Problem Behaviors in Autism: Help for Struggling Kids

At six, Billy has two passions: planes and vacuum cleaners. He is happiest when he is engaging in any activity involving these fixations. Aside from his laser-like, obsessive focus on his interests, Billy is also known for engaging in conduct that is peculiar and often disruptive. But problem behaviors in autism are not uncommon, particularly for young children like Billy who have moderate deficits in speech.

He frequently twirls around his space, sways, pinches himself when told no, and has, on occasion, stripped off his clothes in public.

While his parents understand that his puzzling behaviors stem from his autism diagnosis and his attempt to interact with the world around him, they are frequently misunderstood by people outside of the immediate family.

Just for a moment, imagine lacking the ability to effectively communicate your needs, wants, and feelings and the social intelligence to read and follow normal social cues; and experiencing the world around you as an unpleasant assault on the senses with everything feeling like too much—too bright, too loud, too hard. The world would be a frustrating place to be.

Now imagine the ways that you might try to react and cope. Would you get angry? Retreat? Avoid upsetting situations? Find ways to alleviate your distress? Of course, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, and children with autism are no exception.

The maladaptive and odd behaviors that we often see in children with autism are ways to help them navigate the world around them, take a sensory break, self-soothe, self-stimulate or express emotions.

Teaching children with autism more appropriate, productive behaviors, and more effective ways to communicate helps to expand their opportunities to learn, engage, and grow.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is one of the most effective behavioral intervention teaching methods for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Causes of Problem Behaviors in Autism 

Impairments in social interactions, speech, cognitive abilities, as well as deficits in executive functioning pertaining to emotional and impulse control, are common in children with autism and may predispose them to abnormal behaviors.

But other factors can exacerbate stereotypical behaviors and movements:

  • Physical discomfort from digestive issues, more commonly found in children with ASD than their peers.
  • Disturbances in sleep, experienced by two-thirds of children with autism.
  • Physiological issues like low muscle tone, poor coordination, and impaired fine and gross motor skills.
  • Compounding issues like ADHA and anxiety.

Common Behavior Signs of Autism 

It is important to note that not every child diagnosed with ASD engages in stereotypical behaviors, nor does every behavior require intervention.

While problem behaviors are more prevalent on the extreme end of the autism spectrum, here are some of the most common in children with ASD:

  • Repeating words (echolalia)
  • Aggression
  • Tantrums
  • Self-stimulating actions like hand flapping, rocking, and spinning
  • Odd attachment or obsessions to inanimate objects (caps, rubber bands, marbles)
  • Clothing sensitivity
  • Pacing and hyperactivity
  • Wandering or escaping
  • Ignoring requests
  • Self-harming actions like headbanging, biting, or pulling hair
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • Need for sameness

To outsiders, these behaviors can often be perplexing and without purpose. While they may not be typical, they are meeting a valid need to help the child cope and express feelings, wants, and frustrations.

This blog will discuss three of the most common problematic behaviors associated with autism—tantrums, repetitive behaviors, and inflexibility—and some of the influencing factors behind them.

Aside from self-harming actions and wandering, most autism-related behaviors pose no real physical danger or threat. But they aren't without risks.

Children who engage in disruptive behaviors are more prone to isolation and exclusion and their actions may diminish their capacity to learn and participate in general education settings. The negative consequences can be significant.

Problematic behaviors can cause embarrassment for the parents, draw unwanted attention to the child, disrupt classrooms, and hamper friendships since behaviors can be off-putting or even frightening.

Autism Meltdowns 

We've all watched a toddler throw a tantrum over a wanted toy, a mild admonishment, or simply out of sheer fatigue. Meltdowns are a normal part of childhood. But for children on the autism spectrum, meltdowns may be more frequent, more disruptive, and more enduring.

In general, children with autism struggle to regulate their emotions more than their neurologically normal peers, predisposing them to tantrums. It's not uncommon for children on the more severe end of the spectrum to have numerous meltdowns every day, making it a major disruptor in the household and a deterrence to leaving the confines of the home.

Most childhood tantrums are transactional, require an audience, and end when the demand has been met or all energy is expended. For children on the autism spectrum, however, meltdowns are typically not goal-oriented, nor do they require an audience. And once they start, they are nearly impossible to mitigate. For these kids, tantrums are a way to express an unmet need or frustration.

