Autism affects one in 88 children. For families of children with autism, daily life can present unique challenges.

Claire Lea, M.Ed., BCBA, and Amy Threadgill, MS, BCBA, both behavior analysts with Le Bonheur Early Intervention and Development, address some questions about autism and behavioral issues. Le Bonheur is hosting a series of autism community workshops, in collaboration with the University of Memphis. Next classes are scheduled for Nov. 2 and Dec. 7 and will address challenging behaviors and daily routines, respectively.

What types of behavioral issues are common with autism?

Just as the social, communication and play skills vary among children with autism, so do the types of challenging behaviors. The caregivers are often the ones to identify what behaviors are challenging or affecting the child’s and family’s quality of life, and this can be different from family to family. The challenging behaviors commonly observed in children with autism include:

  • tantrums
  • aggressive behaviors
  • self-injurious behaviors
  • noncompliance
  • repetitive actions/play

Many of these behaviors can be displayed by typically developing children as well. The difference is in the frequency, duration, severity and context.

However, what is most important is not what the behaviors look like but why they are happening. For children with autism, challenging behaviors are often connected to their frustration with communication difficulties, social deficits, sensory preferences/aversions and intense interests. An adult stopping or denying access to that specific interest can lead to challenging behaviors.

Are there ways to address those behaviors?

Yes, behavior change is possible. Addressing challenging behaviors is very important – the earlier, the better. Research suggests that strategies based on behavior principles are effective in changing behavior.

Therapists or teachers trained in applied behavior analysis (ABA) are great resources for the child and family. It is important for families of children with autism to have an active role in ABA therapies, speech therapies and open communication with all professionals in the child’s life. All caregivers should know strategies to use in the home, providing consistency, more learning opportunities for the child and support for the parents.

The process includes identifying why the behavior is happening and providing an alternative, more appropriate behavior for the child to do instead. This often includes teaching a new skill to the child and reinforcing that behavior while minimizing the effectiveness of the old challenging behavior.

Adults often react to problem behaviors and want them to go away, but it is very important to use preventative procedures and to focus on enhancing the skills in those areas that children with autism often struggle – social interaction, communication and play.

What do you tell parents if their child’s classmate, friend (or even sibling) has autism? Are there ways you can help them communicate better with their friend?

Parents can point out how the two children are the same (similar interests, etc.). Parents might have to explain that their child might have to be patient with their friend and communicate in different ways (using gestures, pointing to objects, model actions, etc.).

Parents can model appropriate interaction with the child with autism by inviting them to play or joining in the child’s activity.

Books are a great way to teach children because they can learn through a story and characters, and it can be read over and over. Books we recommend include:

  • “My Friend Has Autism” by Amanda Doering Tourville
  • “A Rainbow of Friends” by P.K. Hallinan
  • “It’s Okay to be Different” by Todd Parr
  • “I’m Like You, You’re Like Me” by Cindy Gainer
  • “Giraffes Can’t Dance” by Giles Andreae
  • “Whoever You Are” by Mem Fox
  • “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf
  • “Barry: The Fish with Fingers” by Sue Hendra

You can find more helpful resources at autismspeaks.org.

What else do you recommend for parents of child with autism?

Early intervention is key and can lead to increased intellectual functioning, language development, peer interactions and fewer challenging behaviors. Involvement in structured settings and evidence-based treatments, such as applied behavior analysis, are critical in the progress of skills and learning.

Remember you are not alone. Ask your child’s school, doctors and therapists about local resources. Call or access the website of your local chapter of the Autism Society to find out about local events and organizations and to find information allowing you to move through process at your own pace. For the areas surrounding Le Bonheur, it is Autism Society of the Mid-South.