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Behavior Tips and Tricks

“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day…I think I’ll move to Australia.” You remember that line from Judith Vorst’s beloved children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day, right?

Bad behavior happens to good kids. Usually at the worst time for those around them. With an autism diagnosis, those behaviors can seem even more exaggerated. It is our belief that all behavior happens for a reason. Figuring out why a certain behavior or set of behaviors is happening, not only helps to improve your child’s behavior, but your family functioning as well. We hope to give families a “cheat sheet” to help identify values, norms and expectations so that you as parents become more skillful in understanding and reshaping your child’s behavior.

Figuring out How (or What) to Help

  • Assessment of your child’s individual strengths and challenges
    • A developmentally based assessment to determine skill strengths and deficiencies
  • A Functional Behavioral Assessment of your child’s behavior
    • The process of determining the causes and functions of your child’s challenging behavior
  • An Environmental Assessment of your home
    • The process of determining the relationship between the events and/or surroundings in your child’s environment and the occurrence of their challenging behaviors
    • Includes the physical environment, mode of communication, parent-child interactions, child-sibling interactions, family interactions, temperament of family members
  • Developing a Plan
    • A written plan to address skill acquisition and behavioral change
    • Includes teaching strategies for skill acquisition, positive behavioral strategies, how to observe and assess your family’s behavior and more
  • Learning how to implement the Strategies
    • Your consultant will train you and your family how to implement the skill acquisition/behavior plan
  • Implementation of the Plan
    • Following through with the plan on a daily basis
  • Ongoing evaluation of the Plan
    • Taking data to chart progress of the plan or to help assess why a specific strategy may not be working
  • Consistency and Follow-through
    • The key to any strong behavioral program is actually following through with the plan on a daily basis with consistency across environments, situations and family members

That all sounds a bit scary, doesn’t it? Your service provider will either be able to do these assessments with you or refer you to an appropriate professional that can help.

Common Motivators for Behavior

  • Attention-seeking
    • The purpose of the behavior is to gain the attention of another person/people.  The attention received can be positive or negative, as long as it is attention.
  • Communication
    • The behavior may be communicating a message or a request by the child. Children with expressive language delays may often resort to behavioral interaction when they can’t express themselves.
  • Escape/Avoidance
    • This behavior serves the function of helping a child avoid something they perceive to be unpleasant. Children want to escape from or avoid a variety of activities including large groups, intense conversation, interactive play and more.
  • Gaining Access to items/activities
    • When a parent “gives up” and “gives in” to their child’s behavior, they are rewarded with what they wanted to begin with.
  • Automatic Reinforcement
    • Some behaviors are engaged in simply because they are intrinsically reinforcing to the child.
  • Control
    • Children will often use behavior as a way to control their environment.
  • Compulsiveness
    • Some children exhibit ritualistic repetitive behaviors that have no apparent function. These behaviors are sometimes functional of a sensory-related deficit.
Stop… Look… and Listen

Sometimes a child will engage in a behavior for reasons not obvious to us. Take a minute to stop, look and listen to the environment around the situation. Something that might seem normal to us or something that might not even catch our attention can be unusually offensive to a child with behavioral challenges. Below are some situations that may cause a child to have an unusual reaction:

  • High pitched sounds (horns, fire alarms, other children)
  • Loud noises (lawn mower, hair dryer, vacuum)
  • Touch (light or firm)
  • Certain odors
  • Light (intensity of)
  • Overly stimulating visual material
  • Some children have hyper- (too much) or hypo-(too little) sensitive reactions to certain stimuli. Below are some suggestions for addressing intense reactions to some common issues:
  • Turn off half of the lights and/or not using fluorescents
  • Slowly introduce offensive sounds in short lengths of time, at low volumes, then increase length and volume
  • Provide a quiet area for the child to reorganize themselves
  • A sensory integration program for children with tactile (touch) issues

Thinking Outside the Parenting Box

  • Acknowledge and understand feeling being overwhelmed
    • Take time to do something you…hobbies
    • Be sure to have a “date” night
    • Utilize support groups
    • Make a “stress plan”
    • Prioritize
  • Thinking outside of  the box with your child
    • Be flexible
    • Change you, change your child
    • Choose your battles
    • Focus on the positives, no matter how small they may seem
    • Give age appropriate information to your child
    • Family Meetings…”Round Table”
    • Have a “tool box” of coping strategies
  • Organizing the home to diminish the chaos
    • Maintain Family Routine
    • Schedule
    • Set Limits
    • Share responsibilities among family members
    • Use statements not questions to get what you need done
  • Toolbox of Adult-Centered Coping Strategies
    • Respect & Dignity
    • Humor
    • Listening
    • Encouragement
    • Schedule
    • Routine
    • Support Groups
    • Preparation for Procedures
    • Re-Direction
    • Offering a Level of Control
    • Opportunities for Independence
    • Respite Relief
  • Toolbox of Child-Centered Coping Strategies
    • Mental Imagery
    • Biofeedback
    • Yoga/Exercise
    • Sensory Activities
    • Relaxation
    • Social Support
    • Art/Play Therapy
    • Hobbies
    • “Take a Breath”
    • “Emotional Garden”
    • Family Activities/Night
    • Books/Social Stories
    • Thinking Skills/Problem-Solving
  • The “Anger” Toolbox: When relaxing isn’t an option
    • Physical Activity
    • Punching Bag/Pop-up Bag
    • Jumping on Trampoline
    • Running
    • Shredding/Crumpling Paper
    • “Throwing Basket”
    • Painting
    • Scream

Remember Alexander? He’s still having a bad day.  “When I went to bed Nick took back the pillow he said I could keep and the Mickey Mouse night light burned out and I bit my tongue.  The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not with me. It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” “Mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia.”


Adapted with permission by Lori Schulman from
Building a Happy Home: Behavioral Architecture for Healthier Living
©2003-2012 Behavioral Architecture™