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> 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.

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(69) Comments
I am in middle school and I work with the special needs cjildren in my school. I fing it to be a blessing because they are amazing. Although i did suffer a month of back pain from one child that hit my back i still love it. I also have a special needs brother although he isn't autistic he is aggressive. I have learned a lot over the past two years and on thing I want everyone to know is that there is a fine line between coddling and understanding. Example I don't hold a grudge against the kids who hurt me but i do get onto them. Thank you all
December 6, 2015 at 7:16 PM
Hello. My son isn't even three yet but in August was diagnosed with autism. Thankfully I am a stay at home mom. He didn't say really any words until recently, I work with him whenever he is willing and ready for it. He hardly looked at me or his father until about a year ago. He tends to be violent at times but I think with his age he hasn't quite experienced enough to actually have severe meltdowns. The only time he really does is in public at stores and such. I just wanted to say that all of us with children with special needs are pretty special ourselves. Despite how hard it may get we still work hard and try the best for our children. Keep up the beautiful work guys.
October 25, 2015 at 9:40 PM
Sorry to be narky here but is djones for real! Don't get me wrong I agree that setting boundaries and rules to children with SEN is important for social and school settings as if I gave in to my son every time he hit, bit or kicked me he would certainly do it on a whole different level. Going to shops, family meals etc is just pure torture hence we do it hardly ever for our own sanity as well as his but no child should EVER feel afraid of their "guardian" or parent, either with or without special needs. There is a fine line between discipline and bullying and your second last paragraph sounds like you've crossed it. Why any sane mother would send their child to an ex with such a nasty attitude towards her child totally baffles me. Apologies if anyone other than this 'man' is offended by my post but I do not suffer fools gladly
October 25, 2015 at 5:11 PM
B patrick
B patrick
Interesting comments. I have three boys with autism 11 yrs and 7 yr twins. I am a single mom of four terrific kids....reading the posts made me realize that it is probably harder to parent one special needs child, instead of 3, I have a majority. G-d only gives you what you can handle. This is the first post I have had the time to write in 13 years...I have gained 5 broken bones knee and ankle surgery while keeping my boys safe during their public meltdowns...I make adjustments like taking my glasses off during the meltdowns so I cant see onlookers expressions....dont loose your sense of humor and talk to a local advocate when overwhelmed.
September 10, 2015 at 12:26 AM
R u kidding me? Y do parents of autistic kids thnk they need to coddle and give into the outrageous demands of their autistic kids and never discipline them either?
My ex gf has an autistic 5 year old boy. He bites her, himself, teachers. He hits. He eats a steady diet of total garbage food. He has horrible tantrums. He sleeps maybe 2 hours per night. The rest of the night is spent going between bouts of laughing and screaming, alternating every 10 minutes. He has destroyed her house. He destroyed my house.
Yet all i ever see are his therapists, teachers, and parents going "awwww poor kid, its ok baby" etc. None of them make any effort to correct his behavior. Its strange but when i watch him i MAKE him do things. When he screams i shush him. I force him to sit. And guess what? He does it. Hes not happy about it but he listens because he is afraid of me.
There is another lady in my neighborhood with a 4 year old with autism and its the same way. She lets him do WHATEVER he wants. Eve. Letting him knock other kids water bottles on the ground at my daughters softball game.
I dont get this permissive behavior
September 8, 2015 at 12:35 PM
My son has autism. He gets frustrated and throw tantrum. I keep a close eyes on him to see what he wants. Sometime is very stressful not knowing if I am doing the right thing for him. As a mom I want my son to be happy and not sad. He loves playing in the park and playing with other children. He loves playing with his toys cars and airplanes and love watching Nick Jr. My Sunday early intervention program and he started school when he was 3 years old he go to a special school that helps him a lot. When we go out for example like to a train station and he sits down and he does this thing with hands making like a letter and airplane and people look at him like he is weird and it makes me mad when people look at him like that. He takes medication for his behavior. I love my son so much and that will never change between the love and bond I have for him. People with autism kids understand those people that don't have kids with autism don't understand they look at them in a different ways. Kids with autism should not be treated differently they should be treated the same way like any other kids they are normal and not weird it pisses me off when people look at your son in a different certain ways. I am a great mother and I know what my son wants and needs.
September 1, 2015 at 2:13 PM
Following Linda on the 1-4-15 post. She described my situation. I am absolutely exhausted and need answers
August 30, 2015 at 10:22 PM
This past April, our 17 year old high-functioning autistic son became aggressive and the incidents were prolonged and scary to us as parents. After repeated occurrences, we sought help from a pediatric psychiatrist. He advised us to put our son on Abilify and assured us that these aggressive incidents were "just part of his autism." Because the aggression seemed to come on suddenly and didn't start until age 17, my husband and I felt there was very likely a treatable cause. For the time being, we put our son on Abilify to counter the aggression.

