8 common challenging behaviors in Autism and some suggested solutions!
8 challenging behaviors with students with autism and suggested solutions

One of the most concerning and stressful features of Autism is the many challenging behaviors that come with the territory and whether you are the teacher or a parent, figuring out how to get rid of them can be a struggle. Some of these behaviors can even be harmful to themself or others.  It is extremely important to recognize that these behaviors are communication.  These kids are not being “naughty”  they are just trying to communicate what they feel, want or need.

I will go through 8 common behaviors that can be challenging within the classroom or home and some suggested solutions.

1. Echolalia : this is the most difficult behavior for me to extinguish or replace because the very nature of the scripting is immediately rewarding and therefore reinforcing.  We practice whisper talking and read social stories about it.  I have had students who script all day long, repeating the same phrases over and over and it really impacts academics when that is all that they are doing. The first thing I teach is appropriate times to “turn it on” and when to “turn it out”.  IN my classroom, for my students with echolalia, we often talk about “TV land” because they script about shows that they have watched.  I made a fake remote control for the TV and I would press the pause button and say “TV land is off now”  “First work, then TV land”   This became the language of my classroom and it really helped with the noise volume and engagement increased.

2. Humming (vocalizing): this is another difficult one because it is immediately reinforcing as the echolalia.  Sometimes students are humming to block out other noise that is bothering them.  Some students have hyper-hearing and the littlest noise can bother them.  Most often than not they will hum to cancel it out.  For this behavior, I have tried the same approach with echolalia.  Making sure that we delineate appropriate times to hum.

3. Eloping: this is when the student runs away from the activity or runs out of the classroom.  Most often then not they are trying to get out of the activity.  Before you figure out how to stop it, here are some things that you can do in the meantime.  Place bells on your door.  I have seen jingle bells used and even an electric doorbell.  Always keep your door closed.  Put a large stop sign on the door as a visual cue.  I have even seen a classroom use a door alarm.  This will at least give you more time to get to them before they get too far.  For this specific behavior, I would teach them to ask for breaks functionally.  Please read HERE about how to teach your student how to functionally protest. 

4. Aggression: Aggression is a big one.  I am not talking about violence, there is a difference.  Violence is when there is an intended target and an intent to harm.  I am talking about students who hurt people trying to communicate their needs or wants.   These behaviors can become out of control and need to be dealt with immediately.    Keeping track of data using the below ABC chart is the best way, to begin with these.  I have had head-butters, scratchers, biters, kickers, punchers, desk flippers, material throwers, you name it, I have had them.  Basically, you have to know your student's triggers.  What is it that is setting them off?  You can read more about that below.  But for now, you can be preventative.  Make sure that they have a visual schedule that you follow consistently.  Create a behavior contingency map for the student, so they have a visual aid to help them get through.   Label their feelings.  Make sure they know the difference between feeling frustrated and feeling angry.  Use a five-point scale.  Use other visual aids like, “no biting” “no hitting”.   Use a sensory board to help find a way to get it out.  And again, teach them to ask for breaks appropriately.  The below visual aid is found in my Visual Aids Pack in my TpT store and is my second best seller.  It is constantly being updated and added to, you can grab it  HERE>>>>>>>>>

Behavior Contingency Map – you can find this in my TpT store in my Visual Aids Pack
and this one too!!

5. Self-injurious:  this behavior can become very serious very quickly.  I have had head-bangers that would find their way out of their helmet to hit their head on the floor.  I have students who would scratch themselves.  I have had students that would constantly pick at their skin until it bled.  I have had kids that would bite their hand until it was raw or even punch their faces until their nose bleeds.  They are not doing this for no reason.  They are trying to get something out of it.   The problem is trying to figure out what it is that they need.  Collecting data on the behavior should give you a good idea.  Some kids need sensory input, so talk with your Occupational Therapist about setting up a sensory diet.  Some kids are trying to get out of things because they are too difficult or they don't want to do it.  Refer back to the blog about protesting functionally.   Teaching a student to ask for a break appropriately is best.

