Investigating and Resolving "Problem Behavior" in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"I need to understand my son better (ASD, age 7) so we can you come up with some consequences that are appropriate and not so punitive as to remove all possibility of improvement. Please help!"

If you have a youngster with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) who exhibits problematic behavior, you have probably felt like an investigator, searching for clues and seeking hidden motivations. 

You may have come up with some quick and easy explanations for your youngster's behavioral issues (e.g., ones offered by parents at the park, your mother-in-law, and even by behavioral experts), but your youngster often has something completely different up his sleeve. Operating according to the easiest explanation will often make matters worse.

Even though there are explanations for your HFA youngster's “bad” behavior that take some of the fault from him, the effects of the behavior are unfortunate and must be addressed. For example, your youngster may push one of his friends or break a toy because of autism-related challenges not under his control, but he still has to face the consequences associated with this behavior. 

A full understanding of the situation can help you come up with some consequences that are effective and not so punitive "as to remove all possibility of improvement" (as you say). And the best way to come to a full understanding is through good detective work.

One way to be a good detective is to observe behavior by using a functional behavioral assessment (i.e., observing your youngster and noting everything that happens before, during, and after problem behaviors). With a few weeks of observation, you can often uncover the things that provoke your youngster (e.g., the itchy sweater he is wearing, the long wait in the gym after the bus drop-off, the breeze coming through a classroom window, etc.).


Here’s is an example of a functional behavioral assessment:

Student’s name
: Ricky

Issue: Ricky had difficulty transitioning from resource room to physical education class

Location: The resource room

People involved: Resource teacher and classmates

Antecedent (i.e., what occurred before the incident): Resource teacher states, “It’s time for everyone to put their drawing materials away and get ready to go to the gym.”

  • Behavior #1 (i.e., what occurred during the incident): Ricky continued to draw in his art notebook. He glanced at classmates who had moved to the doorway.
  • Consequence #1 (i.e., what resulted at this stage of events): Resource teacher talked with the students for about one minute. She looked at Ricky and told him to put his pencil down and to get in line.
  • Behavior #2: Ricky turned his back to the teacher and threw his pencil on the floor.
  • Consequence #2: Teacher approached Ricky and told him to pick up the pencil.
  • Behavior #3: Ricky got up and picked up the pencil and took it to the art supplies drawer. Then he ran to the front of the classroom and climbed under the teacher’s desk.
  • Consequence #3: Teacher bent down to be at eye level with Ricky under the table and told him he was wasting everyone’s gym time, and that he needed to come out from under the desk and get in line.
  • Behavior #4: Ricky reached out his hand.
  • Consequence #4: Teacher took Ricky’s hand and led him to the end of the line.
  • Behavior #5: Ricky waved goodbye and smiled to his teacher and walked with the others to the gym.
  • Consequence #5: Teacher smiled, waved back and stated, “I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

Hypothesis (i.e., best guess as to why the behavior occurs based on the assumption that other antecedents, behaviors and consequences showed a similar pattern): Ricky was seeking attention from his resource teacher

Goal (i.e., corrective action plan): Teach Ricky a more appropriate way to seek his teacher’s attention

Objectives (i.e., potential strategies used to accomplish the goal):
  • allow Ricky to ask a classmate to walk next to him on the way to gym
  • allow Ricky to be “line-leader”
  • allow Ricky to be the "timer" who pushes the two-minute warning buzzer
  • post Ricky’s name on the "hard workers of the week" bulletin board
  • praise Ricky for a specific work-related behavior or academic response just before asking students to line up for gym time

Although the example above involved problematic behavior at school, the same method can be applied by parents for behavior at home. The more you learn about your youngster’s disorder and his unique quirkiness, the better you will be able to discover the true motive behind the behavior and apply appropriate discipline (or leniency if warranted).

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

More Structure Equals Less Behavioral Problems 

Here is a personal example of applying functional behavioral analysis (see if you can identify the antecedent, behavior, and consequence):

One of my child clients with High-Functioning Autism was experiencing meltdowns pretty much daily whenever he was in special education class, which he attended for one hour each morning for writing practice since his penmanship was poor. As most people know who work with children on the autism spectrum, they tend to have poor writing abilities due to fine motor skills deficits.

I was asked by Michael's parents to go to the school and sit in the classroom to investigate.  Here is what I observed:

Michael entered the classroom and took his seat, which was in the rear of the room nearest the door that led to the hallway. As he began to practice writing, he would get frustrated and erase what he had written repeatedly to the point where he wore several holes in the paper. At that point, he picked up his paper, tore it into tiny pieces and threw it on the floor. This resulted in the teacher escorting Michael to another room where he was isolated from the other students for a period of time.

To make a long story short, on the day of my investigation, I took my seat in the very back of the classroom behind Michael. I immediately noticed that since we were sitting near the exit, most of the hallway noise was very audible. I also knew that based on personal experience, many children with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's have hearing sensitivities. 

As I sat there, I had the thought that it would be difficult for even me to concentrate with the hustle and bustle right on the other side of the door. So purely on a hunch, we moved Michael to the front of the room furthest away from the door. We were pleasantly surprised to see that Michael was able to stay focused on his writing at that point and was not making as many mistakes, thus reducing his frustration-level.

So the hypothesis was this: Michael was unconsciously distracted by the noises in the hallway, which contributed to his frequent writing mistakes and frequent erasing. This in turn resulted in the writing paper being torn, which was the tipping-point for Michael to slip into a total state of frustration.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with High-Functioning Autism
Obviously, the corrective action was to move Michael to an area of the classroom that was less noisy and distracting. It also appeared to help that he was near the teacher and could receive frequent one-on-one assistance.

As a mother or father, you will need to develop a trained eye for your AS or HFA child, as well as an intuitive understanding of what makes him tic. Your youngster needs you to read all the hidden cues. He also needs to follow his own instincts, which may be telling him that something's too difficult, too uncomfortable, etc. Your youngster has no choice but to follow his instincts. Knowing this can help you be more empathetic and skilled in addressing difficult behavior.

Not all hidden cues are worth following. When you're investigating your youngster's confusing behavior, red herrings may show up (e.g., his eagerness to end a stressful situation by accepting blame even when it’s not his fault, your preconceived notions of “whodunit,” another youngster's self-protecting accusations, another adult's spin on the situation, etc.). 

If it feels to you like something is awry, chances are it is. Keep an open mind even in the face of seemingly “solid evidence,” and allow for the possibility that things may not be what they seem. Your intuition is still worth following – all “evidence” to the contrary.

Of course, there will be times when you have developed a wonderful hypothesis based on a good-faith investigation, but for some reason it just doesn’t pan-out (e.g., there is a missing piece of the puzzle that would make the picture so much clearer and turn your guesswork into certainty – if you could just find it; the strategies that have always worked in the past don't get the job done this time; the explanation you've developed through your intuition is not what is really going on, etc.). 

Always keep an eye out for that “missing link,” even if you seem to have resolved the situation to an acceptable degree. That little bit of extra information can resolve things more completely, and can help you prevent a particular problem behavior from occurring again.

More articles for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

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Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...


Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

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Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

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A child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can have difficulty in school because, since he fits in so well, many adults may miss the fact that he has a diagnosis. When these children display symptoms of their disorder, they may be seen as defiant or disruptive.

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