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Addressing behavior challenges for ASD

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can present problem behaviors in many forms. Your child may show:

  • Aggression (hitting, scratching or biting others)
  • Self-harm (hitting or biting self)
  • Destruction (throwing or breaking objects)
  • Pica (eating inedible objects)
  • Elopement (running away or wandering off)
  • Tantrums
  • Screaming

These behaviors may be challenging for you and can prevent your child from reaching his full potential. Having a child who engages in problem behavior can make daily tasks such as getting dressed, eating meals or going to the store difficult—or even impossible.

While these behaviors can seem overwhelming, you don’t have to deal with them alone. You can get effective help to improve your child’s behavior.

What type of treatment is available?

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a treatment approach that addresses problem behaviors. For most children, problem behavior serves the purpose of communicating a want or need. For example, some children may hit others to get attention, while others may hit to get out of having to do work. The first step in treating problem behavior is to identify its purpose. Then, a treatment can be developed that may promote a more appropriate way for the child to express himself or get what he needs.

How does treatment work?

Common treatment strategies used in ABA-based interventions include:

  • Reinforcing appropriate behaviors by rewarding them.
  • Refusing to give in to the problem behavior by giving your child what he wants.
  • Using visual supports to communicate rules.
  • Starting with small, achievable goals to encourage success.

Treating problem behavior often requires patience. Remember that you are asking your child to learn new skills that are difficult for him. While some children don’t have trouble waiting for a toy or finishing homework, others find these tasks challenging. That’s why it’s best to help your child start small with actions he’s capable of, such as waiting five seconds for a toy or completing one math problem at a time.

Once a child has successfully achieved these expectations, you can slowly increase your demands over time. For some children, treatment can be developed in the home through practice sessions. For others, a structured clinical setting may be necessary to help pinpoint the best strategies.

Who should you contact for help?

A board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA or BCBA-Doctorate) or a psychologist with experience in behavior interventions can help guide you to:

  • Identify the reason for your child’s problem behavior.
  • Set initial goals and treatment rules.
  • Increase expectation slowly to meet long-term goals.

The length of your child’s treatment will depend on his specific needs.