Practical Suggestions for Addressing Behaviours

Teachers encountering a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) for the first time can find the experience confronting. When trusted methods of settling everyone else in the class don’t work, and as the behaviours of the student with autism spectrum disorder become more and more extreme, frustration can soon set in..

It’s not uncommon for exasperated teachers to find themselves saying things like:

She's just naughty! / He's so spoilt! / What do you expect? He has autism. / I've told her and told her and told her...

But giving up is not the answer. Rather, you need to come at the problem from a different angle. The key here is to look at your student’s behaviour in a new way. Understand that there is no such thing as random behaviour; it’s all communication. From there you can move to introducing practical strategies to help facilitate communication and encourage on-task behaviour.
Student smiling and holding up a fruit kebab he has made
You already have the building blocks for success. Remember your Quality Teaching Framework

Don’t forget the basic facts around ASD

Every child with autism is different; they are all unique individuals. But there are some common underlying issues around learning and behaviour for children with autism spectrum disorder that your student will be experiencing to some degree or another.

They will most likely have (in some combination):

  • A severe communication disorder.
  • Auditory problems.
  • Ritualistic tendencies.
  • Resistance to change.
  • Difficulties with new situations.
  • Difficulty with transitions

Also, students with autism will:

  • Learn in chunks.
  • Like rituals and routines.
  • Have difficulty learning new routines.
  • Have difficulty with change and transition.
  • Have trouble analysing and synthesizing.
  • Lack the ability to generalise skills.
  • Have their very own personal idiosyncrasies.

Students with autism often experience considerable anxiety. This can lead to an escalation in behaviour. They are telling you that there is something amiss for them in their environment.

Step 1:
Take stock of what you have to build on

Remember, you already have all the tools, skills, knowledge and experience you need to succeed.

Your Building Blocks for Success

  • You understand the Disability Standards for Education and what they require of you.
  • You’re committed to ensuring learning is always rigorous, meaningful and dignified.
  • You know the three dimensions of the NSW Quality Teaching Framework and use them to shape your classroom practice.
  • You know and are already teaching the curriculum.
  • You’re well practised at differentiating the curriculum to meet the needs of different students.
  • You know what works best for you to achieve the best possible learning outcomes for your students, in your classroom, in your school, in your community.

Step 2:
Get to know your student

All your students are unique individuals with their own likes and dislikes, special interests and a specific set of needs.

Create a Student Profile

  • Write up everything you know about your student – gather copies of reports and health care plans, talk with former teachers and your principal, talk with the child’s parents or carers.
  • You want to know who the student is and how they learn, what they like, what they do not like, what upsets them, how they communicate etc.
  • Trust your own observations – students with disabilities often struggle to communicate but you can learn a huge amount about them and how they will learn best by paying close attention to the ways they behave and what they react to in different situations (remember all behaviour is communication)
  • Make it a living document – keep coming back to your profile to up-date and add to it as you gain a deeper and deeper understanding of the child and what works for them.
  • Example of a student profile document

Step 3:
Bring together your classroom practice and your student profile

Determine what adjustments and supports you need to put in place to stabilise the environment for them and facilitate learning. Adjustments and supports for a child with autism spectrum disorder will be decided by giving particular attention to four main factors: physical environment, routines, communication, and socialisation.

Make Adjustments for Two Key Dimensions

Use this knowledge to address students’ needs in relation to these two dimensions. This will improve student engagement and increase student learning
(intellectual quality)
  • Quality Learning Environment – what adjustments and supports can you put in place to help reduce anxiety, increase independence and promote engagement for your student?
  • Significance – how can you make learning meaningful and relevant, use the student’s strengths, and ensure that she or he is appropriately challenged and is fully engrossed?
  • Use all resources available to help you ensure students are achieving with the highest level of independence
  • Find our more about what Adjustments you can make
Look at the physical environment of your school and classroom through the student’s eyes. What are the things that might make them anxious and distract them so much that learning is difficult for them? What supports or adjustments can you put in place to make the environment feel calm and secure for them so that they are free to learn rather than being so focused on trying to cope with discomforts and distractions that they can concentrate on nothing else?

In light of your student’s particular likes, dislikes, needs, obsessions, anxieties, skills, strengths etc (as recorded in their profile) consider:

  • The physical layout and set-up of the classroom/space.
  • The activities/lessons planned throughout the day.
  • Allocating space for specific activities.
  • Having necessary equipment close to where an activity will take place.
  • Reducing clutter to reduce distraction.
  • Reducing irrelevant information.
  • Labelling key information/resources (using pictures if necessary).
  • Sensory needs.
People with autism spectrum disorder receive sensory messages very differently. Your student, for example, may be over or under sensitive to visual stimulus, over or under sensitive to noise, over or under sensitive to smell, and so on. Knowing this you will need to consider making whatever adjustments are necessary – lowering lighting, defining personal space, reducing noise, using visual cue cards, etc.

