Problem behaviors in children with autism can be effectively treated. Learn the types of treatments and how they work.
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)
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. Services may also be available in your child’s school through their individualized education program (IEP). Your child’s IEP can include a behavior intervention plan (BIP) that targets problem behavior. Contact your child’s IEP team to ask about developing a BIP.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.