How to Handle the 4 Most Challenging Autism Behaviors
Do you have an autistic child? Here are parenting tips to help.
Julie Z. Rosenberg, Contributor
Articles> Special Needs Care Considerations> How to Handle the 4 Most Challenging Autism Behaviors
boy crying

Does your child scream if he can't wear his favorite shoes? Does he enjoy fondling material of certain textures without regard for where or on whom that fabric may be located? Does he fear the toilet, the market, the dentist?

This was part of a post about "The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism" left by Shannon Des Roches Rosa, mom to an 11-year-old son with autism, as well as a high-profile advocate and educator for autism awareness.

If so, take note -- he's trying to tell you how he feels and what he needs from you: behavior as communication, she continues.

"Pay attention to cues -- what is your child trying to tell you?" says Lynette Fraga, PhD, VP of Early Care and Education and Special Populations at "Parents and care providers have to be incredibly responsive and sensitive to children with autism regarding their behaviors," she says, imparting a necessary vigilance and hyper-awareness on the part of the parent.

Amanda Friedman, co-owner and director of Emerge & See Education Center, agrees, adding, "We need to become translators of our children's behaviors."

After speaking with several child development experts and parents of kids with autism, we highlighted the four most challenging autism behaviors and provide advice on how to best handle them.

  1. Sleep Disruption
    Sleep can be tough for kids with autism, as they tend to have highly sensitive nervous systems. Even the slightest variation in their day can affect their sleep for the night.

    "We have to be extremely careful not to give Leo anything that has any caffeine," says Des Roches Rosa, who lives in Redwood City, Calif. "He can't have any chocolate after 3pm or he will be up all night. He's a very active, athletic boy, so we make sure he gets a lot of exercise during the day. If not, he also doesn't sleep."

    Many parents find that creating a nocturnal oasis helps a lot. Eileen Riley-Hall, author of "Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum," says to think sensory-wise: room-darkening shades, a white noise machine, weighted blankets. "Basically anything you can do to make sleep more appealing," suggests the mother of two teenage girls on the spectrum.

    But beware the common pitfall of unwittingly enabling their irregular sleeping habits, says Friedman. "A lot of parents feel that when their child wakes up in the middle of the night they have to get him something to eat, turn on the TV, and immediately cater to the fact that he stirred or woke up as opposed to bringing him or her back to bed. It's just a matter of teaching their bodies that it's still nighttime and we're not going to start the day just because you woke up."

    One way to do this, Friedman suggests, is through visual supports like the TEACCH program method: "Show them a picture of a clock and a picture of Mom and Dad and say, 'You can come into our room when your clock matches this clock.'"

    Autism Speaks offers free downloadable toolkits, one of which is all about sleep.

  2. Food Sensitivity
    "Kids with autism are historically tremendously picky and selective and limited in what they will eat," says Riley-Hall. "It's a sensory thing; you have to have lots of trial and error, certain textures, certain foods." When her girls were younger-they are now 13 and 11-she didn't make them eat anything they didn't want to eat: "For me it's more important for mealtime be pleasurable. Everybody eats more if they feel relaxed, so in the past I have made them something different to eat and then we all sat down together to eat."

    Alison Berkley, co-owner and co-director of Emerge & See Education Center talks about a tactic learned from Susan Roberts, an autism educator and consultant with a specialty in picky eaters.

    Getting your child to eat a variety of foods starts with expanding their tolerance level: "It doesn't even need to be that the child eats a new food but that they tolerate it being on the table," says Berkley. "At the next meal they tolerate it being on the plate and then they tolerate just touching it. Then you can slowly expand their repertoire of food."

    She recommends a slow, gentle and positive approach "because you want them to take their fear and anxiety around food and transform it into a sense of empowerment and a sense of control."

  3. Meltdowns
    Meltdowns happen, that's a given. What matters is how prepared you are and how you can minimize their occurrence.

    "Don't put your child in over his or her head," warns author Riley-Hall, who is also an English teacher at an inclusive high school in upstate New York. "I have parents I talk to who say, 'Well, everyone is going to Six Flags for the day," and I'm like, 'Well, you might not be able to do that.' If you know it's a situation where it's going to be really long or really difficult, you're just sort of setting them up. You have to accept that there are limitations that come with having a child with autism."

