication difficulties. While they are able to use language quite effectively to discuss topics of interest, they may have great difficulty expressing sadness, anger, frustration and other important messages. As a result, behavior may be the most effective means to communicate when words fail.

2. Since behaviors are influenced by the quality of relationships with teachers, teachers should monitor their own behavior when working with special needs kids. Each time a teacher reprimands a child for misbehavior, an opportunity may be lost to "reframe" the moment in terms of the child’s need to develop alternative skills.

3. Schools that focus on suspension and expulsion as their primary disciplinary approach (rather than on teaching social skills and conflict resolution) are typically less effective.

4. Parents, teachers, and other school staff should collaborate on a behavior support plan that is clear and easily implemented. Once developed, the plan should be monitored across settings and regularly reviewed for its strengths and weaknesses. Inconsistencies in expectations and behaviors will only heighten the challenges demonstrated by a child with special needs.

5. Never assume that special needs students know appropriate social behaviors. While these kids are quite gifted in many ways, they will need to be taught social and communication skills as carefully as academic skills.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

6. “Antecedents” are events that happen immediately before the student’s difficult behavior. “Setting events” are conditions that can enhance the possibility that a child may engage in difficult behavior (e.g., if a child is sick, hungry or tired, she may be less tolerant of schedule changes). By understanding settings events that can set the stage for difficult behaviors, changes can be made on those days when a child may not be performing at her best to (a) reduce the likelihood of difficult situations and (b) set the stage for learning more adaptive skills. In the classroom, many antecedents may spark behavioral incidents (e.g., many children with special needs have difficulty with noisy, crowded environments).

Therefore, the special needs student who becomes physically aggressive in the hallway during passing periods may need to leave class a minute or two early to avoid the congestion which provokes this behavior. Over time, the child may learn to negotiate the hallways simply by being more accustomed to the situation, or by being given specific instruction or support.

7. A major issue is fitting special needs children into typical disciplinary practices. Many of these kids become highly anxious by loss of privileges, time outs or reprimands, and often can’t regroup following their application.

8. Behavior serves a purpose. The purpose or function of the behavior may be highly idiosyncratic and understood only from the perspective of the child. Students with special needs generally do not have a behavioral intent to disrupt the classroom, but instead difficult behaviors may arise from other needs (e.g., self-protection in stressful situations).

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

9. Children with special needs need to be taught acceptable behaviors that replace difficult behaviors, but that serve the same purpose as the difficult behaviors. For instance, the child may have trouble entering into a basketball game and instead inserts himself into the game, thus offending the other players and risking exclusion. Instead, the child can be coached on how and when to enter into a game.

10. Lastly, it is important to understand the idiosyncratic nature of special needs students and to consider difficult behaviors in light of characteristics associated with their disorder. Here are some general traits of the special needs student:
  • Academic difficulties: restricted problem solving skills, literal thinking, deficiencies with abstract reasoning.
  • Behavior serves a function, is related to context, and is a form of communication.
  • Emotional vulnerability: low self-esteem, easily overwhelmed, poor coping with stressors, self-critical.
  • Impairment in social interactions: difficulty understanding the “rules” of interaction, poor comprehension of jokes and metaphor, pedantic speaking style.
  • Inattention: poor organizational skills, easily distracted, focused on irrelevant stimuli, difficulty learning in group contexts.
  • Insistence on sameness: easily overwhelmed by minimal changes in routines, sensitive to environmental stressors, preference for rituals.
  • Poor motor coordination: slow clerical speed, clumsy gait, unsuccessful in games involving motor skills.
  • Restricted range of social competence: preoccupation with singular topics, asking repetitive questions, obsessively collecting items.

Too often, the focus of a behavior management plan is on discipline (i.e., strategies that focus exclusively on eliminating problematic behavior). Plans like this don’t focus on long-term behavioral change. An effective plan should expand beyond issuing consequences (e.g., time outs, loss of privileges, suspensions, etc.) and focus on preventing the problem behavior by teaching socially acceptable alternatives and creating a positive learning environment.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Do you need the advice of a professional who specializes in parenting children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders?  Sign-up for Online Parent Coaching today.

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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