12 Behavior Management Strategies for Children on the Autism Spectrum

12 Behavior Management Strategies for Children on the  Autism Spectrum 

One question a lot of parents ask is: how should you discipline a child with autism? 

Understanding behavior, and how to set appropriate expectations along with a toolbox of positive behavior strategies will help you choose the best way to handle challenging situations with your child. 

This is a 13 part series. Each post in the series will explain an evidence-based strategy used by professionals for managing behavior with children on the autism spectrum. Each part of this series will contain a table of contents so you can easily navigate to the different strategies.

How to Discipline a Child with Autism - 12 Behavior Management Strategies for Children on the Spectrum - #Autism #BehaviorManagement #ASD #PositiveParenting #PBIS

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Strategy 1: Build a Relationship
  3. Strategy 2: Individualize Motivation
  4. Strategy 3: Observe, Listen, then Join
  5. Strategy 4: Optimize Language
  6. Strategy 5: The Premack Principal
  7. Strategy 6: Basic Redirect
  8. Strategy 7: Breaks
  9. Strategy 8: Picture Rehearsal
  10. Strategy 9: Add Structure at Home
  11. Strategy 10: Teach Independence with Prompting
  12. Strategy 11: Transactional Supports
  13. Strategy 12: Add Structure to the Learning Environment 


Behavior As Communication

Behavior As Communication

Before you can begin using any of the upcoming strategies to manage challenging behaviors in children on the autism spectru  – you need to understand WHY the behavior is occurring in the first place.

Firstly, behaviors are a form of communication. When children lack the functional communication skills required to express their wants and needs in an appropriate way, they turn to behaviors (usually to avoid something, or to get something that they want).

You need to know exactly why your child is doing what they’re doing before you can choose and use a strategy to help them. Also, keep in mind that the reason is not always what it appears to be.

As an example, a child who lays on the ground and screams when they’re told it is bedtime may be interpreted as attention seeking. As a result of this interpretation you may choose to ignore their behavior. However, the real purpose could be to avoid bedtime. By you ignoring them, bedtime is successfully delayed, even if it’s only by a few minutes. A parent dealing with this everyday will need to choose a different strategy to manage that behavior. 

Common Reasons “Why” Behaviors Occur

Often the function of a behavior is to get something or avoid something. It could be any of the following:

  • A biological/medical problem – Are they hungry? Thirsty? In pain? Feeling sick?
  • Attention – Attention is a need and children often seek attention in negative ways.
  • Escaping demands –  Are they avoiding a particular activity or demand?
  • Sensory/Self-Regulation –  Unmet sensory needs and/or overstimulation often lead behaviors.
  • Tangible items – A toy for example or an item they want but aren’t allowed to have.  
  • Anxiety – Caused by any of the above

The Behavior Iceberg

You may have seen different versions of this before (I’ve come across many) but it’s a great analogy when it comes to children and behavior. This visual shows us that there’s a lot more going on than what we see on the surface (the tip of the iceberg, so to speak).

As parents and caregivers it’s important to understand this so we can help our children.

Behavior Iceberg - What we see .. what we don't see.  -how to discipline a child with autism

Basically, you need to know what the function of a behavior is because, in order to stop an inappropriate behavior long-term, you need to teach your child a way to communicate and/or get their wants and needs met that works better than the behavior.

“Why?” should be the first question you ask yourself any time you’re dealing with an inappropriate behavior.

Remember … All children have grumpy moods, bad days, act disrespectful, and make mistakes. But, don’t forget that even as adults, we go through all those things too. Just like us, our kids have their on worries, concerns, and problems. Understanding this will help you when choosing ways to help them. 

Each strategy covered in this series will provide you with tools for determining the functions of behavior and managing inappropriate behavior.


It’s extremely important to remember what the word discipline truly means throughout this series. As I talk about how you can discipline a child with autism, keep in mind that this never refers to punishing a child. Especially for behaviors out of their control. 

Discipline is about guidance, problem solving and learning. Where as punishment involves some kind of suffering as retribution for having a problem or behaving a certain way. 

Therefore each strategy focuses on ways to teach and guide children to develop new skills that can replace challenging behavior long term. Positive behavior intervention systems are considered the gold standard by professionals when planning how to discipline a child with autism – or any child for that matter. 

Head to Strategy 1: Building a Relationship

12 Behavior Management Strategies for Children on the Autism Spectrum - You're guide to using positive behavior supports used my clinicians, therapists, and special ed classrooms. // #BehaviorManagement #BehaviorSupports #ASD #Autism #ADHDKids #SPD #PlayTherapy #AdviceForMoms #EmotionalRegulation #SocialSkills

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