Behaviour is Communication

Simply put, behaviour is all about how we act or behave in a situation or under particular conditions.

Everything we do is ‘behaviour’, and everybody communicates through their behaviour. A person with Autism may behave in ways that are unexpected or unusual in order to communicate effectively in a situation.

For example, a person needing help might suddenly call out, stand near someone or touch them on the arm.  In this situation, all these behaviours would communicate the same intention or purpose, however, some of these behaviours may be considered more appropriate than others, depending on the context. (For example, calling out may be an acceptable behaviour in a park but not in a library).

Behaviour is contextual. It’s more than just what the person does. It involves the interaction between the person, their specific situation, their environment, and the other people around them. So, to understand behaviour we need to look beyond what we merely see on the surface. It’s important to remember that the underlying difficulties related to Autism characteristics can contribute to challenging behaviour, but challenging behaviour in and of itself is not a core feature of Autism and is not synonymous with Autism.

Behaviour Has a Purpose

Behaviour is a form of communication that can convey an important message.  There is always a reason for the way we behave. 

At times behaviours may be viewed as challenging to manage. However, behaviours don’t happen because the person is intentionally trying to be ‘difficult’, and they generally don’t “come out of the blue” even if the cause isn’t immediately obvious. Challenging behaviour often indicates that the person is unable to cope at that moment and can’t express why in a typical way.  It’s frequently the result of a clash between the demands of the situation and the person’s skills to respond, and is influenced by how they feel, what’s happened before and what is happening around them at the time.  

The impact of these behaviours is what makes them challenging, both for the person and those around them.

Behaviour is called ‘challenging’ because it challenges those who support the person to understand why it is happening (like parents, carers, teachers and professionals). Challenging behaviours are sometimes called ‘Behaviours of Concern’. Behaviours become concerning if they impact the quality of a person’s life or put them or those around them at risk.

Challenging behaviour usually has 2 main functions:  To get or get away from something (like an item, an activity, a sensation, attention or a person). 

It is always important to rule out pain or illness as possible contributors to unexpected behaviours. 

Imagine you suddenly feel pain while having some dental work done.  If you couldn’t use words to express yourself, how would you let the dentist know?  More than likely you’d use behaviour to communicate, like grimacing, groaning, waving your hand or jumping out of your seat.

To prevent a behaviour from occurring (or to reduce the likelihood of it happening again), we first need to understand the purpose of the behaviour. To understand why a behaviour happens, we need to consider all the contributing factors — the person’s Autism characteristics; their skills; the environment that they are in; the expectations placed on them; and the other people involved in the situation.


  • It’s the behaviour that is challenging, not the person.
  • There is always a reason for behaviour. If we want to change a behaviour, we first need to explore why it is happening and understand the function t serves for the person.
  • Just because behaviour has a purpose, doesn’t mean it’s being done on purpose.

Possible reasons why challenging behaviour may happen: 

  • Underlying difficulties related to Autism 
  • A co-occurring condition
  • Health related challenges
  • The environment
  • The actions or reactions of other people around the person
  • The way in which the person is being supported or not supported

A Positive Behaviour Support Approach

The reason for each person’s behaviour of concern is different. Challenging behaviour usually occurs not because of only one reason, but many. Understanding how Autism impacts the person, can be helpful when exploring the possible reasons for a challenging behaviour.

Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is an evidence-based approach aimed at improving a person’s quality of life and reducing the impact of challenging behaviour. This framework has a strong values base and seeks to understand the person’s behaviour in context. A Positive Behaviour Support Approach allows for a more holistic perspective, where it is recognised that behaviour is a form of communication and that there is always a reason behind what is happening. 

Why do we use a Positive Behaviour Support Approach? 

  • PBS is an evidence-based approach, meaning that high-quality research has proven it to be successful.
  • PBS is underpinned by a strong commitment to human rights, enhancing quality of life and promoting community inclusion and participation.
  • PBS uses assessments that look beyond the behaviour itself and considers the interaction between the person, their environment and the people around them.
  • PBS involves several steps that help us to collaboratively identify, prioritise and describe behaviours and establishes common ground among all those involved.
  • PBS involves the development of an individualised plan which summarise the supports the person, and their significant others, requires to make positive changes to address unmet needs.
  • PBS develops the skills of the person (like helping them find more effective ways to communicate and building on everyday living skills) to help them experience success and personal satisfaction.
  • PBS is a collaborative approach that includes the important people in the person’s life like their family members, carers, staff, teachers, employers etc. This means that support is more likely to be implemented across all settings of the person’s life, thus having a greater and more enduring impact.
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