Whether you suspect that your child has autism, or you have just received a diagnosis, you are not alone. You probably have some concerns about your child’s well-being, their behaviors, and their development. At the same time, you want to do what is best for your child.
Whether your child has behaviors that can be difficult to manage, such as tantrums or aggression, or your autism concerns are related to developmental delays or other areas of functioning, we will share with you some effective tips for helping your child with these common parenting concerns.
Many parents of children with autism struggle with how to handle their child’s challenging behaviors. They want to do what’s best for their child and help their child to overcome these behaviors, but they also feel like they want to recognize what their child needs and how to make their child happy and comfortable. We’ll go over some of the most common behaviors that parents of children with autism might have and tips for effectively managing these concerns.
One of the challenging behaviors that is commonly seen in children with autism is being disruptive to other people in their environment. What this means is that many children with autism may negatively impact people around them. This is not to place blame on the child or anyone else for that matter, and it’s important to note that not all children with autism will have disruptive behavior; but, when it is your child who is being disruptive to you or to someone else, you probably want to better understand your child and how to handle this.
Examples of disruptive behavior include when a child throws objects at school, when they interrupt their teacher during class, or when they act in an inappropriate way when their parent is on the phone or making dinner. Disruptive behavior might also be in the form of having meltdowns or tantrums.
Another common challenging behavior that children with autism often engage in is called elopement. This is when a child runs away from their environment, from the place they are supposed to be.
An example of this is when a child tries to run away from his family at the park or a child runs out of the school building while school is still in session.
Another very common challenging behavior that parents of children with autism experience with their kids is noncompliance. All parents want their children to listen to them and to follow directions and to do what they are expected to do at least most of the time.
As compared to children without autism, children with autism may have more difficulties with being ‘compliant’ or with doing what their parent asks them to do. Again, as with disruptive behavior, this is not the case with all children with ASD as some children with ASD are actually overly compliant.
What to Do About Challenging Behaviors
If you are a parent of a child with autism, you might feel overwhelmed or even stressed when your child displays some type of challenging behavior. Although there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to how to best handle a child’s challenging behaviors, there are a few things to help manage these situations.
Functions of Behavior
One of the first things to think about when trying to figure out what to do about your child’s challenging behavior is to determine what the function is of their behavior. There are four functions of behavior. This means that your child’s behavior is probably happening because of one or more of these four reasons.
There are more formal methods of determining the function of a behavior (which a trained professional, such as the behavior analysts at Behavioral Innovations, could help you explore), but, as a parent, you can make your own hypotheses about the function of your child’s behavior in a more informal way, as well.
Think about your child’s specific behavior and think about when that behavior has happened. Don’t just look at one time but, instead, think about that behavior as it occurred on many different occasions.
When you think about that behavior, think about what happened after that behavior. What did you do? What did your child do? What events took place? Also think about your child and what they might have been trying to communicate even if they weren’t communicating in an ideal way.
Which of the four functions of behavior do you think could have been the reason why your child acted the way they did?
The four functions of behavior include:
Did your child want a specific object, like a toy or a preferred item?
Did your child want to get out of doing something or avoid something, like not wanting to get in the car when it was time to leave?
Was your child trying to get your attention?
Was your child’s behavior related to a sensory need, such as a sensation he gets from flapping his arms or from picking his skin?
After identifying the function of your child’s behavior, think about what you want your child to do instead of them displaying the challenging behavior. Then use positive reinforcement to get your child to display the more appropriate behavior more often. Positive reinforcement is when you give your child something they like when they perform a desired action so the probability of that behavior occurring again increases.
You can use positive reinforcement in a variety of ways. For example:
You can give your child more attention when they wait patiently while you are talking on the phone by playing with them for 15 minutes when you are done with your phone call if they didn’t engage in disruptive behavior and they remained quiet during your call.
You can give a special reward (such as a sticker on a sticker chart or a preferred toy) if your child gets in the car appropriately rather than throwing a tantrum when it’s time to leave the house.
Speech and Communication Concerns
One of the most common concern for parents of a child with autism is speech or communication difficulties. In fact, one study found that 78.6% of the parents they surveyed were concerned about their child’s speech and communication even before their child received an official diagnosis of ASD (Richards, Mossey, & Robins, 2016).
Speech and communication issues will look different from one child to another. However, all children with autism struggle in this area in some way or another. Some children with ASD may not be able to speak at all while others can speak but they struggle with other areas of communication, such as having conversations or expressing their thoughts and feelings clearly and appropriately. Some children with autism can talk at great lengths about the topics that they are most interested in, sometimes referred to as their special interests.
Another common communication concern that parents might have about their child with autism is echolalia which is repeating things the child hears. Parents might also notice that their child struggles with using or understanding nonverbal communication, such as having trouble reading facial expressions.