6. Repetitive behaviors: (clapping, flapping, rocking) These behaviors aren't really that challenging but can become very disruptive to learning if we let it.   There are so many different types of repetitive behaviors and most of them are really harmless, but as they get older, they may want to seem more “typical” so teaching them replacement behaviors while they are young, can actually go a long way.  For example, if my student is biting their hands, depending on the function of the behavior, I would try and use a chew necklace, or something else to get the oral need met.  If they are biting their hand because they want something, then I would teach them to use their words and to communicate.  If they are biting their hand because they are trying to get out of something, then teach them to ask to take a break.

7. Anxiety: Soooo many students with Autism struggle with anxiety.  These are the kids that are very rigid with their schedules and like everything in order.  Students like things a certain way and sometimes this can become very problematic and challenging if the anxiety gets so bad that it has a negative impact on their learning.  For these kiddos, I like to change up their schedule every so often, or maybe change up their seating.  Sometimes, I'll change who they are working with, or I'll work in a different location for Math today with them.  If they get stuck in a routine that they like and are comfortable in, they will have complete meltdowns if it is ever different.  We have to prepare them for the real world and we have to teach them to be flexible.  I have had students that medication was the only option for anxiety, and that is okay too.

8. Sensory issues: Some kids are hypersensitive and other kids can be hypotensive.  These behaviors that are caused by sensory issues can be an easy fix.  Please see below to read all about some suggested triggers and how best to deal with them.

This behavior chart is yours for free, just click the picture or click HERE!

How can I go about changing the behavior of the child?  You need to first understand what is causing the behavior and what the child is getting out of it.   Taking data using a simple ABC chart and/or scatterplot will help you decipher what the environmental triggers are and what the student is getting out of it.  You can download this free ABC chart HERE and start tracking data today.   A scatterplot chart is another way to collect data on whether or not the time of day or day of the week is a factor in the child's challenging behavior.  For example, if every time I took Sally into the bathroom to brush her teeth, she has a meltdown, we can track that on the scatterplot chart and easily see that everyday at 8 am and 8 pm she has an outburst.

Now we have to figure out what are the possible triggers.  Here are a few examples of what it could be.

Routines: students on the spectrum live by their schedules and routines.  Throwing an interruption into the schedule can really make a child with Autism lose their mind.  For example, if you come into school in the morning and you find out that library was canceled.  You know this will set Johnny off.  What do you do?  A good way to get your student to accept change is by building purposefully, planned interruptions into their schedules and practicing how we should react.  Also, before changing the schedule on the student, change the schedule together and even use a “change in schedule” visual aid.  This alleviates anxiety and they like to be a part of changing the schedule.   Another good suggestion would be to use social stories.   I have a student who I started reading a social story when I knew that we would have a fire drill.  I would have her read the story a few times before the alarm would go off.  Her behaviors decreased.  What was great, was when we had our 5th first drill of the year, she no longer needed the social story, she would just script the story out loud, which was very comforting to her.

Transitions: transitions are one of those things that students on the spectrum have the most difficulty with, especially when they are transitioning from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity.  The best way to prepare for transitions is to have a good visual schedule, use a timer, and have a “check schedule” card.   One of the things I have learned over the years is to make sure you give them a visual card when you say “check your schedule” or if the timer goes off.  Their auditory input in much weaker and need the visual support.  You will be amazed at how this will change some transition behaviors.

use visual cue cards to hand them when you say check your schedule.

Hyposensative – sometimes a child with Autism can be hyposenitive to the world and need extra sensory input to hear, feel and see the world around them.  They are sensory seekers and will often rock back and forth, wave their hand in their faces or even hum loudly.   These types of sensory seeking behaviors need to be addressed because they can be intrusive to learning.  Replacement behaviors can be taught or providing good sensory input throughout the day may eliminate most of these behaviors.   Some of my sensory seekers are on a rigid sensory diet, which includes lots of vestibular and proprioceptive input throughout the ENTIRE day.