Environmental considerations are particularly important for children with autism. They will scan their environment without you even realising they’ve done it, and respond accordingly. The more you have been able to anticipate and accommodate their particular needs, the more successfully you and they will be able to get on with teaching and learning.

Sensory Processing and its Impact on Behaviour (PDF download)

Some Ideas for Addressing Students’ Sensory Needs so they can Access the Learning Environment (PDF download)

Source: Making Sense of Sensory Sensitivities in Aspergers Kids My Aspergers child

Routines – at home and at school – are good for all children. They make the world feel predictable and therefore safe. For a child with autism spectrum disorder, for whom the world is overwhelming, complex and chaotic, routines are not just beneficial but essential.

For a child with autism every day can feel like starting a blank page and beginning anew. In some cases children with autism may rely entirely on the familiarity, consistency and security of routines to make the world manageable for them.

No learning can occur when a child is overwhelmed and anxious about what’s being expected of them. Routines support your student to remain calm and allow for maximum engagement. What’s more, children with autism are naturally motivated to repeat routines. Routines themselves, then, become reinforcing and can be actively used to teach skills and tasks.

Routines are any tasks or actions done according to a set pattern or sequence. Larger patterns can be broken down into a number of smaller patterns to make them understandable and recognisable to a child with autism, and vice versa.

This is a visual description of Routines (Download PDF)

Types of routines include:

Routines start from the moment a child gets up in the morning, to arriving at school and entering the classroom. Creating a schedule helps a child with autism spectrum disorder see the sequence of familiar, routine activities that will occur in a day. It also gives the child stages to work towards and helps them anticipate transitions, which can be particularly difficult for a child with autism.

Schedules don’t have to be exactly the same every day, but communication is critical – students have to be made aware of what’s going to happen at every stage of the day. The more effectively you are able to communicate the sequence of activities that will make up a child’s day, or week, or even month the more confidence they will gain and the more you enable them to operate independently in the classroom.

Many students with ASD dislike change and rely on routine. Visual supports can be a good way of introducing change and helping during transition.

Don’t think that this means that everything should remain exactly the same all the time. In fact, it’s better for the child that there is change and variety (as there is in the world). Maintaining calm for your student means helping them understand changes happening around them and supporting them as they transition through them.

Communicating is a seven step process:

  1. Establishing or shifting attention
  2. Following rapidly changing stimuli
  3. Taking in information
  4. Processing information
  5. Storing information received
  6. Retrieve other information
  7. Sending information
In communicating with others we do many things at once, without thinking a great deal about it.

Typically, most of us focus on the seventh step only, skipping the other six because they seem to happen automatically. Teaching communication in the classroom however, when accommodating a student with autism, requires you to actively teach all seven steps.

To do this you need to be aware of both how your student is expressing themselves and how they are receiving information in the classroom.

People with autism spectrum disorder receive and organise information differently. If the right supports have not been put in place for a child with autism expressive communication (the ways a student will express themselves) will often be:

  • Inefficient.
  • Ineffective.
  • Perseveration – repetition of a particular response to stimuli
  • Echolalic – repetition of words or sounds spoken by others
  • Idiosyncratic.

It is for these reasons, particularly the last, that you need to pay close attention to your student’s behaviour. Remember, all behaviour is telling you something. Your student is doing all they can to get a message across. It’s up to you to identify what their different behaviours are communicating.

You need to determine:

  • How your student communicates – what forms do their communications take? Do they use speech, vocalisation, signs, pointing, gestures, body language, pictures, objects and/or written language? Or are there behaviours they use to express themselves, such as spitting, hitting, biting, kicking, throwing, pushing, pinching, head banging, absconding?
  • Why your student communicates – what function is served by a particular form of communication? How do they request or reject something, comment, ask or answer questions, greet, label and interact?
  • How does your student use the invisible skills that make communication effective – what are the pragmatics of their communications? How do they (can they) give or gain attention and eye contact? How do they respond to communication initiated by others, take turns, and deal with the breakdown and repair of conversation?

From there you can begin to establish alternative, acceptable ways for your student to communicate. Concentrate on providing the right supports for your student to effectively express their emotions and explain what they need in a situation. By doing so you reduce the chances of them becoming frustrated and behaving in ways that are problematic or disruptive.

Your student requires socially appropriate ways to achieve all of their communication needs:

  • Requesting.
  • Rejecting.
  • Greeting.
  • Choosing.
  • Asking questions.
  • Answering questions.
  • Providing information.
  • Commenting.
Meanwhile, if the right supports are not put in place your student with autism’s receptive communication (the way they understand what you are saying to them) will often be:

  • Inefficient.
  • Ineffective.
  • Poor via auditory messages.
  • Stronger via visual cues.