What to Do About Speech and Communication Concerns
The main approach you can take for helping your child with speech and communication is to provide them with functional communication training. This is an intervention strategy that not only helps your child develop effective communication skills, but it also has the added benefit of reducing challenging behaviors (Tiger, Hanley, & Bruzek, 2008). This is the ideal approach to help your child live a better quality of life, a life that is more enjoyable, less stressful, and one that allows them to gain skills that will help them throughout their life.
When working on functional communication training at home with your child, identify the communication skills you want your child to use and then encourage and reinforce those skills.
To get more help with functional communication training, contact a professional service provider.
Social Skills Concerns
Many parents of children with autism have concerns related to their child’s social skills or how their child interacts with others. As a parent, you may first notice that your child interacts with other people in a different way than what other children do (Guinchat, Chamak, Bonniau, et al., 2012). You might see that your child doesn’t play with their sibling or that they don’t look at other kids or even you that often; they don’t make eye contact as much as other kids do.
One specific social skill that many parents of children with autism notice is that their child doesn’t engage much in what is known as joint attention (Bolton, Golding, Emond, et al. 2012; Sivberg, 2003).
Joint attention is when two people focus on the same thing for the purpose of interacting with each other.
An example of joint attention is when a toddler points to a puppy, and possibly even saying “Puppy!” with the intention of getting their parent to also look at and talk about the puppy. The toddler wants the parent to pay attention to the same thing they are paying attention to and to socialize about the thing they are both looking at which, in that case, is the puppy.
Social skills are closely tied to communication skills as they both involve interacting with other people. Parents of children with autism might notice that their child doesn’t make friends easily or that they often have difficulties in their relationships and interactions with others. Parents might notice that their child gets overwhelmed in a group setting and that they prefer to be alone. There are lot of different social skills challenges that a child with autism might experience.
What to Do About Social Skills Concerns
As a parent of a child with autism, some things that you can do to help your child improve their social skills while also helping to validate and support your child as a unique individual include:
Allowing your child to have personal space and downtime often (in an amount that works for them)
Gently encouraging social interactions and helping to create social gatherings that your child will be more likely to enjoy (such as having a playdate that involves your child’s special interest)
Providing prompts for your child to help remind them of specific skills they should use in social situations (such as thanking Grandma for the cookies)
Not pressuring your child to be like “other kids.” Not all kids need lots of friends if they don’t want them.
Teaching your child about social skills that will benefit them in the future, such as how to communicate with a cashier at the grocery store or how to order their own food at a restaurant (including the nonverbal communication that goes along with those skills).
A service provider can help you to figure out the best way to support your child’s social skills.
Talk with Your Child’s Doctor about Your Concerns
It can be overwhelming to be worried about your child’s development and well-being especially when you aren’t quite sure what to do about the concerns that you have. It’s important if you haven’t done it already, to speak with your child’s primary care provider about your concerns.
Generally, a child’s doctor will ask some screening questions at the child’s well-child visits to assess whether the child has or hasn’t met any of the major developmental milestones, such as walking and saying their first words at the expected age. However, even these screening questions might not address your concerns or what is really going on for your child.
Be sure to be open with your child’s doctor about anything you notice in your child’s behaviors or their development from things you notice in their social interactions to how they communicate to any sensory concerns you think are going on for your child.
If you have concerns about your child’s behaviors or development, such as those that we’ve discussed in this article, it’s important to look for effective and quality intervention. You can work with a trained professional who will help you learn ways to help your child learn new skills that will help them live a better quality of life.
If you are a parent and you’d like support with knowing how to handle the concerns you have about your child with autism or you’d like your child to receive intervention, contact Behavioral Innovations. Call (855) 782-7822 to get in contact with Behavioral Innovations and learn more about our effective services for children with autism.
Bolton PF, Golding J, Emond A, et al. Autism spectrum disorder and autistic traits in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children: precursors and early signs. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2012;51:249–260.e225.
Guinchat V, Chamak B, Bonniau B, et al. Very early signs of autism reported by parents include many concerns not specific to autism criteria. Res Autism Spectr Disord. 2012;6:589–601.
Richards, M., Mossey, J., & Robins, D. L. (2016). Parents' Concerns as They Relate to Their Child's Development and Later Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP, 37(7), 532–540. https://doi.org/10.1097/DBP.0000000000000339
Sivberg B. Parents’ detection of early signs in their children having an autistic spectrum disorder. J Pediatr Nurs. 2003;18:433–439.
Tiger, J. H., Hanley, G. P., & Bruzek, J. (2008). Functional communication training: a review and practical guide. Behavior analysis in practice, 1(1), 16–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03391716