    With a tantrum, the child is still in control, they want to get their own way, explains Riley-Hall. With a meltdown, they can't calm down and at that point either they've gotten themselves so upset or so overwhelmed they're no longer in control of the situation. "And they can be difficult to judge," she says. "It's really important not to always give in to meltdowns because you're afraid of them. The basic thing is to hold them and calm them and wait until they can calm down themselves. I know some kids have really egregious meltdowns, so it's important not to put them in a situation where you think they may have one but if they do, just keep them safe and soothe them in whatever way you know works until they can recover."

    If a tantrum happens in public and unwanted eyes (and comments) are directed your way, you can curtail further scrutiny simply by handing out pre-made wallet-size cards that say things like, "My child has autism," with a website listed for them to learn more. You can get these through various autism organizations or make your own.

  4. Aggressive Behavior
    Aggressive and self-injurious behaviors are fairly common in children with autism, says Des Roches Rosa. When her son Leo acts aggressively, it's usually due to sensory overload or frustration with his inability to communicate his needs effectively. "Most times, when people better understand the basis for the aggressive or self-injurious behavior and then accommodate or support the person with autism, things can improve dramatically," she says.

    Des Roches Rosa swears by data tracking: "We keep scrupulous notes about Leo and his behaviors and all the factors in his day." Having done this for years, De Roches Rosa incorporates notes his day: what he eats, how much he sleeps, even whether his father is on a business trip. "We can actually identify seasonal behavioral arcs. So when something is wrong, we can go back and figure it out."

    Certain things can set Leo off, says Des Roches Rosa. "Like a change in barometric pressure, which can really affect his sinuses. When he's acting out there's usually a reason for it and in almost all cases we can find out what it is."

    But when Leo went through an extremely violent phase, Des Roches Rosa called in a behaviorist. "A good behaviorist is purely there to analyze and understand and come up with positive solutions for behavioral issues," she explains.

    So what does Des Roches Rosa do when Leo's in the throes of aggressive or self-injurious behavior? "We have to consider safety first," she says. "We move away, we say very loudly and clearly, 'Stop' or 'No' and make it very clear with a very different, very strict tone of voice that what he's doing is not okay."

Something to Remember
"If you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism," says Dr. Fraga, referring to a popular saying within the autism community. She adds, "There is so much diversity in terms of how autism plays out with each child. The idea that everyone is the same is mythical." This uniqueness can be embraced as well as prepared for.

Julie Z. Rosenberg is a mom to two kids (one of whom has hemiparesis) and lives in Brooklyn, New York. She has written for ParentDish, New York Times' Motherlode and HuffPost Parents, and produced a monthly column on Park Slope Patch, called You Don't Know Jack, about navigating the complex world of being a special needs mom.