Common sources of tantrums include disruptions in normal routines, overstimulation, the inability to make a request or to meet an expectation.

Repetitive and Restrictive Behaviors Characteristics

Repetitive and Restricted Behaviors (RRBs) are one of the hallmark traits of autism. They are commonly present in very young children and among the first signs of autism in toddlers.

RRBs are exhibited by children across the full spectrum range but tend to be more pronounced in those with more significant cognitive impairments.

Repetitive and restrictive behaviors can be lower-order repetitive motor actions like hand flicking or spinning or higher-order behaviors like a preoccupation with a narrow focus of interest (such as Billy's fixation with trains and vacuums); rigid adherence to routines; and fascinating with parts of objects like the whirling of a fan blade or spinning wheels on a car. They can also involve self-injurious behaviors (SIBs) like biting, pinching, and hair-pulling.

RRBs can be stigmatizing, isolating, and can have detrimental impacts on development. These behaviors are among the most commonly cited areas of concern for parents and one of the most challenging to address.

The reasons behind the repetitive actions are varied but research over the past decade point to RRBs as a way to calm anxiety, counter sensory overload, enhance focus and manage overwhelming emotions that can range from excitement to anger.

Repetitive movements or sounds can be self-stimulating behaviors, often referred to as stims or stimming.

Stimming is not exclusive to those with autism. Many of us bite our nails, pace, twist our hair, or tap our foot to control emotions and anxiety or to expend excess energy.

What sets autism-driven stimming apart from more typical stimming is the frequency and type of behavior, which are often less subtle and more extreme in those on the spectrum.

Stimming encompasses a variety of activities that include all the senses: olfactory (taste and smells); vestibular (rocking, pacing); visual (gazing, lining up objects); tactile (hitting themselves or twirling hair); and auditory (repeating words, humming).

Stimming is not always related to autism, but in those diagnosed with it, the behaviors can become more intense and difficult to control, interfering with normal functioning, social opportunities, learning, and relationships.

Need for Sameness with Autism

Children with ASD tend to be change-averse and find comfort in the most predictable, consistent routines.

While researchers are unclear as to why the need for sameness is so pervasive among those with autism, this inflexibility can have detrimental consequences. Families often go to great lengths to avoid disruptions in routines or make even minor changes in the household for fear that it may trigger a meltdown. Rigidity with rules, unwillingness to negotiate, and outbursts when things don't go as expected pose challenges for peers and siblings, as well.

Early Intervention for Maladaptive Behaviors

As children grow, maladaptive behaviors can become more disruptive, ingrained, and resistant to efforts to modify them. But there is good news.

Studies show that early behavioral interventions are effective in reducing problem behaviors and long-term negative consequences.

ABA Therapy: The Top Autism Behavior Intervention

While it may be impossible to eliminate all problem behaviors completely, there are methods to make them less frequent, disruptive, and stigmatizing.

One of the most utilized behavioral modification therapies for autism is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the gold standard treatment for autism for over 40 years.

Through ABA, children learn to express their wants and needs with more appropriate, acceptable behaviors that are less likely to cause harm or interfere in learning and social experiences.

The science of ABA is simple: desirable rewarded behaviors are likely to be repeated while undesirable, unrewarded behaviors will gradually diminish.

ABA is based on four practices that include positive reinforcements, teaching in small, manageable steps, practiced responses, and prompts for targeted behaviors.

But there is more to Applied Behavior Analysis that modifying actions. A certified applied behavior analyst will explore the conditions that preceded the behavior and its value as a function.

Is the behavior a means of communication? an avoidance technique? a way to gain attention? express frustration? offset sensory overload?

By understanding the needs of the child, the ABA therapist is better equipped to help the child learn new favorable ways to express them.


Problem behaviors in autism may be common but they don't have to be permanent. ABA therapy for autism and other behavior services can teach children more adaptive, productive behaviors to help them succeed and interact with others in healthier ways that enhance social and learning experiences.

To learn more about ABA and how it can help improve some of the most common behaviors associated with autism, give us a call today.

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