swing and noise-canceling headphones

Hypersensitive – at times a child with Autism can be hypersensitive and do not like all the sensory input that the world is giving them.  They can see, hear and smell very well.  Loud sounds bother them.   They avoid strong smells and bright lights.  There are things that we can do to make students with hypersensitivity deal with the world a little bit better.   I make sure that we have lots of tools on hand to offer students with this sensitivity.  Noise-canceling headphones or earplugs are a great tool for auditory sensitivity.  I make sure that my fluorescent lights are covered with light covers, and I also unscrew every other bulb (I had the custodians do that for me), I also bring in lamps to provide a warm light.  I keep my blinds down as well.  As far as students with a smell sensitivity, we try and minimize staff wearing perfume and also using fragrance-free soaps.  Some students are even sensitive to tactile things such as play dough or touching soil, we use gloves or long sticks to help with this as well.

Tired – I work in the high school and my students need to be in school by 7:10.  My teenagers are very tired.  For a student with autism, being tired only exacerbates challenging behaviors.  Having great communication with parents is KEY to helping this problem.  I use an app called Remind, that I talk with my parents every day.  They let me know if my students have had a rough night, or if they went to bed really late or if they woke up really early.   If I know my student is tired, I let my staff know that the demands of the day need to be lowered to make sure that we are preventing a possible crisis situation.  Also, I have allowed for some rest or even some sleep time during the school day.  I would rather have the student get some sleep than struggle on the floor with tears.

Discomfort or in pain – there are many times when students with Autism are in pain or are in discomfort and are unable to tell us.  Especially, those who are non-verbal. Even some of our students who have words, may not know the correct words to use when they have a headache when their stomach feels off, or if their ears hurt. The best way to deal with this is to teach them the words.  I typically will start with simple feelings words like hurt and sad and pair them with pictures.  Then we read stories about not feeling well, or read social stories or show them flashcards with someone holding their head with their hands and squinting and teaching them what a headache is.  It is really important for kids to know the vocabulary to use and for them to have access to it, whether it is in their PECS book. or their AAC device, it should be accessible.  Next time they don't feel well, they will have the words to let you know.

Environment – this is the easiest setting condition to change.  For many students with Autism, the environment is the biggest trigger for them.  It could be a student is banging their pencil on the desk, or the lights flickering, or the sun is singing to brightly on their desk.  Or maybe the teacher is wearing their hair differently that day.  Maybe they can smell lunch cooking all the way down the hallway.  It could be that the boy sitting next to them never took a bath and smells funny, maybe the whiteboard markers are squeaking and it's bothering them.  There are so many different triggering events that could happen within the setting that it may be hard to even pinpoint an antecedent.  But believe me, there is one.  Remember all behavior is communication.   So use the ABC charts to figure out what it is that is bothering them.  Sometimes, if I can't figure it out after a few weeks, I will have people come into observe because there are times when I totally miss something that a new set of eyes can see.   Sometimes, what often gets overlooked is a messy, chaotic classroom.  Kids with Autism tend to be OCD and like a neat and organized space.

Delayed response to an earlier trigger – Sometimes, there is something that we forget to take into account and that is a delayed response to a trigger.  There can be times where something can happen in the morning before getting to school or even the night before, and the student won't show any behaviors until later that day.  It seems to sit with them until they blow up later.  Again, this can be dealt with by having clear and consistent communication from home.  I know that some of you may have a hard time with parents who are hard to get a hold of, but be persistent and don't give up.

That's all I have for now.   Do you have anything to add?

Or you can pin this blog post for later:

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

REcent Posts


You Might Also Like...

8 Responses

Leave a Reply


Task Box Shop


Task Box Shop_Level

Shipping Note:

Physical boxes will be shipped out on the first week of each month.  If you purchase on the 2nd, your first box will not arrive until the next month.  I.e. If you start your subscription January 15, your first box will arrive in February.

All subscriptions will receive immediate access to digital files.  


Subscriptions are set to renew on the 1st of each month unless you opt for the annual plan.







Adapted Resources

Adapted Resources

Seasonal & Holiday

Life Skills

Life Skills