Autism Spectrum Disorder

Your Autism-Friendly Behavior Intervention Plan

Autism can cause challenging behaviors in children, and parents need to implement consistent interventions in order to create positive change. Here’s how to get started.

A young boy with autism standing calmly in front of a chalkboard, thanks to a behavior intervention plan
Boy in sweater in front of chalkboard with red and white lines

Behavior challenges hinder learning and social development in children with autism spectrum disorder. Delays in speech and language, and difficulties with communication, lead to problem behaviors, because a child can’t convey his wants and needs. It is important to identify these behaviors and to make changes in your daily, basic interactions to improve them.

Have a plan of action, so that you always have answers to the two questions: What will I do when the behavior occurs, and, more important, what changes can I make to reduce the probability of the behavior happening at all? I use the acronym CHANGE — six steps to changing a behavior in your child with ASD:

1. Consistency

Consistency is the most important factor involved in changing behavior. Once you have a plan of action, everyone involved in your child’s life should help to carry it out. Inconsistent use of strategies leads to behaviors that become even tougher to change. If Mom and Dad respond differently to challenging behaviors, children don’t learn to behave the way we want them to.

Being consistent is not easy. Anything — a special family event or a long plane ride — can lead parents to alter the behavior plan. Stick to the plan as much as you can for the best results.

Positive reinforcement should be there every day, as well. Decades of research show that this is one of the major strategies for changing behavior in children with ASD.

[Self-Test: Is My Child on the Autism Spectrum?]

2. Have Clear Expectations

Set clear, attainable expectations for your child and your family. Everyone in the family should know what is expected and what to do when your child doesn’t behave well.

The manner in which you deliver directions and expectations affects whether or not your child will heed them. Parents should present statements, not questions — “It is time to clean up,” rather than “Can you clean up now?” The latter can elicit a “yes” or “no” response, and “no” is not what you want to hear. Remember that children with ASD respond well to visual prompts, textual cues, and timers.

You should convey expectations and directions only once, preferably in the same room or location as your child, after making eye contact first. If the direction is repeated over and over, your child learns that he or she does not have to obey the first time, because there will be more opportunities to comply. It also teaches that there are no consequences for not following a direction. Rather, deliver an expectation once, in a clear, firm way, and provide an incentive for following the first time.

Refrain from threats: “If you do not ____, then we cannot_____.” There is a difference between a threat and a positive direction: “When you do _____, we can_____.”

3. Anticipate the Next Move

You know your child best. Over time, you learn which situations are likely to lead to trouble, like a meltdown. Positive reinforcement before the challenging behavior may help to avoid it. Changes in routine, a new schedule, even a different driving route home may present difficulties for children with ASD. They need structure and predictability. Learn to prepare your child for change rather than avoid new or different situations. For example, if you are at the playground and it is almost time to go, don’t say, “We have to leave in a few minutes” while your child is having a blast on the swing. Say, “What should we do first when we get home? Play a game or read a story?” Giving choices, both of which are acceptable to you, is a good way to transition from an enjoyable activity.

[Autism and ADHD: The Complete Playbook for Social Challenges]

It also helps to chart situations to see what happened before the challenging behavior occurred and afterward. Keeping a log will help you prepare for, and deal with, your child’s behaviors. Many parents tell me that bad behavior seems to come out of the blue. The causes of bad behavior are difficult to detect in children who are non-vocal.

4. Never Miss a Chance to Catch Your Child Being Good

Create a positive environment for your child by decreasing reprimands and reminders and increasing praise and reinforcement. It may not seem right to say “great job” for doing something that you are supposed to do, but finding things to praise throughout the day sets a positive tone. The more that good behavior is reinforced, the more likely it will be repeated and maintained over time.

5. Get Measuring

Probably the least favorite task of busy families is to chart a child’s behavior daily, but it is important. Keep track of the frequency or duration of behaviors that you want to change, the better behaviors that you want, the strategies that you have tried, effects of medication changes, and how the changes affected his behaviors. Making a record will let you see if the plan is working or not.

6. Engage

We know that active engagement improves behaviors in children with and without disabilities. Does this mean that you have to spend the day creating fun for your child? No. However, teaching kids how to manage “down time,” is critical, since problem behaviors are likely to occur then. Expanding the menu of activities for down time will reinforce positive behaviors. Some possibilities include building with blocks, looking at books, playing on an iPad, completing puzzles, or even watching TV.

[How to Treat Autism Spectrum Disorder]