Children with autism have a broad area of behavior impairments and apparently many of these behaviors serve no useful
purpose. The behaviors seem to relate to the constant rituals in their activities. They exhibit repetitive and compulsive
behaviors which are achieved daily in terms of their nature or intensity. These are the extensive areas, which appear to have a
specific relation to autism. In addition to this oddity various other elements of behavior couple with basic cognitive process.

Repeated evidence offers descriptions of the behaviors common to autism. One of the most crucial observations is the need
for certain rituals and events. These seem to coexist with peculiar obsessions. As well as this need for ‘obsession and ritual’
there is often a high level of repetition of activities, mostly in communication or brief motor activity (such as hand-flapping or
head-banging). When rituals and structure is removed from the environment ‘challenging behaviors’ and ‘tantrums’ may be a
consequence. These make education and daily living very difficult and are one of the major causes of stress for individuals
with autism and their families.

In addition many individuals demonstrate ‘self-injurious behaviors’ (such as head-banging and self-picking) in response to a
need for communication, frustration, raised endorphin levels and many other reasons. It is vital that the reasons for behaviors
are understood, especially if the behavior has a damaging effect on the individual or those around him or her. There are
methods of managing the behavior and interventions (such as time-out), but it is first necessary to understand the behaviors
common in autism and the way they are presented and what might be the underlying causes.

Obsession and Ritual

According to the diagnostic criteria for autism repetitive and stereotyped behavior, demonstrating restricted interests and
activities, is a basic expression of the condition. Children with autism may seem to be puzzling obsessed with some non-
functional object or part of a toy and may become very disturbed when it is taken away from them. The strangest part of this
behavior may be that the object or toy is not used for any specific function or purpose. Other people with autism might be
‘obsessed’ with certain figures, or with collecting particular objects, with water, with memorizing bus time tables or travel
destinations. These are all fairly typical ‘obsessions’ but where they differ is in the degree to which the obsession consumes
the individual, the control they have over the obsession, and the non-functional nature of the particular interest.

Obsessive tendencies and restricted interests are not limited to a specific area they can be seen in most of everyday life, from
the arrangement of furniture to times at which dinner is served or people go to bed. People with autism may have many
routines which seem bizarre to their peers or family and will find it hard to cope when these routines are disturbed. It is
important to recognize the importance of these behaviors and the role they play in the everyday lives of people with autism.
Routine is a means by which they understand and feel safe within our environment. It makes the world reliable and predictable.

Stereotyped Behavior

To people with autism the world might be somewhat confusing. Impairments in theory of mind might make it difficult to
understand other people, impairments in central logic might make it difficult to understand objects and events in context and
apply meaning to them. Therefore seemingly useless or non-functional objects or interests might have specific significance to
some people with autism whereas some more generally accepted interest might be inadequate in meaning. There is great
distinctness in autism for example the areas which have little importance in meaning or significance maybe topics of interest to
people with autism. There are common obsessions like mechanisms (such as moving parts) or numerical areas (such as bus
routes or timetables). These are areas which avoid the difficulties which people with autism experience (social interaction and
understanding, the need for

communication) and concentrate on their skills (rote memory, spatial awareness etc.)

Whatever the source of interest or the area of routine they serve vital roles to people with autism. More than for most people,
for those with autism there is a need for security and to understand the world. This is best achieved through familiar and
comfortable objects and activities. When something has specific meaning it is both a comfort and an expression of personal
identity. It may also be escape from a world which puts too many pressures and demands on the individual just through
normal daily events. Simple social interaction can be very tiring and cognitively draining for people with autism. It is perhaps
inevitable that when these obsessions and rituals are disrupted the response may be likely extreme and excessive, especially
where there is no clearly understood reason for the interruption.

