Challenging Behaviors and Autism: Navigating and understanding why my child might be “acting out”

Challenging behaviors can sometimes accompany an autism diagnosis. Navigating these behaviors can be one of the most stressful characteristics for family members and caregivers to manage and can cause burnout of care and feelings of guilt and/or responsibility.

Some examples of challenging behaviors include:

  • Causing harm to others (hitting, biting, scratching, etc.)
  • Causing self-harm (biting self or head-banging)
  • Refusing and/or ignoring adult-directed tasks
  • Acting inappropriately in social settings (taking off clothes, eloping/running away)

It is important to remember that when an individual with an autism diagnosis displays a challenging behavior, it is their way of communicating their needs. They may not understand that acting out in harmful or rejecting ways can affect others. In the moment they are expressing themselves the only way they know how. As a caregiver it is helpful to understand what situations may be triggers for your child’s challenging behavior, and what tools or actions you can use to prevent or minimize these behaviors.

Common Triggers for challenging behaviors can include:

  • Disruptions in Sleep/ Tiredness

Sometimes children with an autism diagnosis have trouble sleeping. Being over-tired from an activity or not getting good quality sleep can cause challenging behaviors. 

  • Sensory sensitivity or overload

Your child may have sensitivity or have a sensory overload to different smells, textures, and/or lights. They may become upset if something accidently brushes their shoulder or a light is turned on unexpectedly. Maybe it is too loud around them and they become frightened.

  • Transitions

Your child may not understand when it’s time to move to a new activity or to leave the house/ playground/ store.

  • Interrupted Routines

Many children with autism stick to very predictable routines and when there is an unexpected change in that routine the disruption can cause challenging behaviors.

  • Pain/ Sickness

A lot of times children with an autism diagnosis do not know how to express when they do not feel well or are hurt. The discomfort is then communicated through challenging behaviors.

Children with autism often times see their world as confusing. Creating some predictability in routine and constantly communicating with your child about what to expect can help decrease the triggers that can cause challenging behaviors. Facilitating a healthy sleep routine, reminding your child when a change in their day is going to happen, understanding what noises or senses could cause disruption, and knowing some signs of illness can help decrease challenging behaviors as well. has a great Tool Kit, titled Autism and Challenging Behaviors: Strategies and Support, that can help guide you further through challenging behaviors and how to manage them.

ABA Autism Therapy provides ABA therapy services to children and their families throughout Pennsylvania. We provide services in several counties, including: Montgomery County, Bucks County, Berks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Philadelphia County, Allegheny County, Westmoreland County; Washington County; Beaver County; Butler County; Armstrong County. Contact us today!