Behavior-Management for High-Functioning Autistic Students: Tips for Teachers

"I need some ideas on how to handle behavior problems in my students who have autism spectrum disorder. Thanks in advance!"

Managing children with High Functioning Autism (HFA), or Asperger’s, will present you with some unique and distinctive challenges. Not only will these children demand more of your time and patience, many will require specialized instructional techniques in a structured environment that supports and enhances their learning potential. It is important to remember that HFA children are not “disabled” or inept – they simply need differentiated instruction tailored to their unique learning abilities.


Currently, there is no single, uniform presenting picture of HFA in the first 3-4 years of life. The early picture may be difficult to distinguish from typical Autism, suggesting that when evaluating any autistic youngster with apparently normal intelligence, there is a strong possibility that he may eventually have a picture more compatible with an HFA diagnosis. Other kids may have early language delays with rapid "catch-up" between the ages of 3 and 5. Some of these young people – particularly the brightest ones – may have no evidence of early developmental delay (perhaps with the exception of some motor clumsiness). However, in almost all cases, if you look closely at the youngster between the age of about 3 and 5, clues to the diagnosis can be found. In most cases, a comprehensive evaluation at that age can at least point to a diagnosis along the autism spectrum.

Although these young people may seem to relate quite normally within the family setting, problems are often seen when they enter preschool. Problems may include:
  • aggression
  • appearing to be "in one's own little world"
  • difficulty regulating social/emotional responses with anger
  • difficulty with transitions
  • excessive anxiety
  • hyperactivity
  • odd verbal responses
  • preference for a set routine
  • problems sustaining simple conversations
  • tendency to avoid spontaneous social interactions
  • tendency to be perseverative or repetitive when conversing
  • tendency to over-focus on particular objects or subjects
  • tendency to show very weak skills in interactions

As you can see, this list is much like the early symptom list in classic Autism. However, compared to lower-functioning autistic kids, the youngster with HFA will have less abnormal language and conversational speech, may not be as obviously "different" from other kids, and is more likely to show some social interest in peers as well as grown-ups. Also, certain special skills may be present (e.g., letter or number recognition, rote memorization of various facts, etc.).

Elementary School—

Most young people with HFA will enter kindergarten without having been adequately diagnosed. In many cases, there will have been behavioral concerns (e.g., hyperactivity, inattention, aggression, outbursts, etc.) in the preschool years. Also, there may be concern over "immature" social skills and peer interactions. These children may already be viewed as being somewhat odd or unusual. If these problems are severe, special education may be suggested, but most kids with HFA usually enter a mainstream setting.

Oftentimes, academic progress in the early grades is an area of relative strength. For instance, calculation skills may be strong, and rote reading is usually quite good (although writing skills are often considerably weaker).

Educators may be astounded by the HFA youngster's "obsessive" areas of interest, which often intrude in the classroom setting.

Most HFA kids will show some social interest in other classmates, but they are likely to show weak “friend-making” and “friend-keeping” skills. They may show particular interest in one or two peers around them, but the depth of their interactions will be relatively superficial. On rare occasion, however, some HFA kids present as very pleasant and "social," particularly when interacting with grown-ups.

Depending on a range of factors (e.g., anxiety, quality of management at school, quality of parenting at home, hyperactivity/attentional problems, intelligence level, learning problems, temperamental style, etc.), the course through elementary school will vary considerably from youngster to youngster, and overall problems can range from mild and easily managed to severe and intractable.

 ==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

Middle School—

As the HFA youngster moves into middle school, the most difficult issues continue to be those related to social skills and behavior management. Due to the fact that kids with HFA are frequently managed in mainstream educational settings, and because their specific developmental problems may be more easily overlooked (especially if they are relatively smart), they are often misunderstood at this age by both educators and peers.

In middle school, educators have less opportunity to get to know a youngster well, thus problems with behavior or study habits may be misinterpreted as emotional or motivational problems.

In certain less structured settings (e.g., cafeteria, physical education class, playground, etc.), the HFA youngster may get into escalating conflicts with educators and/or peers who may not be familiar with his developmental style of interacting. This, in turn, can lead to more serious behavioral problems in the HFA child, because stress and anxiety have built-up to the point of “meltdown.”

In middle school, where the tolerance for differences is minimal and the pressures for conformity are maximal, kids with HFA may be teased, bullied, ignored, and misunderstood. Wanting to “fit in,” but unable to, these “special needs” kids may withdraw even more, and their behavior may become increasingly problematic (e.g., school refusal, aggression, non-cooperation, etc.). Also, some degree of anxiety and depression are common complicating factors during this time.

If there are no significant learning disabilities, academic performance can continue strong, particularly in those areas of special interest. However, learning and attentional/organizational difficulties may be present (e.g., there may be ongoing subtle tendencies to misinterpret information, particularly abstract or figurative/idiomatic language). 

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

High School—

Fortunately, by high school, peer-tolerance for individual variations and odd behavior often increases to some extent. Also, if the HFA youngster does well academically, it can bring a measure of respect from his peers.

