Autism In The Classroom: How To Handle Behavior Challenges

Children with autism typically use behaviors to communicate their wants, needs, anxieties, and frustrations. 

These behaviors can include: 

  • Fidgeting
  • Stimming
  • Rocking
  • Tapping
  • Repeating words or phrases
  • Mimicking
  • Self-injurious actions
  • Aggression
  • Biting
  • Ignoring peers
  • Refusing to follow directives
  • Eloping

While behaviors are important communication tools, some behaviors can disrupt learning in a classroom setting. Various interventions teach children with autism new skills that help them develop acceptable ways to communicate, socialize, and function.

Strategies For Handling Autism Behavior Problems In The Classroom

The following strategies help school staff successfully handle the behavior challenges exhibited by children with autism in the classroom.

Follow A Behavior Plan

Because each child with autism is unique, they need a customized behavior plan. This document is part of the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and outlines the child’s needs and includes specific steps that improve maladaptive behaviors without punishing the child.

A behavior plan starts with a Functional Behavioral Analysis (FBA). This analysis identifies the root of behaviors, which can include the child’s desire to obtain an object, activity, or sensation, escape a demand or undesirable situation, or gain attention. The FBA will describe the frequency and intensity of behaviors, identify the causes and consequences of behaviors, and suggest possible solutions.

With information from an FBA, a special education or behavior consultant writes a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). This document lists the challenging behaviors, their causes, and effective solutions that are specific to the child’s needs. The BIP includes measurable goals that the teacher and other staff can monitor. The BIP can be modified as the student achieves goals.

Incorporate Strengths & Interests

Every child has strengths and interests. These assets can become leverage to help children engage more in class, stay on task, and reduce behavior challenges.

Observe children with autism closely to discover their unique assets. School staff can then incorporate the children’s strengths and interests into the curriculum, activities, and rewards system to prompt positive behavior.

Increase Structure

Changes in the daily routine can create stress for many children with autism. These students thrive on routine and consistency and may exhibit maladaptive behaviors when they face unpredictable situations at school.

An increase in classroom structure and daily organization may relieve stress and pressure. Modifications like an organized and minimalist classroom, predictable daily schedule, visual activity schedule, physical boundaries, and other routines may help children feel calm, relaxed, and less agitated throughout the school day.

Set & Explain Realistic Expectations

Most children function better when they know what’s required of them and when they have the skills to meet those expectations. Children with autism are no different, especially since they can think in very literal and concrete terms.

Carefully set realistic expectations, and explain those expectations clearly to reduce autism behavior problems in the classroom. 

For example, teachers may need to show students visually what they must do and use simple instructions. Have the child repeat the instructions back to the teacher, too, to ensure understanding and reduce outbursts.

Time Transitions

Switching between activities and moving between classes can frustrate children with autism. They typically thrive on routine and predictability and also appreciate the opportunity to finish one activity before moving on to something else.

To avoid behavior challenges, time transitions carefully and seek to avoid as many disruptions as possible. Written or visual schedules clarify expectations and verbal prompts may motivate students to transition calmly, too.

Address Sensory Sensitivities

Sensitivity to textures, aromas, bright lights, and noise are a few challenges that may affect children with autism. These sensory sensitivities can cause discomfort and pain, which may precede challenging behaviors.

Address a child’s sensory sensitivities to improve comfort. Teachers can discover these sensitivities by observing the child and talking to parents or caregivers. It may be impossible to remove every child’s sensory triggers, but simple changes like dimming the lights or avoiding crowded hallways can make a big difference.

Offer Quiet Space

It’s common for students with autism to feel uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or anxious at school. These feelings build up until the child responds with challenging behaviors.

A quiet space in a corner of the classroom or another room can help students relax before they disrupt the classroom. Ideally, this space will include tools that help children feel safe, secure, and calm. A swing, rubber wall, art supplies, low lights, no noise, and other tools allow a child to relieve pressure and prepare to return successfully to the classroom.

Improve Communication Skills

Because children with autism often struggle to communicate, they may benefit from strategies that teach functional communication skills. Improved communication abilities can help children communicate better and may reduce autism behavior problems in the classroom.

Available communication tools include augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools, such as sign language and Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS). 

Speech and language therapy can also occur in natural and various settings throughout the day and involve teachers, peers, staff, and the child’s family. The child’s communication goals, therapies, and tools will be listed in the IEP and updated as needed.

Implement Calming Techniques

When a student becomes verbally or physically disruptive or aggressive in the classroom, the staff may respond in kind. A calm demeanor can make a huge impact, though, and often defuses rather than escalates the situation.

Classroom staff can handle behavior challenges more successfully when they implement calming techniques themselves and with the children. Deep breathing, counting to 10, taking a break, pushing on a wall, and using a quiet, slow voice are a few strategies that defuse tension.

These and other calming techniques can be used in the moment or become part of the class’s daily routine as every student develops helpful tools that promote peace, tranquility, and calm.

Successfully Handle Autism Behavior Problems In The Classroom

Children with autism may exhibit challenging behavior in the classroom. Several strategies can help staff handle behaviors appropriately, reduce classroom disruptions, and provide every student in the class with access to a safe and effective education.

Despite these steps, some children with autism may need even more support. A specialized school like the Sarah Dooley Center For Autism provides an educational setting that’s designed to meet the child’s specific needs and successfully handle behavior challenges.

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