Check out child care near you:
Lafayette, CA
Allentown, PA
Cottondale, AL
Hartford City, IN
Milwaukee, WI
Or take a look at some other care options:
Or take a look at some other care options:
Get the right care—
right when you need it.
Get the right care—right when you need it.
Already a member? Sign in
(20) Comments
Jaime turney
Jaime turney
I have a 3 year old son who is autistic and I don't know anything about this disorder , I feel completely stupid and helpless in this situation . we have days when I feel like I just can't cope with everything and the meltdowns , also I don't understand sensory at all someone please any suggestions or information you could offer would be greatly appreciated .I've been reading on autism and sensory trying to learn about it . thank you for taking the time to read my post
April 12, 2015 at 3:13 PM
My daughter is 18 and has autism and cerebral palsy. She has many sleepless nights affecting the entire household, tries to control every moment of my days, and is currently screaming bloody murder because she wants to go somewhere and I do not. She has turned the air blue with foul language, has thrown things all over the place, hit me and nothing I do is calming her down. This is just a sample of behaviors that control our family life. She doesn't have a meltdown every day, but often enough to be utterly exhausting for us all. Anyone else have a child like this?
April 11, 2015 at 2:45 PM
I have a 21 nonverbal autistic son who has become increasingly aggressive towards us, I feel like we live in hell most days. He can be fine one minute and the next minute he'll attack injurying us and himself, he has broken zo many windows I've lost count, everyday I wake up and pray to God for peace. I have never felt so hopless in my life! Will there ever be anything out there to help families? I know we are not the only ones living this same life as we are!
April 8, 2015 at 8:54 PM
Autism hurts
Autism hurts
My son is nearly 4 years old and is on the spectrum as of a year ago this may! It has been a roller coaster trying to get him to gain weight so he can get his gtube out that he has had since he was 5 months old! Eating is not a strong suit for him; he's in developmental prek and just started aba therapy once a week.. he speaks well but his behavior is terrible can barely take him any where. He is aggressive and non compliant, he is still in diapers because of his bowels and refuses to sleep in a big boy bed so he is still in a crib! Things are hard and up and down every day; I try and take it all one day at a time. If anyone wants to communicate about their struggles maybe we can be a shoulder to cry on for each other!
March 25, 2015 at 4:00 PM
looking for answers
looking for answers
My 3 year old smells this a common trait? He sniffs everything he eats before eating it,also toys,books,other people.He's going on 3.
March 21, 2015 at 3:24 AM
My child is 13 years of age. He is on the Spectrum of this wonderful thing called Autism. Great child, easy going, never throws a fit, just goes through life. He gets good grades in school, in the subjects he likes, and sucks in the classes he doesn't. It is a nightmare for his mother and I to get him to do the assignments in the other classes. He just doesn't get the concept of doing well in all of the classes. He has a hard time with the basics of life skills at home; chores, showers, teeth brushing, etc...He doesn't get the concept of any type of reward system. Not at home for chores nor for schoolwork. Therapists upon therapists suggest that we reward good behavior, doing chores at home, completing school work on time, with electronic time. It might work for a day or two but the routine falls back into not caring about any type of reward. Then we get to go back into lying about school work, lying about getting things turned in or finished at school, or just lying about home matters just so he can get on an electronic. Some have suggested its an age competency issue and it will get SOME better.
Its sad, do let let the child fail in school or life or do you push because it is what you think is the best for the child. Who you?
As a parent you think you know your child and what is best for them, but with this damned diagnosis you don't know. You read other peoples struggles and you think "here's an article that is for me to learn," although it may be a good article by someone, you quickly realize that yes there child has issues but not the same as yours and your back to square one.
Where do you go, where do you turn?...You can fight this thing together as a community with different aspects of the diagnosis or you can feel alone like I do just due to the fact that each and everyone of us has a great kid but the answer doesn't hit you squarely in the face. That's the wonderful thing about the spectrum it is just such a wide reaching swath in this thing we call life.

Ranting away, Thanks for the time
February 24, 2015 at 9:22 PM
Marlena Y.
Marlena Y.
@ keraline..I don't even know you, but reading your post made me so sad. Having a child with Autism is extremely tough, especially when you feel like you are the only one out of everyone you know that is going through it. I'm hear to tell you that you are not alone. My daughter is 4 and has autism as well, and sometimes I feel extremely alone and depressed. I have always wanted to join some kind of support group so that I can meet other moms, but I have yet to do so. If you would like we could be email buddies or something.
January 8, 2015 at 9:02 PM
@linda I think your friend is doing everything she can to make her family happy and comfortable. When you tell her she is being abused, you are not helping. What is her alternitive? Send him away? Let strangers raise him? The truth is: I don't think anyone truly understands just how difficult it is to raise a child with autism, until you have a child with autism. Don't get me wrong, I think that all parents face difficulties raising their children. The ones raising children with ASD have to change their way of thinking and sometimes handle things a little differently then one would expect with a typical child. I'm glad your friend has someone like you who cares enough to research what her child is going through! The best thing you can do is be supportive and understanding. Good luck to you and your friend!
January 6, 2015 at 12:39 PM
I have a friend who has an Autistic 12 yr old boy. I have been around when he has had meltdowns where he has verbally & physically attacked her, shoving her & hitting her. Accuses his younger brother of all sorts of things by 'tattling on him' even when I've seen them and the younger brother didn't do anything. Getting in the car in the drivers seat with me & his younger brother and then locking all the doors so his mom can't get in and looking for the car keys! He has 'run away' many times for hours, thrown 2 dozen duck eggs at her house (she was able to make him clean it up) --- but all of this time she seems to make allowances for his behavior to her and his younger brother. She takes his word over the younger brother and the younger brother is getting resentful. The Autistic boy has gotten upset with me on several occasions and 'run off' from stores we were all in or from restaurants. He has sat in my home and torn up laundry items 'just because he likes to tear things up' his words, he tears up his shirts or his brothers and when the brother tells him to Stop then mom gets mad at the younger brother. He is on medication, is in public school, and has had one 'evaluation stay' at a hospital for two weeks. The mom defends him, condones the behavior, gets angry with the younger son, and really upset with me if I say that she is being abused.
So what I want to know is, Is this Normal? I understand that Autistic children have behavioral issues, but this mom is a Licensed Therapist, is it Normal for there to be this much 'denial' and 'scapegoating' going on while the Autistic child gets to 'have his way about everything'?
I'm afraid that one of these days he will seriously hurt her or the younger brother, or someone else, since he is bigger and stronger than an average 12 yr old... and then what?

