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


Anonymous said...

THis was a good article. Makes me rethink how I respond to my son. He is 7 and dr's say he is on the spectrum (Aspergers) along with anxiety, ocd and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. His negativaty was so awful we put him on Zoloft. Negativity was greatly reduced and anxiety lowered. After 4 months of it though other things got greatly worse, like the chewing of everthing and licking, very hyper all the time, couldn't sleep. So we just now weaned him off. Now we are back where we started. Awful negativity and attitude to us and his grandparents. He still behaves at school though and with other adults. Is the problem us? I don't know. He was on 37.5 mg of the Zoloft....maybe we should have tried increasing it? I feel like all we do now is tell him No or Stop and yell all the time. I take things away or do time outs and it has no effect on him. There is just a disconnect where he just doesn't get that he does anything wrong.

Anonymous said...

I can relate completely to the feeling that all you say is No and are yelling every 5 minutes. We are in the middle of a medication issue and it is exhausting! I have started seeing a therapist to help me deal with the conflicts and stressors of rasing my daughter, who is 10 and has many (and a few more) of the issues you described of your child. I absolutely feel that I am the problem on a daily basis. Her worst behavior is with me almost exclusively. Let me assure you it is not us. We are not bad parents...and because we are doing a good job, that's why we get to experience all of who they are. We are the "safe people" in their life. We let them be who they are fully. We don't have expectations, we have encouragement. We don't punish, we redirect. We don't judge, we try to walk in their shoes. We are the ones who pick them up from school with a hug after they have been sent home for bad behavior. We're not perfect, we're just parents trying to give our children the best oppurtunies to succeed. For those of us who struggle endlessly to make that happen, we soak in the brief moments of progress like someone wh is suffocating from lack of oxygen. Those rare moments are what carry us through the set backs and regressions. Hope is what keeps us pitting one foot in front of the other. Parenting is not for the faint at heart. I ask myself everyday..."Who else could be the parent this child needs?" The answer? Not anyone I know...she was tailor made just for me. Good luck and never give up before the miracle....

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: your post touched me as I am experiencing the same thing with my 7 year old daughter. She has Asperger's, anxiety disorder and ADHD. She's totally defiant, I'm surprised she hasn't received this diagnosis as well. She behaves when at school and with other adults and family members. She did have a meltdown once at Target - that was the first time in public. All we seem to say to her "please mind your manners" or "stop" and "no" to her too. She just started taking a medication called Intuniv, her moods are a little better, but she's still very defiant. She is working with a therapist, but as you know with aspies, it's hard for them to communicate feelings. She will just ignore us when we try talk about the negativity and attitude to us. It's as if she has a sense of entitlement somehow. Sometimes I get nervous about how she will be as a teenager - especially since she SO defiant at 7!! But one step at a time...
I just wanted to let you know that you're not alone out there. There are parents that are going through exactly what you are too and it's hard because you're always asking "are WE the problem here?". It's really hard, really frustrating and we feel really helpless sometimes. So you're not alone out there, ok? Even if sometimes you feel you are - there are others who understand the daily struggles of what you are going through. Take care.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! I wish this was mandatory reading for all GEN ED teachers. We had an awful 2nd grade. My son is 8 and is an anxious Aspie. Peers and teachers were awful to him last year. This year, we have a new special ed classroom with new strategies. I hope that his teacher uses these.

Thank you for your posts. They help us out a lot.

Nick's mom said...

It helps to know I'm not alone, because so often, as a single mother I've struggled through every bit of this, feeling it is all my fault. It never helped that my sons father said it was "the way I raised him", and his mother told me to "give her Nick for a week and she'd straighten him out". At 12, I'm still fighting the battle and many days feel I need to just throw in the towel but there is no one to pick it up! I do want to mention that one of our constant battles was hyperactivity, not being able to sleep, and the licking, sucking of clothes, everything. I asked our doctor to put my son on Imiprimine..its a very small dose and even she was surprised, but some of the anxiety, certainly the chewing/licking has almost disappeared, and sleep comes easier. He never had any "flapping" or repetitious body issues, but he did irritating little things - make repeat noises, odd noises, slam cubbords as he brushed his teeth. At times I thought I was going to lose my mind. The imiprimine helped that too...its really been a Godsend for us, although there are plenty of other issues! My son also doesn't always seem to see that he's done something wrong either, but things do seem to be getting better as he gets older.

Linda said...

I can relate to all of the above. My doctors keps saying to "catch him being good" and I had a hard time finding that - I felt I was saying no all the time. I just wanted to say that he was so hyper and unable to get to bed, then started presenting with the licking, chewing behaviors that drove me nuts. I asked the doctor to put him on imiprimine, an antidepressant, and i was amazed at the change, so was she. It was a very low dose but he has much less problems falling asleep and the chewing, licking has all but disappeared (I can tell if I miss a nite of imiprimine). I never felt he had any of the "flapping" behaviors you hear about either, but once he started taking the imiprimine I realized he was no longer making these irritating "sounds" or repeating words or songs over and over. He used to bang his knees on the cubbords to make noises while brushing his teeth, and they have all disappeared too after taking the imiprimine. It's done wonders for him, maybe it is something that will work for others too.

Anonymous said...

Dear fellow AS Mom,
My almost 11 yr old daughter is on ZOLOFT, too..I noticed that her first dosage (@ 55 lbs) of 2tsp a day in a liquid chocolate compound helped but then I realized over time, the return of her behaviors was because I have a different child in public school than @ home non summer breaks! So, I had her dr. Double her dosage for school time. I also don't think that the dr's were considering that she gained 12lbs in a year soshe needed more Zoloft in. That way, too...hope this helps. You are a great mom! I know thedoubts and guilt, how eeveryday you are sad,frustrated, angry and tired. Remember as I do that of all the millions of women who have been, are, or will come into this world, that YOU are the perfect and chosen mom for your son, you are going to make it! Thx for sharing.

Unknown said...

No drugs help them. It's the way you deal with them. Don't force ... Reinforce. Don't get mad at them. Encourage them. Don't try to change them. And learn more about autism. Unconditional love not discipline. Structure but no punishments of any sort. Use words and don't yell.

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