In the classroom, receptive communication involves following instructions, routines and schedules, understanding questions, and understanding transition, change, finishing and waiting.

You need to determine the forms of communication that make it as easy as possible for your student to receive information. Keep in mind that students with autism spectrum disorder have a greater ability to take in and organise information received visually than aurally. Will you use a combination of gestures and language, environmental prompts, speech, signs, pointing, pictures, logos, objects or written language?

To get receptive communication right for your student focus on resolving three key functions:

  • Following directions – does your student understand what you need them to do?

    Download ideas about Following Directions here

  • Following routines and schedules – does your student understand the routines of an activity, session, day or week? How and where do these need to be displayed?
    See the ROUTINES tab in this set above for more details.
  • Finishing – does your student understand how to finish one task or activity so they can transition to the next?

    Download ideas about Finishing here

Teaching socialisation is an important part of any teacher’s classroom program. You’ll have your own favourite or preferred programs and you’ll already be accessing the wealth of information available to provide help and guidance in this area.

To best support a child with autism spectrum disorder you simply need to make sure that this does not get lost or overlooked, you need to be actively and deliberately teaching socialisation. You also need to make sure the skills you’re teaching are generalised across all environments as much as possible.

Importantly, you need to be aware that while their peers experience more positive social interactions than negative for children with autism this is reversed, they usually experience a significantly higher number of negative social interactions than positive.

Your goal is to do all you can to turn this around for your student. You’ll achieve this by teaching meaningful, effective social skills and teaching behaviours that will serve to increase the ratio of positive interactions they experience. Be careful that you don’t, in an effort to increase social interactions, unwittingly subject a child to negative experiences – it will only lead to confusion.

So where do you start? Start by identifying the behaviours that are interfering with your student with autism’s social functioning. Consider, to what extent do they:

  • Understand and follow social norms.
  • Direct and sustain attention.
  • Participate in positive social experiences.
  • Maintain an acceptable level of hygiene and grooming.

To effectively teach social rules in the classroom in a way that an autistic child will understand you need to:

  • Present the rules in a clear, concrete manner.
  • Present the rules in a visual format.
  • Use a highly structured, consistent, organised and systematic approach.
  • Provide opportunities for practice.
  • Build social rules in daily routines and rituals.
  • Avoid using colloquial language.

Remember, modelling is a powerful teaching tool.

Hygiene and grooming impact the quality of a child’s social interactions. Poor hygiene and grooming can result in rejection and ridicule. Teaching the appropriate grooming and hygiene skills necessary for social acceptance will not only lead to more positive social interactions but can greatly enhance a child’s wellbeing and self-esteem.

For younger or lower functioning autistic students you’ll want to focus on teaching the following social skills:

  • Imitation.
  • Turn-taking.
  • Expressing needs and wants.
  • Cooperating during basic hygiene and grooming tasks.
  • Increasing attention to tasks and people.
  • Learning self-regulation skills so as to manage overstimulation.

Attending to all of these will almost inevitably lead to an increase in the frequency of positive social interactions your student experiences. More complex social behaviours that could also be considered for older and higher functioning autistic students include:

  • Improving conversation skills.
  • Initiating social interactions.
  • Initiating and refining personal hygiene and grooming routines.
  • Increasing flexibility in social situations.
  • Noticing and responding to the behaviours of others.
  • Directing attention to multiple cues at the same time.
  • Increasing awareness of subtle social cues.
  • Increasing ability to recognise and deal with situations that may lead to anxiety or overstimulation.
  • Recognising and managing factors and situations that contribute to negative social experiences.

Are you still experiencing impending clouds around behaviour?

All of us carry around with us our own personal weather system. Are you radiating sunshine today? Or has something happened that means a storm cloud’s hovering above you?

Your student with autism spectrum disorder is exactly the same. And just as we all watch for weather changes outside, you can make things easier for your student, and yourself, in the classroom by learning to read their personal barometer. By staying a step ahead, you can even head off a situation before a thundercloud explodes into a full on meltdown.

Know what will upset your student and be aware of the setting events (precipitating factors) that increase the likelihood of challenging behaviours being triggered.

Three categories of setting events can affect a child’s mood:

  • Biological – tiredness, hunger, thirst, pain, sickness.
  • Physical – temperature, noise, crowding.
  • Sociocultural – presence/absence of certain people, numbers of people, staff changes or patterns.
In each category setting events may come up at different times of the day, in different places and in relation to different activities. They may not be immediately obvious, and they may be multiple. The trick is to identify patterns – when they happen and when they don’t.

As you learn them, develop strategies to neutralise setting events in advance or help your student prepare for and deal with them. You’ll discover that many a squall can be dispersed by making a few quick and simple adjustments. Of course, larger, more complex weather systems need a more considered response but, over time, you’ll find that these too can be effectively managed.