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Increasing Knowledge and Awareness

The many reasons why people with Autism might display difficult and challenging behaviour should always be considered from a range of perspectives.

But first and foremost with an understanding that the behaviour indicates the person is unable to cope at that moment and they are unable to tell us why.

Fortunately, these difficult and distressing situations are being reduced with the ever increasing knowledge and awareness of what it means to have Autism. Many appropriate supports are being developed and implemented throughout the education sector, workplaces and beyond.

By providing those supports to the people with Autism in our care they may continue to learn and grow, enabled to lead contented, fulfilling lives. To change behaviour, we need to understand why it is occurring. Frequently, challenging behaviour occurs, not because the person who has Autism is trying to be ‘difficult’ but because they are trying to respond to a situation in the only way they know how.

Difficult behaviour is frequently the result of a clash between the demands of a situation and the person’s skills to respond. By providing a means for them to communicate in a more appropriate way we provide the key to behaviour support for all people with Autism.


From early childhood to adulthood, every individual with Autism needs to be able to understand us and express their own needs and desires. We must be aware that for those without verbal skills, behaviour—possibly challenging—is likely to become the communication of last resort. As a starting point, to enhance communication we might need to modify the way we speak and remember to:

  • Use key words with short sentences.
  • Speak calmly.
  • Avoid quickly repeating a directive if the person has not responded. They may need up to 20, even 30, seconds to absorb and act upon spoken information.

When the person is stressed they will have even more difficulty with language. Their stress may lead to mounting frustration, confusion and ultimately an outburst. People who have Autism— even those who generally have quite good language skills—are likely to lose those skills when they become stressed and confused.


Provide visual supports

Always consider how information may be presented visually. Research and everyday practice have long shown that people with Autism are able to grasp information more readily when it’s presented visually, rather than from the spoken word. Visual supports may be computer generated such as Boardmaker™, or simple line drawings or photos—according to the person’s ability to understand. They may be used in many and various ways, including:

  • A choice board to enable the person to choose an activity, food items or where they would like to go.
  • A visual schedule to provide valuable support at school or in the workplace, enabling the person to see what is about to happen and what comes after.
  • Objects to serve as visual supports e.g. the person may be handed their hat and sunglasses to remind them where they are about to go.
  • Written lists for those with good reading and comprehension skills.
  • Calendars, with words or graphics according to the person’s ability.


Daily instruction sheets

For a number of people with Autism who are in gainful employment, much of their success is due to the fact their daily workload is directed visually. With their daily visual instruction sheets, which are readily understood, stress levels generally remain low and they are able to meet expectations as great employees.


Sensory differences

Only in recent years has the impact of sensory differences in people with Autism been recognised. It is now acknowledged with changes to the Autism diagnostic criteria, which came into force in 2013. The sensation of sound, sight, smell, taste and touch might be markedly different for people with Autism; and we should remain aware these factors can impact heavily upon the person causing distress. The following highlights some of the most common sensory differences.

  • Sounds that provide little or no discomfort to us might seem painfully loud.
  • Bright or flickering lights might cause discomfort, agitation.
  • A gentle touch might feel unpleasant causing the person to flinch or back away.
  • Certain smells might overwhelm.
  • Certain foods might be rejected due to various reasons including taste, texture and smell.

Not all people with Autism have sensory difficulties, but many do with varying degrees of intensity. Also, their experience of sensation might vary from day to day. For example, some days the person might cope with a loud noise, while other days it could cause distress. For those who are sound sensitive ear muffs can provide valuable relief. Always consider the impact of the sensory environment when behavioural difficulties arise.


Provide scheduled breaks

Scheduled breaks away from the pressures of a busy environment and challenging work can provide much-needed relief for the student at school or those in employment. Many schools are recognising the benefits of a quiet retreat for their students, especially for those who have Autism. In schools, the retreat might be a corner of the classroom sectioned off, perhaps by a bookcase. The student with Autism is not regarded as ‘special’ in accessing this special area as other students could have access at specific times.

With scheduled downtime throughout the day, students’ stress levels are less likely to escalate—the ‘Quiet Corner’ provides a calming place. Whether at school, in the workplace, at home or elsewhere, all people with Autism will benefit greatly if they are able to access a quiet place from time to time throughout the day to help them maintain a calm state. Not only people with Autism—we can all benefit from a calming place.

Complexity/volume of work

Task avoidance is often due to the fear of failure. For such a student—or person in the workplace—the prospect of being unable to complete set work may be overwhelming. A refusal to even embark upon a task may be due to awareness they are unable to complete the work in the allotted time. If well intentioned staff persist in urging because they ‘know he can do it’, mounting stress is likely to lead to an outburst, which might then be interpreted simply as ‘non-compliance’.
When presenting work:

  • Keep in mind the fear of failure, especially if the person is already showing signs of stress. Consider reducing the volume of work.
  • Ensure that tasks presented have already been well practised. Never assume that they can ‘work out’ how to do it.
  • Ensure that any variation to a task has been shown and practised before it is expected to be undertaken independently.
  • In school and the workplace, it will be helpful if clear visual indicators are provided to show that following this task there will be a break, lunch time or it’s time to go home.

Under stimulation

If tasks are too simple, or if the person is continually expected to repeat tasks using the same materials, they are likely to become bored. Boredom can lead to inappropriate behaviour and the refusal to work. Work needs to be motivating which often means tapping into the interests as well as the skills of the individual. Consider what motivates the person when offering a reward, bearing in mind that stickers are not rewarding for some children. People with Autism, of all ages, are likely to have interests which we might consider unusual. Sometimes, some detective work is needed to discover exactly what it is that most interests and motivates the person.


In the absence of a likely reason such as a major change to a routine, or an overwhelming environment, it is always wise to consider medical reasons when there is unexplained change in behaviour. Because the person is unable to tell us they have a headache or a toothache or any other complaint, there is a great risk that some onlookers might interpret those behavioural difficulties in a simplistic way, such as ‘that’s just Autism…’

Also, we must remember that even the person who has verbal skills may sometimes be unable to tell us how they feel. They may have difficulty understanding what the feeling of pain means, adding to their distress.

Portrait of cute autistic boy with headphones

Key points in preventing and addressing behavioural difficulties

  • Through enquiry and observation get to know the person.
  • Take action before stress escalates to point of meltdown.
  • Ask yourself why certain behaviour might be occurring.
  • From your knowledge of the person consider how the situation can be resolved.
  • Support communication.
  • Provide calm reassurance.
  • Allow them their personal space.
  • Use familiar visual supports.
  • Provide ear muffs for sound sensitivity.
  • Where possible, relocate from noisy environment if signs of stress.
  • If possible, avoid loud busy environments that are likely to present difficulties; or
  • Limit time spent in loud busy environments.
  • Consider lowering expectations on amount and complexity of workload when signs of stress.
  • Provide calm, clear redirection (visual support).
  • Maintain quiet, calm tone of voice, showing you want to help— in a nonintrusive way.

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