Some HFA kids will fit-in socially as "geeks," a group which they actually resemble in many ways and which may overlap with HFA. The HFA teenager often forms friendships with peers who share his interests through avenues like Star Trek clubs, science fairs, math clubs, and computer clubs.

With a little luck and proper management, many of these “special needs” teens will have developed considerable coping and social skills, as well as a general ability to "fit-in" more comfortably by this age.

Ideas for Behavior-Management in the Classroom—

1. Avoid escalating power struggles. HFA kids often don’t understand rigid displays of authority – and will themselves become more rigid and stubborn if forcefully confronted. Their behavior can then get rapidly out of control, and at that point, it is often better for the educator to back-off and let things cool down. When possible, anticipate such situations and take preventative measures to avoid the confrontation through presentation of choices, negotiation, and diversion of attention elsewhere.

2. Care should be taken to protect the HFA youngster from teasing and bullying – both in and out of the classroom.

3. Classroom routines should be kept as consistent, structured and predictable as possible. Kids with HFA usually don't like surprises. They should be prepared in advance for changes and transitions (e.g., schedule breaks, vacation days, etc.).

4. Direct speech services may not be needed, but the speech and language clinician at school can be useful as a consultant to the other staff regarding ways to address problems in areas such as pragmatic language.

5. Educators can take advantage of the strong academic skills that many HFA kids have in order to help them gain acceptance with their classmates.

6. Educators should take full advantage of the HFA youngster's areas of special interest when teaching. The youngster will learn best when an area of high personal interest is on the agenda. Educators can also use access to the special interests as a reward to the youngster for successful completion of other tasks, adherence to rules, and meeting behavioral expectations.

7. Efforts should be made to help classmates arrive at a better understanding of the HFA youngster in a way that will promote tolerance and acceptance.

8. HFA kids can be fairly rigid about following "rules" quite literally. While clearly expressed rules and guidelines (preferably written down) are helpful, they should be applied with some flexibility. The rules don’t automatically have to be exactly the same for the HFA youngster as for the other kids, because their needs and abilities are different.

9. HFA kids with very high-management needs may benefit from assistance from a classroom aide assigned to them.

10. If learning problems are present, resource room or tutoring can be helpful to provide individualized explanation and review.

11. If motor clumsiness is significant, the school Occupational Therapist can provide helpful input.

12. It is often helpful for the educator and parent to work closely together, because the parent is most familiar with what has worked in the past for the HFA youngster.

==> Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

13. It is very helpful if the HFA youngster can be given opportunities to help other kids at times.

14. Keep teaching fairly concrete. Avoid language that may be misunderstood by the HFA youngster (e.g., sarcasm, confusing figurative speech, idioms, etc.) Try to simplify more abstract language and concepts.

15. Know that the HFA student usually shows a surprising sensitivity to the personality of the educator. He can be taught, but only by those who give him true understanding and affection. The educator’s underlying emotional attitude influences (involuntarily and unconsciously) the mood and behavior of this “special needs” youngster.

16. Most kids with HFA respond well to the use of visuals (e.g., schedules, charts, lists, pictures, etc.).

17. Put as many details as possible into an Individual Educational Plan so that progress can be monitored and carried over from year to year. It can sometimes be helpful to enlist the aid of outside consultants familiar with the management of young people on the autism spectrum (e.g., psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.).

18. Realize that the HFA youngster has an inherent developmental disorder which causes her to behave and respond in a different way compared to other students. Oftentimes, behaviors in the HFA student are interpreted as "manipulative" or some other term that misses the point that she responds differently to environmental stimuli. Thus, school staff must carefully individualize their approach for this “special needs” child. It will likely be counterproductive to treat her just the same as her peers.

19. The school counselor or social worker can provide direct social skills training, as well as general emotional support.

20. The use of a "buddy system" can be very useful since HFA kids relate best 1-1. Careful selection of a peer-buddy for the HFA youngster can be a tool to help build social skills, encourage friendships, and reduce stigmatization.

21. There will be specific situations where medication can occasionally be useful. Educators should be alert to the potential for mood problems (e.g., anxiety or depression), significant compulsive symptoms or ritualistic behaviors, and problems with inattention. Occasionally, medication may be needed to address more severe behavior problems that have not responded to non-medical, behavioral interventions.

22. Try to insure that school staff outside of the classroom (e.g., physical education teacher, bus driver, school nurse, cafeteria monitor, librarian, etc.) are (a) familiar with the HFA youngster's style and needs and (b) have been given adequate training in management approaches. Those less structured settings where the routines and expectations are less clear tend to be difficult for the HFA youngster.

23. Try to promote appropriate social interactions and help the youngster “fit-in” better. Formal, didactic social-skills training can take place both in the classroom and in more individualized settings. Approaches that have been most successful utilize direct modeling and role playing at a concrete level. By rehearsing and practicing how to handle various social situations, the HFA youngster can learn to generalize the skills to naturalistic settings.

It is inevitable that you will have the opportunity of working with children on the autism spectrum in your classroom. You may need to make accommodations for some and modifications for others. Providing for the needs of these young people will certainly be one of your greatest challenges as a teacher. Consider the tips and strategies listed above to make behavior-management and the learning process run as smoothly as possible.

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

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

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

==> 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

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

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