Fact sheet: information on creating a behavior management program fora child with Autism, a common Autism Spectrum Disorder


The most effective model for managing behavior is the ABC approach which underlies interventions such as Applied Behavior Analysis, the Lovaas program and Positive Behavior Support:


A - Antecedent

What usually happens before the behavior, and may set off the behavior?

B - Behavior

What actually happens during the behavior?

C - Consequence

What immediate and delayed reactions follow from the individual, other people and the environment?


This is a very effective technique for taking the emotions away from challenging behaviors and analyzing behaviors with a view to creating strategies to manage them. When creating a behavior management program, it will be important to work out which strategies you will use. These strategies are not to be used occasionally but will need to be applied consistently by everyone who has regular contact with the child. While difficult at first, your chosen techniques will eventually become second nature.


some thoughts before choosing behavior management strategies

• Effective behavior management needs to be applied consistently across all areas of your child's life

• Focus on one or two of the major behaviors first - the rest can wait for later

• Be enthusiastic and let your child know you love them and approve of their positive behaviors

• Be patient - the longer the behavior has existed, the longer it takes to modify
• Choose 'rewards' carefully and don't provide more than required

• Get informed on all aspects of behavior management before choosing your strategies

• Consider the involvement of a behavioral specialist with autism experience.


The following strategies are grouped under changing the antecedent, behavior or consequence.


Changing the antecedent (the 'trigger')

How can parents change what usually happens before the behavior, and may set off the behavior? The aim here is to recognize the antecedent to the behavior, and either remove it or prepare your child for it. Parents will often have to play 'detective' to find these triggers to a particular behavior. Examples of antecedents may be:

• An unwanted hug or cuddle due to sensory problems

• Too much visual and auditory stimulation in a supermarket

• An unpleasant texture from clothing or furniture.


Avoid the antecedent

In some cases, it is easiest to simply avoid the situations that cause the behavior. If ocean waves or eating carrots causes violent outbursts, it may be best to simply avoid these. However, in many cases the child may have to adapt to these antecedents as part of their development, so other strategies are required.


Graduated exposure to the antecedent

This also called desensitization, and with time and patience, it can be a powerful technique. For example, a child may scream uncontrollably in supermarkets. The parent will explain to the child that they will stand outside the supermarket for 30 seconds then go home. The next time, it may be explained that they will go in for 30 seconds then go home. Time spent in the supermarket is gradually lengthened until the child has adapted to this environment. This technique is usually best paired with positive reinforcement, such as praise "You did so well in the supermarket" or a special treat upon leaving the supermarket.


Distraction from the antecedent

In some cases, a simple distraction is all that is required. If a child is obsessed with playing with the telephone, then offering to read a favorite story may be all that is required.


Preparing the child for the antecedent

An extremely common feature of autism and Asperger's syndrome is in coping with chaos, unpredictability and lack of routine. All of these are antecedents that are very likely to result in behavioral issues.


Changing the behavior

How can parents change what actually happens during the behavior?


Shaping alternative behaviors

An example here is a young boy who only engages with the pet dog by hitting it. Although time consuming, the parents intervene every time he interacts with the dog, grab his hand and turn the hit into a stroking motion. This is paired with positive reinforcement "It's great when you are gentle with Pooch!" and doing a favorite activity immediately afterwards as a reward.


Helping a child to internalize external messages

An example here is a young girl who becomes very anxious when other children involve her in loud play and suddenly lashes out or starts screaming. Her parents help her to recognize the feelings "Are you feeling anxious?" When she acknowledges this, they suggest "You need some quiet time". Over time, parents move to asking "How do you feel?" and "What do you think you should do?" Eventually she gives the answers herself: "I feel anxious" and "I need quiet time". This is similar to 'shaping alternative behaviors' but the child has also internalized the important messages. This can be a powerful technique as a child may generalize this to other situations eg. "This loud music makes me feel anxious. I need some quiet time".


Changing the consequence

How can parents change the immediate and delayed reactions follow from the individual, other people and the environment? Consequences can be pleasant, or unpleasant. It follows that:

• A behavior followed by a pleasant consequence is more likely to reoccur
• A behavior followed by an unpleasant consequence is less likely to reoccur.


A consequence in this context is not punishment. It is a carefully thought out strategy to help change a child's behavior and maximize their social development.


Ignoring the behavior

In some cases, behavior occurs as a way of getting attention so the best strategy may be to ignore it. The pleasant consequence of the behavior is getting attention. When this is removed, the behavior will eventually cease. It should be noted that in these cases, the behavior will often worsen temporarily as the child realizes the attention-seeking behavior has stopped working.


As with many of these techniques, tactical ignoring is best linked with positive reinforcement. An example is a child throwing a tantrum to seek attention. In this case, a comforting hug or even a scolding gets the attention desired. However, the parent ignores the tantrum. When it has stopped, the child is immediately rewarded with praise, a treat or favorite activity. It pays to be very specific with positive reinforcement: "It's great when you are quiet" instead of "Good boy!"


Always label the behavior you are praising. “Good girl” is very vague; “I like how you picked up your jacket” is specific.



Time-out is removing the child from any positive stimulus. In brief, the idea is to keep the child isolated for a limited period of time, intended to allow it to calm down, learn coping skills and discourage inappropriate behavior. It is also a time for parents to separate feelings of anger toward the child for their behavior and develop a plan for discipline.


Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is generally the most effective behavior management strategy, as it underlies the majority of all human behavior. We act in a certain way to obtain desirable consequences.


Positive reinforcement is an incentive given to a child who complies with some request for behavior change. The aim is to increase the chances the child will respond with the changed behavior. Positive reinforcement is given immediately after the desired behavior has occurred so that it will shape the child's future behavior.


The difference between reinforcement and bribery is that reinforcement comes after a task is completed whereas bribery is offered before. That is not to say that you can’t show your child the reinforcer he or she is working for during trials. In this case, it would be a visual cue. If you offered a treat before even making a request, you would be using bribery.


When choosing reinforcers for people, remember that each individual will respond to different things.

• Looking at what has motivated the child in the past
• asking the child what they like and dislike
• Look at their deprivation state – what do they want, that they cannot easily get?
• Try to make sure the reinforcer is practical, ethical and valid for the behavior being targeted.


Timing is critical to the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. It is important for an individual to feel that the goal is achievable and that reinforcement is attainable.


end difficult days on a positive note

Set your child up for success. When your child is having a difficult day, be sure to end on a positive note. You can do this by requesting a skill the child has already mastered, then deliver some nice verbal praise. Both you and your child can do with the encouragement of knowing how far you have come!


Click to shut autism information fact sheet on behavior management

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Parents can become very stressed in handling behavior problems with their child on the autism spectrum. This fact sheet provides useful strategies for managing challenging behaviors.