Differences in behaviour characterised by sensory sensitivities, fixated interests and repetitive behaviour is another core characteristic of autism. These differences can present as both strengths and challenges.
A young person on the autism spectrum may display a number of behavioural differences. It is important to remember that not every item on the following list applies to all young people with autism. A young person with autism may:
- Have specialised interests or intense preoccupations (such as a desire to know everything possible about trains)
- Prefer the same routines. They may be upset by even the tiniest change in their routine or environment.
- Display a tendency to repeat behaviours such as motor movements, repeating phrases (echolalia), or arranging objects in a particular way over and over again
- Not have an innate sense of danger (for example they may not be aware of the threat posed by busy roads or rivers)
- Display socially challenging behaviours
- Have difficulty with emotion recognition and control
- Engage in self-stimulatory behaviour (also known as “stimming”) such as hand flapping, finger flicking, sniffing etc.
- Be extra sensitive or under sensitive to sensory input
- Display heightened anxiety and experience “meltdowns” when overloaded
“I have found that the strengths …include our intense focus, memory retention, attention to detail and, for some, visual/linguistic perception. Often, these strengths are specialised around certain subjects. When I was nine, I had no care for my brother’s interest in AFL, but I could tell you everything about Europe’s royal families.” Chris Varney
Some young people on the autism spectrum may exhibit challenging or unusual behaviour to express their feelings or to cope with a situation. It is important to view all behaviour as a form of communication. Behavioural problems may occur as the result of a child’s inability to cope with the demands of a situation. This may include the sensory aspects of their environment.
Two common causes of challenging behaviours are:
- Environmental demands
- The child’s need for predictability
1. Environmental demands
For a young person on the autism spectrum, the world can be a confusing, isolating and overwhelming place. Challenging behaviours may be caused by the difficulties a child has with responding to the demands of their environment. The environment may pose sensory, social or information processing challenges. The sections of this website describing these characteristics provide extra information about why these aspects of a child’s environment can pose difficulties for them. Useful resources and practical strategies are also provided.
2. Need for predictability
People on the autism spectrum may exhibit unusual behaviour such as rigidly sticking to routines and engaging in repetitive behaviours. These behaviours serve to reduce uncertainty and help children with autism to maintain feelings of predictability and control of their situation.
Autism Tasmania has an Information Sheet about Behaviour Management Strategies for Individuals with Autism. This information sheet includes strategies and handy hints. It explains that you don’t have to be a behavioural expert to manage problematic behaviours – you just need the basic strategies, a good understanding and plenty of determination and patience!
Challenging behaviours can be particularly difficult to manage when they occur over a sustained length of time and/or when the health and safety of the child or others are at risk. In these cases seeking expert assistance to manage challenging behaviours is advised. The first step in seeking this assistance may be to visit your child’s general practitioner. The GP may then refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist or paediatrician. If you would like advice during this process please contact Autism Tasmania.
“Grant me the dignity of meeting me on my own terms… Recognise that we are equally alien to each other, that my ways of being are not merely damaged versions of yours. Question your assumptions. Define your terms. Work with me to build bridges between us.” – Jim Sinclair
Ways to address behaviour in the school setting are suggested and explained on the Amaze Classroom website.