Prior to the onset of this aggression, our son had been suffering from depression and OCD. It turned out that he had a severe Vitamin D deficiency and once that problem was treated, his depression seemed to go away (but not the OCD) Around this time, we heard that the supplement, Turmeric, was helpful for depression and also inflammatory issues. We started giving him a daily Turmeric supplement (500mg). Around the time the aggression developed and Abilify was prescribed, my son started complaining that the turmeric (and other dense) tablets were too hard to swallow, so we stopped giving him the supplement. His aggression seemed under control and we assumed the Abilify was the answer.

About six weeks later, I found turmeric in an easier-to-swallow capsule form, so we resumed giving our son the supplement. All of a sudden, the aggressive attacks resumed. The Abilify made the attacks less severe, but did not prevent them from occurring.

It seemed too much of a coincidence that the aggression returned at the same time that we resumed giving our son the Turmeric supplement. The psychiatrist also mentioned something about food sensitivities that made me think my son might have a problem with the supplement. After about 10-15 minutes of computer research, I learned about sensitivities to phenols. It turns out that turmeric has a high phenolic content. Many doctors prescribe Enhansa (a special formulation of turmeric) for autistic patients. When we stopped giving my son the turmeric, the aggression stopped (except for one day when we gave my son chicken seasoned with Old Bay, which contains paprika, also high in phenols). Many foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices) contain phenols. If you suspect that your child's aggression might be related to the food he/she eats, you might want to look at a list of high phenol foods. We only figured out the cause of our son's aggression due to several seemingly unlikely coincidences.
August 29, 2015 at 11:10 PM
I have a 9 year old Autistic son, who has severe behaviors, he is non verbal and becoming very very aggressive. We tried ABA, diet, Homepathy, HBOT.... but he has not improved. We go to the doctors (Specialist) frequently, they are giving the routine medicines(Resperdal.), which does not control his anger, aggressive behaviors.
He is becoming stronger by the day, all we want is for him to sit for 30 min. Whole day he walks around crying,screaming damaging something (Cups, glass, electrionics,windows....). Is there anything we can do?.
I don't know how hell looks like but the torture we are experiencing every day, real hell if exits may be a better place than what we are experiencing now.
August 28, 2015 at 6:27 PM
Fed Up
Fed Up
I have a 21 year old brother and I am just so done with it.I believe he has one of the worst autisms to get and its very hard for me to stay in the same house as him.Some days he will be fine.Of course constant ramblings and short tantrums occur but I dont see a problem thats bring my attention to.Other days I am walking through hell as he goes completely nuts.My brother recently went to the mall all by himself and with his own birthday money,bought a bat.When he came home with it,I could just smell fear and hopelessness coming closer.Turns out I was right.My brother has developed a skill called intimidation and for him it works so well.He never swings the bat.At least not at me or my other family.But whenever he feels he isnt getting his way or someone is bothering him,he picks up the bat and just holds it.Then my mom tells me and my sister to just dont look at him and dont talk to him at all.I'm at the point where I want him to just go live independently or I move with my older sister 3 states away.I dont want my mom or my younger sister to constantly be afraid or hurt by him with his words or sudden meltdowns.My whole family goes through enough as it is and with my brother constantly making it worse,I just cant.I think this experience is making it worse for me as well mentally.Throughout the day I just think about how wonderful it would be for him to move away and I am finally out of hell.I think its making me delusional.Anyway thanks for the time