Who do I call to get some real answers?
January 4, 2015 at 2:36 PM
Sometimes i really just don't know what to do. I was never taught to be a mother let alone a autism mother. i have barely but two friends and all of my family is gone. I feel so alone. I have my very supportive husband but he works his rump off to make rent and bill while i take care of our children. I have a 5 year old, I have a 4 year old and a 1 year old. the 4 year old has serve autism. He screams from the time he wakes up to the time he falls asleep. its like a baby with collic. i don't know what to do to comfort him. I feed him well and he always has drinks at his readiness. he barely talks 5 words at the most. Which is no, yes, stop it, poop, pee, hungry. if does not get his way he will scream bloody murder throw himself onto the floor bang his head off the walls......i got this 100 day packet when he was diagnosed but i am still so lost....and i am becoming depressed....wish some one would just kill me....
December 29, 2014 at 1:21 PM
hi has any mum tried the g-therapy treatment for their autistic kids? have just came across it and wants to try for my little girl. please share your experience if you have tried it. thanks!
November 22, 2014 at 2:17 PM
My nephew was diagnosed with autism this week. He is 6. Since he was a baby I have noticed that he gets very violent easy. When he was 3 he picked up a wooden rocking chair and smashed it into my 4 year Olds face because he walked by him. Violent behaviors happen like this on a daily basis with him and is "excused " by his parents because they say he can't control himself. After 6 years of him beating the crap out of my son for simple things like saying hi to him walking past him or my son playing with his own toys and my nephew doesn't like how he's playing I have had it and said I can't have them around each other. I am at a loss of what to do. The problem is I have to babysit so his parents can work. But he has started getting violent with my baby as well. His parents don't allow spanking and when I place him in timeout he gets even more violent and breaks my kids toys. What can u do to stop this behavior?
November 20, 2014 at 5:12 AM
Need helps for taking care of an Autistic boy bad behavior.
November 5, 2014 at 8:44 PM
A good read. While reading some heart breaking situations regarding everyone's concern about their loved ones with autism, I would like to share something, I guess we all have to be aware that their behavior (biting,screaming, other disruptive or worst behaviors) serves a purpose. Say, Savanna is throwing fragile stuff. How do we deal with this kind of tantrum? Do we shout "NO! Don't do it!!!" ? Or just tell her to stop in a calm voice? I don't think both will help. Do we ask her "why??!" Remember that they are having a hard time expressing what they want.. I guess ignoring their behavior and teaching them how to demand properly (after the meltdown) would help.. Tried it with some of my students with autism and it worked. I still practice this up to present. Also, believing that your child do well because he want to, and giving him punishments because he seems like trippin' around wouldn't help. Remember that kids do things well because they can. And we have to help them patiently if they can't do things well. I teach and love my students with autism. They mean a lot to me. Chosing this calling makes me more aware and more human. Hoping your son/daughter get to have the care, patience and love they need.
October 22, 2014 at 12:32 AM
My 11 year old son has gotten increasingly violent in his outbursts. Last year it was SIB, now it is toward people. He broke my nose in two places this Wednesday. He was sent by emergency detainment to a mental health facilia (discharged within 24 hours and said they could not help him). He uses his fists and head as his weapons. He gets stuck in the cycle and can not get out of them. It is terrifying as I am a single mom. By telling him no or stop causes him to fly off the handle. I wondered if bipolar might be an underlying issue, I get blown off. It is so frustrating as I am getting no help and all doors are slammed in my face.
