Why do children on the ASD spectrum behave differently?

For thousands of parents, the usual childhood behaviours which frustrate other families can seem like a dreamy walk in the park in comparison to their challenges. For them, regular behaviours within their families are heavily influenced by the presence of Autism. How does ASD affect behaviour in children? Why do children on the ASD spectrum behave differently, and how can we support them to cope in society?

For families living with children on the ASD spectrum there are, in addition to the normal childhood challenges, additional layers of behaviours, traits, needs and emotions which complicate parenting.

As if it were not hard enough already.

With such a broad spectrum and so many types of needs within it it, is impossible to give a one solution fits all approach, or indeed to even touch on every need and trait in this single article – How does ASD affect behaviour in children?

What was once a list of disorders, including amongst others, Autism, Asperger, Pervasive Developmental Disorder – is now a singular diagnosis. ASD. This new system of diagnosis recognises the complex mixes of needs us hard to ‘box’ into a single category.

However, there are some generic similarities for which there are effective methods which can greatly help many children and their families to manage periods of challenge and behavioural difficulty. So how does ASD effect behaviour in children? Let us look at some of the more common traits which are shared between many ASD diagnosed children.

  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Communication difficulties
  • Sensory Sensitivity
  • Structural dependance
  • Emotional Regulation

These additional difficulties are shared by the majority of children with ASD, and are of course inter-connected to each other, making identification of the root emotion in any situation quite difficult at times.

Here are some examples of daily situations which parents may find themselves attempting to manage.

  • Anxiety caused by difficulty with emotional regulation and communication can cause feelings of aggression as a defensive response.
  • Sensory sensitivity impacting emotional regulation causes additional issues with communication which in turn causes anxiety.
  • Communication causes anxiety leading to aggression as a result of poor emotional regulation.
  • A reliance on structure can lead to communication issues and anxiety which in turn leads to aggression as a defensive response.

And thus, for the ASD child there is a complex web of challenges which cause involuntary reactions, not least the flight, freeze or fight response to increased levels of Adrenaline and Cortisone in their system, triggered by extreme sensitivity to their surrounding environment.

For the parent this tangled web can be challenging to unpick, however unpicking is the essential element to effective management of behaviour. Often when children do not respond to behavioural modification, it is due to incorrect analysis of which ‘root’ emotion is triggering the behaviour.

Fix the root emotion – fix the behaviour!

When managing a child without additional needs this process is far simpler however, there are are several techniques which are greatly helpful to the ASD mum or dad.

The greatest of these is ‘Planning for Parenting’ one of the systems which forms part of the Healthy Child Mind Model, and creates an environment which nurtures a child’s emotional regulation needs, whilst allowing the parent to address the behaviour in an appropriate and effective way.

There are a great many tiny changes which can simplify behaviour management of children with additional needs, however in the case of children with ASD we must remember that behaviours and emotional regularity are affected by change, and thus any changes we make to how we approach their behaviour must be carefully managed, and where possible introduced in small doses over time to allow the child to adjust.

Depending on the age and understanding of the child you may be able to sit down and talk to them about how you plan to change your management of their behaviours, being forewarned will certainly improve your child’s response. You may however find that your child is triggered by the conversation about change, so it is important to be prepared to deliver your message in bite-size chunks to prevent your child feeling overwhelmed.

Where possible, your child should be involved in the planning of a new method to help them feel involved, allow a sense of control over their environment, and encourage problem solving skills. A child will also work better within a system they helped to create – and there are many ways of creating a system that ‘feels’ like it was their idea.

It is possible to help a child feel that there are emotional safe boundaries, which in the case of ASD  is extremely comforting and effective. This is achieved through helping your child to feel understood, and active listening is step one in ensuring that your child this overtime learns to manage their additional needs.

One example of safe emotional boundaries which is extremely effective is the use of a visual timetable during periods of stress, particularly around holidays and weekends when the usual Monday to Friday routine is not present. Your child will appreciate the ability to focus on one task or activity at a time without having the anxiety of what is happening next. Through the use of a visual timetable your child may overtime be able to develop the resilience to manage days out, social activities and changes in routine with reasonable ease.

There are many places you can buy timetable equipment. I am particularly a fan of this style as they have taken care to keep their designs simplistic which is essential when managing a child with sensory sensitivity. This example is courtesy of Sparkle Box – a company dedicated to providing resources to support children with special needs.

This is where your planning for parenting becomes so essential to the process. It is ideal that you start any weekend or holiday with a plan for each day already in place, and whilst this leaves no room for spontaneity, it will dramatically improve your child’s ability to cope with the loss of routine and the emotional dysregulation which accompanies this.

Depending on your individual child, their age, emotional intelligence and understanding, you may be able break the day down into morning and afternoon, hourly segments, by activity, or even having hourly timetables for a child who gets overwhelmed.

Which method is right for your child is something which only you can decide. It is ideal to have the timetable visible several days before the change of routine takes affect to allow your child to feel the benefit of being emotionally prepared.

Another challenge faced by ASD children, is the difficulty around sensory overwhelm.