-A 13 year old teen
August 14, 2015 at 8:40 AM
Our child just got diagnosed with mild autism. When she does something wrong, m8sbehaves, she now immediately says, "I am autistic " , almost like that gets her off without consequences. How can we handle this?
August 10, 2015 at 2:49 PM
Hi everybody, my son has just turned 4 and is awaiting a diagnosis, I am a single mum my old child. I am finding it very difficult to cope with hi tantrums, meltdowns and crying I can't stand him crying, I need help! I am so depressed and feel like giving him to his father I love him dearly and somedays he is a funny loving caring boy. What books or sites would other parents with their child in the spectrum recommend. Thanks
August 4, 2015 at 4:35 AM
Seriously, no way.. I need more that common sense. If any one has something that actually works to calm a melt down please share with me.. I'm totally diggen the visual thing it totally does work for their rules and schdual.. I mean even for anyone can look at a pix and know what its saying.. ' a picture can tell a 1000 words' right..
July 30, 2015 at 6:06 AM
I need help bad my son likes to hit pull hair and pinch and bite I'm lost at what to do to get him to stop. He only does this when he wants what he cant have. And i cant get the help i need in my home town because no one understands what I'm going threw ugh.
July 17, 2015 at 7:25 PM
Dear Jeff, Go for it! Push, push, push! He's a teenager and autism or not, teenage boys in middle school get lazy. The more you push, check up on him online and with his teachers about assignments that you can (or that you can stand to!) the better. The fact that he does well in some subjects at grade level or near it is fantastic. Small steps, or single steps for undesirables for chores etc., a checklist before electronics is worth a shot!
Sami, Check out the book: The Science of Making Friends, - Helping Socially Challenged Teens and Young Adults It's a really GREAT!! book. It comes with an intro DVD that even in the throws of feeling depressed you will love and be able to process. The book goes into detail that you can work through with your son and any teachers that you can get on board. Another good one is Teaching Social Skills to People with Autism.
Your school would do well to implement the PEERS curriculum.
Much love to all. :)
Remember, if you have a child with autism, you are in a very special group in the world. There are the highest incidences of depression for parents of children who have autism that any other disability. Know that of all the parents out there, you are the strongest of all for every minute of every day that you get through. Here's to the moments of joy and laughter that we can squeeze into every and any day.
July 15, 2015 at 8:57 PM
concerned mom
concerned mom
I'm almost 30 just had a newborn baby boy which I am so blessed I love my life more than ever now that he exists but I have the father of my son I love adore and care for the thing is he has a daughter which I have been in relationships with other children the one difference about his child is that she was diagnosed with DiGeorge syndrome which I have noticed it has some similarities to autism but I may be mistaken I just don't know how to deal with this and if should stick around to find out I feel horrible feeling this way but I need to do what's best for my boy so I need advise what would y'all do in my case run or stay and deal with a step daughter that her own mother abandoned.
July 15, 2015 at 3:45 PM
I need some advice bad my little brother is 12 and when he was a baby he lined his cars up I have been looking up autsim for a while n I don't no what to do he doesn't like 2 b touched . he is a very picly eater n he don't Like change n there is a few more things that I am worried about but I have been talking my dad about it and he just said he don't have it but i just wanna help my brother please help
July 5, 2015 at 11:57 AM
My son at almost 3 is ASD. I have been dealing with his violent tantrums since he regressed his speech at 15 months. I love him but dread taking him to the store because of the attacking its embarrassing still waiting on the behavior specialist to help i have to restrain him to keep him from hurting me, I love my son and he does have a sweet side i just dont know what to do about the attacks. His bio father wont spend more than an hour and half with him and i know alot of his anger comes from the absence he feels from that. Is there any other help for this? I dont know what will happen in another 3 years if i cant get his behavior corrected.
feeling lost at times and i have worked with an OT, speech and SST therapists and nothing seems to stop or calm him much. I am willing to try books or any other treatment that anybody else has done and worked. Thank you
June 25, 2015 at 8:20 PM
Hi,I have a autism 3yr old he is very active he also fights screams throw tantrums I tries to find ways on how to calm him at times I loves my son thru it all I have a disabled problem but I do all I can fa my son I ask for help n I do need more help on learning other things bout autism CUZ I want him to be able to continue to enjoy life I always care bout his feelings n how ppl will treat him I want him to be safe I always kno when he needs attention CUZ I'm a real mother n I have patients n I learn more bout patients n how to be calm in talking to him when he upset or crying I'm more happy he is getting help in school he is a very special lil boy I'm proud to be his mother always....
June 5, 2015 at 8:40 AM
Hello everyone. I have a five year old son who is on the spectrum. Although he is high functioning, he can be very aggressive and violent and now my 2 1/2 year old son is starting to do the same behaviors. The days are extremely rough and can be very lonely. We are not alone and I wanted to recommend a few books that have helped me. One is called The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis. It is a great book that focuses on connecting with our kids. It is a book written for families who adopt a child whose have sensory struggles, but the issues discussed can be very applicable to put situations. The other two books are called Autism's Hidden Blessings and The Explosive Child. Hope that helps. We are not alone and God Bless all of you as you daily fight in the trenches for your children.
June 3, 2015 at 5:46 PM

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