Challenging Behaviours in Autism Treatment

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This blog post will discuss challenging behaviours: why language matters when describing behaviour, behaviour as communication, functions of behaviour, replacements and safety when addressing behaviours.

Language matters

Challenging… problem… interfering… There are many words that describe behaviours. However, how you label a behaviour speaks to how you feel about it. Calling a behaviour a ‘problem’ gives blame to the learner. Naming a behaviour as challenging can lead to the question “Who is this behaviour challenging?”. Labeling a behaviour as interfering might lead people to ask “interfering with what?”

Like most topics in the autism and ABA world, there is controversy around this. At Side by Side Therapy, I use challenging or interfering to describe these behaviours. I feel that it helps to focus our efforts on the behaviours that aren’t helpful to the learner.

Father carrying his toddler who is engaging in challenging behaviours.

Challenging Behaviours are Communication

If we take the view that all behaviour is communication, the learner isn’t to blame for their behaviour. They’re simply communicating a need in the most effective way they have. This attitude also leads us to look for alternative ways to communicate this need. It focuses us on helping the learner as opposed to stopping the behaviour.

4 Functions of Behaviour and Replacement Behaviours

There are 4 functions of behaviour.

  • ATTENTION
  • ACCESS to items
  • ESCAPE or AVOID situations
  • SENSORY or AUTOMATIC reinforcement

When we’re targeting interfering or challenging behaviours we must identify their function. Some behaviours serve more than one function. We can ask: What does doing this behaviour give the learner? Does it let them off the hook for something undesirable or difficult? Having this information will help us find a replacement behaviour that meets the same need but is better for the learner. Better, in this case, means: easier, safer, more efficient and more effective. It can also be more socially acceptable.

More often than not, when we’re addressing challenging behaviours, one of the first things we teach is functional communication. This can be any form of communication (spoken words, signs, picture exchange, gesture etc). What’s important is that the learner is able to use the communication independently and that it is effective in meeting their need.

Safety First with Challenging Behaviours

Unfortunately, some behaviours are just dangerous. It is critical to keep safety at the forefront of any behaviour reduction plan. The learner’s safety, as well as the other people in their environment (family, peers, staff). Sometimes (often!) the plan needs to be revised and changed. Some behaviours are merely bothersome to the people around the learner. These behaviours do not always need to be targeted for reduction.

Contact Side by Side Therapy to discuss your learner’s challenging behaviours.

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