There is much false information around sensory overload and many people believe that it is only loud or multiple noises and crazy colourful displays which cause sensory overload. This is in fact not the case, and a child with sensory sensitivity or processing issues can be affected by the most subtle of sensory changes. Including touch, smell, temperature, light, dark etc etc etc.

When we look at the world from a sensory perspective it really can be overwhelming!

I once worked with a child who was triggered by moving from a dimly lit room to a brightly lit one, another who needed to break eye contact in order to listen, a further child who was triggered by textures, and there are hundreds more examples, and these are just the children that I have worked with myself.

How does ASD affect behaviour in children when they are out and about?

When looking at holiday activities for children with sensory sensitivity are parents nightmare is the juggle between what the child wants to do and what they can actually cope with. Yes they may be desperately wanting to join their friends in the indoor playpark, but you may know that the echo, bright colours, speed of the other children and vibe in there room makes that environment in overwhelmingly dangerous trigger for your child. Let’s just take a second to acknowledge that disappointing a child by not allowing an activity is no easier when that child has additional needs, in fact it can feel much harder as you know that they just want to join in with their buddies.

If you are planning a trip with sensory overwhelm is likely you can help your child to find emotional regularity through planning for overload movements. Having an agreed plan with your child which covers how they will respond and how you can help them will allow them to feel safe emotional boundaries, which in turn will reduce the anxiety which is developing due to the fear of sensory overwhelm.

Here are some examples of different strategies for sensory overload:

Keywords or phrases which your child can use to let you know that they are becoming distressed

Frequent mindful moments where you remove yourselves from the environment and take a moment to breathe, ground your child emotionally and refocus them on regulating their emotions and choices.

A trigger card – sought and held by your child at the moment they need to re-ground and focus

A find activity – eg; find 3 red things in the room

These simple techniques when pre-agreed with your child can be extremely effective in preventing these difficulties turning into anxiety, which in turn becomes frustration and potentially aggression.

Unfortunately one of the symptoms of a limited ability to regulate emotions is anxiety, and this causes defiance (the freeze response) hyper behaviours (the flight response) and aggression (the fight response).

When dealing with an aggressive child, particularly one with additional needs, it is vital that parents take the time to learn and try train on what techniques are safe and appropriate to use. This may be some kind of safe handling program, or it could be behaviour management training. The investment in fully understanding how to manage your child with additional needs will ensure did you are able to not only manage the emotional dysregulation, but also keep everybody safe.

Am I advocating restraint as a first point of call? Absolutely not, it should always be a last resort. How many parents sporting black eyes, bruised arms and scratches have I hugged and comforted? Hundreds.

I took the time to talk to a child who’s parents had received proper safe handling training, and he told me how it made him feel safe, because he knew when he couldn’t control himself his mum could keep them both safe. Wise words from a boy of 11. When used responsibly and correctly safe handling is nothing more than preventing of injuries in unavoidable situations.

How does ASD affect behaviour in children, and how do parents get training?

What still staggers me after 10 years of working with children with behavioural difficulties, is the stark difference between training options for professionals and parents.

You would think that parents of children with additional needs would receive at least equal training to the professionals who have the children for just six hours a day, this is however not the case, and parents are expected to manage extremely challenging behaviours with little or sometimes no training whatsoever.

When we look at emotional regulation and the poor behaviours which happen when a child is not in a position to emotionally regulate, there are some key techniques that will help parents to remain consistent and therefore encase the child in an emotional safe boundary which is essential to the learning and development of the child.

One of these techniques is to focus on the outcome of every behavioural situation. Telling a child what do you ‘do’ you want is far more effective than telling them what you ‘don’t’ want, and in the world of ASD children this becomes even more important. Your child is already likely to be battling to hear your communication through the sensory issues and mental chatter. So having a clear message which is positive and guides the child is much more effective than the methods you may choose for a child without ASD.

“We want to see socks and shoes on by 8am”, is a much clearer and more positive message than “why have you still not got your socks on?”

And in times of stress “let’s be quieter together” is always going to be heard over “stop shouting”.

Having a key word which lets your child know you are about to give them an instruction is also extremely effective. Begin by choosing an appropriate word, one which can be used in any environment. It is best not to use their name as they hear this so often it will be hard for them to distinguish the difference between being called, and being triggered for an instruction.

“Ready”, “listening” and “focused” are all good examples of trigger words. Note that the words do not instruct, but rather give the outcome, listening rather than listen tells the child what outcome they are to go to.

When parenting children with ASD it is extremely beneficial to invest in training to understand how to manage behaviours effectively and safely for you and your child. Behaviour management training run by Empowered Parents includes the Planning for Parenting system as part of the Healthy Child Mind Package, and ensures you feel confident in your methods.

It can also be beneficial to attend a positive handling course, which will show you how to manage physical aggression safely and with minimal distress to all involved. Your local authority should be able to signpost you to your local provider.

Parenting children with additional needs can be hugely rewarding, but is not without challenge. It is important to understand how ASD affects behaviour in children. Parent self care is also essential to maintain your own emotional energy through periods of difficulty. Eat the cake, read the book, snatch 30 minutes for the bath, and be forgiving of yourself and your child.


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