The sensory differences associated with autism, as well as difficulties with executive function, adapting to change, social pressures, misunderstandings, etc., can contribute to high levels of anxiety, frustration, and confusion for the individual, eventually leading to behaviours that challenge.
What we define as behaviours that challenge is the result of a clash between the demands of a situation and the individual’s ability to cope. It can be an attempt to communicate needs and emotions. When communication attempts are unsuccessful, the result can be increasing feelings of failure and escalating tensions with caregivers.
Online tests leave out many things, including things that only a skilled diagnostician will be able to assess. All online tests can do is ask for your opinions about your child’s behaviour.
Individuals who may not be able to communicate their need for others to modify expectations maybe more prone to frustration. They may be unable to negotiate personal or emotional boundaries to express how they are feeling.
By providing an alternative means to communicate (e.g. via visual cues), we provide the key to behaviour support for all autistic people. Establishing routines and encouraging regular calming activities can also support your child to maintain some autonomy, order, and predictability.
“ … if your child is presenting challenging behaviour at the moment, this does not mean that it will feature throughout their life. Skills and coping strategies develop – both your child’s and your own.”*
Encourage yourself, your family, school, and anyone involved with your child to become educated and knowledgeable about what autism really is. It is critical to understand autism and the causes of behaviours that challenge before trying to implement strategies or a behaviour support plan. Once you have learnt how to ‘enter’ your child’s way of thinking, you will be able to adjust the way you think and communicate with them.
Meltdowns may occur when an autistic person’s cognitive ability to cope with a situation is exceeded, or they may be triggered by sensory overload. Although meltdowns may look similar to temper tantrums at first glance, there are some easy-to-spot differences:
|Is the individual aware of surroundings/looking for a reaction?||No||Yes|
|Is there a “goal” they want to accomplish?||No||Yes|
|Can they communicate their needs/demands?||No||Yes|
|Are they in control of their behaviour/avoiding injury?||No||Yes|
|Once the problem is resolved, do they calm down quickly?||No||Yes|
A tantrum is an angry or frustrated outburst, while autistic meltdowns are a reaction to being overwhelmed. An autistic person has no control over their meltdowns and will not benefit from measures to reduce tantrums (e.g. distraction, hugs, incentives to ‘behave’, or any form of discipline). The best strategy for caregivers may be to provide a calm, safe space for the child, eliminating any further cognitive or sensory input, and wait for the meltdown to pass.
Meltdowns can sometimes be prevented by keeping a close eye on any warning signs that precede them. These may include:
the individual suddenly not meeting your eyes anymore (if they have been looking at you before),
increased fidgeting and stimming,
increased frowning, vocal or facial ticks,
raised voice, talking faster,
difficulty understanding questions/incoherent answers,
‘spacing out’ or becoming unresponsive.
If you suspect that a meltdown may be approaching, don’t ask the person if they are ok, or if they need help. Even questions like these will place further strain on their cognitive resources and could be the final straw pushing them into overload. Instead, assist them to leave the challenging situation and move to a calm, safe space. In some cases, a brisk walk, bouncing on the trampoline, or other vigorous exercise may be helpful in reducing adrenaline and preventing a meltdown.
- In some very challenging situations, ask your Needs Assessment and Service Coordination (NASC) for a referral to Behaviour Support Services.
- You may find local parent/caregiver support groups helpful sources of information.
- Autism New Zealand education programmes.