Challenging behaviors are among the most upsetting and visible features of autism, causing stress and potential for physical injury, property damage, and isolation. Caregivers are susceptible to burnout compounded by lack of social support in the community due to the complexity of the behavior and lack of resources. Common challenging behaviors can include:

  • Self-injury
  • Aggression
  • Property destruction
  • Tantrum behavior
  • Disruptive behavior
  • Noncompliance
  • Repetitive behavior/stereotypy

Although these behaviors are upsetting, it is important to understand that they serve as a form of communication for an individual with ASD. Gaining understanding of the cause of the problem behavior is an important first step to helping the individual with autism find a better way to express their needs. It is also vital to empower caregivers with more effective response strategies.

Keep reading to understand more about why challenging behaviors occur and how to start intervention.

Problem Behaviors in Autism

Problem behaviors are often learned and can therefore can often be unlearned

An individual with autism will learn to use a problem behavior by the consequences that follow. If the problem-behavior creates a desirable outcome, it serves a function.

Often, that function is communication.

There are many different reasons why an individual with autism might engage in a problem-behavior. Mainly it is a way of signaling that a need is not being met. Perhaps they are trying to get something that is out of reach, or they are trying to avoid something unpleasant. Regardless of the cause, challenging behaviors persist because of how they are being reinforced.

For example:

  • When self-injurious behavior leads to getting attention, getting a tangible item, getting to participate in an activity, or providing sensory stimulation similar to how neurotypical individuals bite their nails, the individual receives positive reinforcement.
  • When a tantrum leads to an individual getting out of undesirable activities like brushing their teeth or doing homework or makes an unpleasant sensory experience stop, such as the sound of a vacuum cleaner or blender, the individual receives negative reinforcement.

In order to change these behaviors, a parent or caregiver must slowly integrate new methods of communication for the individual to use instead of the problem-behavior. In addition, the parent or caregiver should try to reinforce the negative behavior as little as possible. By doing this, the individual will learn positive behaviors to replace the negative ones.

Understanding the root cause of a challenging behavior is vital to any treatment plan. Sometimes the behavior serves multiple functions, so it is essential to thoroughly investigate the situation(s) in which the individual engages in the undesirable behavior.

Breaking down the events surrounding problem behaviors

“If we select an intervention based on the child’s behavior only, and ignore the environmental reasons, we can – at best – stop the behavior temporarily. We cannot stop it for good because the reasons for it continue to exist” – Ted Carr

The first step to intervening with a challenging behavior is to understand the context in which the behavior take place.

Even though it may feel like the behavior is occurring all the time, it is more likely that there are specific scenarios that make the behavior worse. We can assess the setting in which a problem-behavior takes place by breaking it down into four parts:

  1. Setting Events: things leading up to the trigger event. (i.e. bad night of sleep or stomachache)
  2. Antecedent: the event that triggers the challenging behavior (i.e. time to go to school, bedtime, dinnertime, grocery shopping, etc.)
  3. Behavior: the problem-behavior (i.e. self-injury, screaming, violence)
  4. Consequences: the desired outcome (i.e gaining attention or leaving an undesirable activity)

Assessing problem behavior

Treatments that are based on thorough assessments are twice as likely to succeed than ones that are not. This is why functional behavioral assessments are an important part of planning an intervention. Functional behavioral assessments can include:

  1. Interviewing: conducting an interview with the individual, parent and/or teacher (or anyone else involved).
  2. Direct observation: conducted across multiple settings, using multiple observers. Some helpful assessment tools include
    1. MAS (motivation assessment scale)
    2. QABF (questions about behavioral functions)
    3. FAC – ( functional assessment checklist)
    4. Setting Events checklist
    5. Contextual Assessment Inventory (CAI)
  3. Functional analysis: experimenting to verify the function of the behavior. Manipulating consequences in a standard vs. controlled setting. Manipulating antecedents to look at the effect on the behavior.

Once the root of the problem is identified, you can begin to craft an intervention plan.

Note: In some instances, an individual with autism might be using a problem-behavior, to communicate discomfort caused by a medical issue. If a behavioral intervention does not seem to be working, a proper medical assessment should occur to rule out any underlying medical problems.


There are many methods that are used to treat a problem-behavior. These treatments include replacement strategies, prevention strategies and response strategies. Learn more about treating problem-behaviors for individuals with autism.

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