There are various stereotypical behaviors which are commonly seen among people with autism. Some of the most known are
‘body-rocking’, hand/limb ‘flapping’, ‘head-banging’ and ‘spinning’. These might be engaged in at various times: when
agitated, when aroused or active, when happy, when excited, when angry and even when simply comfortable and relaxed.
Where these behaviors are a problem (for example ‘self-injurious behavior’) the reason for their presence must be carefully
considered. These behaviors can be simply automatic, they can be learned and copied, they can be exaggerations of sporadic
habits which nearly everyone has (foot-tapping for example), mostly they express or produce a stimulating feeling or

Rhythmical motions are good ways of imposing order and control on one’s self and the environment and this order is
something most people with autism seem to both desire and need. There is a common incidence of interest in spinning around
and in watching spinning objects, the dizziness spinning evoke may be enjoyable, as may be the elimination of other

Repetitive Stereotyped Activities

Individuals with ASD are often engage in repetitive stereotyped activities. These activities may be simple or complex. Children
of higher levels of ability usually show more complex routines.

Simple stereotyped activities

Examples include: flicking fingers, objects, pieces of string, etc; spinning objects or staring at objects that spin; tapping and
scratching on surfaces; inspecting, walking along and tracing lines and angles; feeling particular textures, cloths, etc; rocking,
standing up and jumping; tapping, scratching or manipulating other parts of the body; repetitive head banging or self-injury;
teeth grinding; repetitive grunting, screaming or making of other noises.

Complex stereotyped activities involving objects

Examples include: intense attachment to particular objects for no apparent reason; a fascination with regular repeated patterns
of objects, sounds, etc.; repetitively arranging objects in lines or patterns; the collection of large numbers of particular objects,
such as plastic bottles, pebbles, or the tops for no apparent purpose.

Complex stereotyped activities involving routines

Examples include: insistence on following the identical route to certain places; insistence on carrying out a lengthy bedtime
ritual; repetition of a sequence of odd body movements.

Complex verbal or abstract repetitive activities

Examples include: fascination with certain topics such as astronomy, birds, train time-tables, even specific persons; asking the
same series of questions and demanding satisfying answers.

Challenging Behavior and Tantrums

Unfortunately for individuals with autism and their families, ‘tantrums’ and destructive behaviors are common, especially
among children. The term ‘challenging behavior’ is a controversial one, but it is intended to suggest that behaviors present a
challenge to professionals and services. This is supposed to prevent internalizing the cause of the behavior and ‘blaming’ the
individual. This is very important in autism, as it is unlikely that any behavior which causes difficulties for families and
professionals is intended maliciously or vindictively. There is virtually always some other, unidentified, cause which provokes
challenging behavior. It is worth noting that in most cases (although not all) individuals do not enjoy ‘being challenging’.
Unfortunately it would appear that the majority of cases of ‘challenging’ behaviors occur by children in the presence of their
families. If such behavior is a challenge for professionals then it can have a debilitating impact on parents and siblings.
Therefore it’s very important that behaviors are dealt with in way which allows both the secure functioning of the family, and
the opportunity for the individual to develop skills and communicate effectively.

Tantrums are one of the most common problems in young children with autism. They may appear to go into a state of rage,
panic, anxiety or fear for no reason at all. Tantrums are normal behavior for most children and there is no reason why
children with autism should by-pass this stage of development. The problem seems to be that it is more difficult for parents to
prevent ‘tantrums’ in children with autism, the child seems inconsolable during the ‘tantrum’, the episode might last a long
time, and the reconciliation that typically accompanies the end of the ‘tantrum’ rarely occurs.

Tantrums are just one example of challenging behavior. Similar episodes of panic, anxiety, rage or even aggression might be
seen all through childhood, adolescence and even adulthood. This might involve screaming, crying, resisting contact with
others, or pushing others away. On the other hand it might be much less obvious, such as refusing to respond to interaction
(especially in learning settings where this might have a destructive effect), using others as objects and refusing to comply with
daily activities. These behaviors are not necessarily ‘challenging’ but in some cases they might cause disruption (for example
to a classroom engaged in a lesson, or a family outing or event).

What is the Cause?

