Autism Aware
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Understanding Behaviour

Viewing time: 10 min

This section explains what behaviour is and how and why people with autism sometimes behave differently.


Behaviour Defined
Behaviour refers to an action or reaction to an internal or external event or occurrence in the environment.

Internal events include pain, sensation or feelings whilst
External events include noise such as a dog barking, bright lighting, the smell of food, or an instruction from a teacher.

These event or occurrences influence how a person behaves.

Some individuals with autism can display behaviours that have a negative effect on the person or their family.

Some behaviours can be challenging such as physically aggressive behaviour, others can be inappropriate such as screaming to get attention. All behaviours have a function and most can be reduced, controlled or eliminated with an appropriate intervention.

There are many possible causes of challenging and inappropriate behaviours in people with autism. These behaviours can be a direct result of not being able to communicate their needs or wants. Sometimes challenging behaviours are caused by anxiety, sensory processing issues and underlying medical issues.

The way in which a person on the spectrum is supported will have a huge impact on how they navigate their way through life.

It is important to see any behaviour difficulties in the context of the way the individual interprets situations and processes information.
Understanding the individual, the situation in which the behaviour is occurring and using that information to plan for intervention or prevention is crucial.

Why do people with autism sometimes behave differently?

Individuals with autism have a different way of thinking and interpreting information. This can lead to difficulties with communication and social interaction which may in turn lead to problems with behaviour

Impairment in social communication and interaction
Expressive and receptive language
Expressing needs, feelings and views
Understanding and interpreting the communication of others
Understanding the rules of social interaction
Making and sustaining friendships
Interpreting and expressing own emotions and feelings and that of others
Functional communication

Restricted and Repetitive patterns of Behaviour
Rigidity in thinking and behaviour
Ritualistic behaviour
Difficulties with selectivity or narrow focus
Narrow interests and obsessions

People with autism often have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication, they can be quite literal, only interested in facts, and can sometimes follow rules rigorously. However, because they have a different way of thinking and can have fantastic attention to detail, they can provide an insight into a world most of us would never otherwise experience.

The different ways a person with autism experiences the world can have both a positive and a negative impact on how they behave.

Knowing why an inappropriate behaviour occurs, allows us to predict and prevent that behaviour from being repeated. An intervention can be implemented which can teach skills that promote positive behaviour and reduce negative behaviour

Preventative Strategies
By being prepared and understanding your child’s needs you can prevent behaviours occurring.

Set the child up to succeed by having the appropriate environment and communicative tools available.

Teach the child to communicate their needs so the next time something happens they know how to let you know what their needs or wants are.

Communication plays a vital role in helping to reduce unwanted behaviours.

Where possible it is best to seek the advice of a professional. The information provided here is to help parents to understand why the child is behaving in a particular way and to try to pre-empt and accommodate any difficulties that might occur. The parent is the primary caregiver for the child and with the right skills is best positioned to cater for the child’s needs. The parent can help the child to learn and develop skills at a suitable pace and to generalise those skills to various settings, allowing the child to become as independent as possible.

Author: Alma Carroll - Behavioural Specialist
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