October 18, 2014 at 8:34 PM
my son who is 11 is the sweetest and really funny. But he has his moments when he snaps and throws glass cups and breaks them. He gets very physical with his older brother only. He hits kicks and verbally loud. The sad part of it is he know exactly what he is doing. Sometimes I get so frustrated to as why he is angry and violence. He is big and strong and he hurts. I don't know what to do becoz it will get worse. He weighs 135 at this young age. How can I help him when I work full time, lots of other things with this stressful generation. Any advise is appreciated
October 13, 2014 at 10:48 PM
My son is actually a mild tempered young man but now more than ever his libido is driving him nuts. He turns 31 this week and the doctor has prescribed zoloft to calm the urges but they seem to have gotten worse. He is at the point where he approaches male and female. He has feelings that he doesn't know how to handle. This is breaking my heart. My friend says we need to establish dialog. I have tried talking to him. What do you suggest?
September 16, 2014 at 11:57 AM
Ok, so the rispradal is in her system now and was working ok for awhile, however now it's not. I hate this stuff! She has gained about 20 lbs. in a couple of months.
Glenn, you've got it bad! My daughter does the same thing but only when she hears any of the Barney songs, so it's easier for me to control that. Plus she has no clue how to go online or change TV channels thank goodness. may be onto something significant. There must be a certain tone that can freak them out, like maybe the brain won't accept it because of nerve damage? I am going to figure this one out, very interesting. Does anyone else have this happening? These poor kiddos!
Carol, sorry to hear that. It's pretty sad that there is no REAL help for us, the parents, the constant caregivers. I'm going to go out on a limb here, I live in WA. state by Vancouver. If any of you live around here please let me know. I am having a hell of a time finding day activities for Genevieve. She is sitting idol now and so is her brain. I tried to take her for walks but with the lymphodema being so bad, it really hurts her to cram her foot into a shoe! End of story.
Oh, and my teeth being knocked out issue, $350 co pay to get new teeth. Wonder if I can do a fund raiser for myself? LOL! Too bad, so sad.
September 14, 2014 at 7:16 PM
Tracy, my son is also 21 and your story sounds exactly like mine.
September 11, 2014 at 9:21 AM
I have a son when is almost 21 now. We experienced violent tantrums starting about his 18th birthday. We went to several doctors until we got one who finally was able to control his outburst. His outburst usually means throwing all remote controls mobile phones tablets biting his arms biting my arms pulling his mom's hair. Even with respiridone at 1 mg in morning and 2 mg before bedtime plus 1/4 tab clonazepam each 3x a day it still happens about once every 2 months. But what's puzzling for us is that his tantrums we found out is trigered by the song " All by myself" and it doesn't matter who the singer is. So we blocked all music channels to remove exposure . But the problem is that he searches the song in YouTube.He searches the sing and it and when the dong starts to play he goes into his outburst. His doctor cannot explain and we are at loss . We cannot block YouTube because most of the time that is one of his recreation playing shampoo and toothpaste commercials. Is there anyone who has similar experience ? We are really so depressed. He is about 5'7" and weighs 210 pounds and I'm just 5'5" and 175 lbs my wife is even smaller. But we cannot just leave him Aline when he goes into tantrums. We have to calm him down but in the process we are within biting and hitting distance. Any help suggestions we will be grateful. Thank you.
August 7, 2014 at 3:11 AM

Leave a Comment

You can post a comment by logging in to your account or post as a guest.

Success! Your comment is waiting to be approved. It will post soon.
Post another comment
Join free today
Sign up now! It only takes a few minutes.
What best describes you?
Thanks—you're almost there.
Create your login below.