As with such behavior in all children there may be any number of causes. There might be underlying reasons (such as feeling
upset, anxious or angry) and immediate triggers (such as being told to do something). In autism however, there is also a
specific pattern of behavior and of social interaction. Understanding that can help us explain some ‘challenging’ behaviors.

People with autism often rely on ritual and structure. Structure is a method that helps define the world in terms of constant
rules and explanations and that helps the person function most effectively. Most children with autism find their own methods
of imposing structure and maintaining consistency. They need this structure because the world is confusing. Other people are
complex and almost impossible to understand. The information they receive through their senses might be overwhelming and
hard to bring together into a purposeful whole, and there is likely to be an additional learning disability that makes it hard to
apply cognitive skills to all these areas at once.

Therefore when some form of structure or routine is disrupted the world becomes confusing and overwhelming again. This
disruption of structure might be obvious (having a collection of objects disturbed, being made to go a different way to school,
getting up at an unusual hour) or it might be hidden (subtle changes in the environment which the child is used to for
example). Some of these triggers might be out of the control of the individual or his or her family members. Some might be
avoidable. Others might be necessary events, which can be slowly introduced so as to limit improper reactions.
It is
important to remember that ‘tantrums’ and similar behaviors are not rejections. They are not emotional blackmail
or warfare aimed at those close to the individual. They are the natural reactions to various stimuli. Natural if you
have autism that is. Disruption of structure is only one trigger of such behavior.

Communicative Needs

In more general terms one of the most significant of ‘challenging behavior’ is caused by communicative need. For people with
profound difficulties in understanding others and in communicating with them it is hardly surprising for frustration, anger and
anxiety to build up. It is also quite likely that ‘challenging behaviors’ will directly serve as a form of communication. Natural
‘tantrums’, for example in response to changes in routine or requests to do something the individual does not want to do, may
well be reinforced by the other people involved. For many professionals and parents it might be easier to let the child ‘have
their own’ way rather than help them to develop other means of communicating. In this way the child will learn that
‘challenging behavior’ may be the most effective and immediate way of bringing about a desired response from others. It is
perhaps inevitable that this will be the case in home environments where parents do not have the time, resources or knowledge
to deal with this behavior more constructively.

This might also be the case in educational settings where there is a compromise between offering support for the individual
with autism and ensuring that any ‘challenging behavior’ is not disruptive to other students. This is where support is needed
both in the form of direct interventions related to the behaviors, and in advising and helping parents manage episodes in ways
which can be applied at home. It is important to intervene as early as possible so that behaviors are not reinforced and so that
other means of expression and communication are open to children with autism.


In summary, it is important to recognize two major extent of ‘challenging behavior’. These include recognizing that there are
experiences and difficulties specific to individuals with autism that might trigger or cause these behaviors. These include
problems with understanding themselves, the world around them (especially their social environment) and their relationship
with it. They might have cognitive difficulty in processing and applying meaning to the information they are given. They might
need rigid structure in order to function comfortably. They might not understand or require the typical social interactions and
comforting of other children (such as being hugged when crying). These difficulties can be improved slowly through
education and other interventions, but basic differences must be respected and effort can be made to manage the environment
so that the individual is more comfortable (allowing some structure, avoiding distracting information when engaging in tasks,
allowing personal space where necessary).

The second major area is where ‘challenging behavior’ serves a communicative function. In this case the function of the
behavior must first be identified before teaching and developing other means of communicating. Interventions looks at
methods of providing support and mediation for people with autism in order to help them overcome any difficulties they might
experience as a result of their autism, and so that they can make the most of the skills and characteristics they do have. This
is divided into four areas: Educational, Behavioral, Drug and other interventions. Other Interventions include those which may
be seen as behavioral or educational in terms of content, and those which are more controversial such as (chelation therapy).
Discussion of these interventions is based on the characteristics they improve and the psychological and neurological theory
which helps explain them.

Interventions can be the most effective when it involves the learning of new skills or abilities.
Autistic Behaviors
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