"Autism & Memoirs of an Old Maid"…C'hele's Story

August 2, 2007

Autism: Behaviour and Communication in an Autistic Child

Filed under: Aspberger Syndrome, Autism, Special Needs — C'hele @ 11:02
Behaviour and Communication in an Autistic Child ~

“All Behaviour is Communication“

As a Paraprofessional, this concept is drilled into our heads. As parents, we should heed the same advice with our autistic children. When an autistic child uses behaviour, they are attempting to tell us something. For example, if an autistic child who is non-verbal or who may express minimal verbal communication skills, is angry and suddenly slaps you across the face, “never take it personally.” Any person who works with autistic children can testify to this. This is a very difficult thing to do especially when a higher functioning ASD child is more verbally competent. When this happens, it is the child’s way to communicate to that person that there is a problem. It is up to the adults and or teachers to replace the negative behaviour and teach the child how to cope and teach what is socially acceptable.

Here are some things that should be considered when negative behaviour occurs (negative behaviour by the way ranges from verbal non-compliance to mischief, hitting or actual violence depending on the child’s communication level).

Communication always develops first before language develops.

Comprehension comes first before meaningful expression. Do not assume that a child with ASD will automatically understand a directive.

Don’t assume that just because a child is able to communicate, that he or she is competent with it. Problems with communication almost always leads to behaviour. Don’t be so quick to judge that the child only has “problem behaviour.”

Don’t become blind to the child’s strengths if they have higher functioning ASD. They may be able to communicate effectively however, this does not mean that difficulties with communication, receptive and expressive processing do not exist! Remember: some kids with autism may look like a typical kid and the disability may be invisible.

All ASD children will have some level of difficulty with communication (for example, requesting what they want), a lack of social skills and, and display awkwardness with conversational skills.

Observe the child’s behaviour carefully and do not assume that the child is able to handle things automatically. Each autistic child is unique regarding capabilities. Do your very best to avoid setting up your child for failure! What one autistic child can handle may not be the same for another autistic child.

It is incredibly challenging for a parent to determine in an ASD child, is “what” is oppositional behaviour and what is behaviour caused by a neurological disorder (I.e.: anxiety and frustration)? In many situations I have found this to be my number one challenge with my daughter and the kids I work with. Higher functioning autistic children are aware of their social/communication deficiencies and can become adept at hiding it soooo well from the public. As a parent, I still find it challenging when others observe my daughter’s negative behaviour and immediately assume that it is oppositional/defiant behaviour and “I am” neglectful in managing it appropriately (spanking or other). What I need to tell you, is that higher functioning autistic children have the wonderful capability to appear like a typical, normal kid and make the parent looks like a dumb ass. When a higher functioning child is out in public, believe me, he/she knows it and will take total advantage of the fact if they can get away with it. If you know your student/child well enough, pick and choose your battles when out in public.

One incident comes to my mind and its an extreme case of what some behaviour may look like: There was once a moderately functioning female autistic teenager in my class who was required to have a two to one ratio at all times due to her unpredictable and often violent behaviour. This was caused mostly due to her heightened sensitivity and thus had extreme sensory issues because of it. One day while walking out in the community, this girl decided that she did not like the shirt she was wearing as it irritated her greatly. It was so much so, that she without letting staff know of this problem, ripped it right off her body. In her heightened, over stimulated state, she then decided to rip off the rest of her clothes as well. So, in a matter to seconds she was butt-naked, standing on the side walk, and shrieking horribly loud. It was a matter of time when a concerned civilian would call the police. Knowing our student and the likely of something like this occurring, we always carried business cards to hand out so the public would they would know who we were, the nature of the students disability, the schools address, phone number and the teachers name. The police did arrive and once they found out who we were, all was fine. The community I work in, is well known for its high special needs population, and the police knew our school very well. Now and again they are needed to help retrieve and escort run-away students back to their care facility or to our school. We call these students “bolters.”

What Helps an Autistic Child to Communicate Better:

1. A speech/language pathologist and a child psychologist who specializes in autism.

2. Give autistic children time to process information. Allow a few seconds when you need an answer from them or if you need them to do something.

3. Give ample reminders to the child when transitions or changes will occur. This will help keep the child’s anxiety and frustration level down so he/she is better able to cope and will be more successful in using their words.

4. Use medication if you have observed (or know), your child is prone to physical/neurological, sensory overload and or, has an additional label of ADHD or another accompanying disorder (such as Tourette‘s Syndrome). A paediatrician, or child psychologist will know where to go regarding medication and can help you with this. I have personally seen huge benefits for my autistic students when they have been placed on med’s. It’s like night and day, literally.

5. Know your child’s sensory impairments, triggers and frustration threshold. How does he/she express his or hers frustration? Does the child engage in self-inflicting behaviours such as banging his head on the floor or wall? Biting himself? Does he hit or pinch others or throw things? Does he attack the animals in the house out of the blue?

6. Know what motivates your child to communicate. Does he/she like to swing?

Ask the child: Go? Stop? More? And encourage the child to answer verbally. Give verbal prompts such as, “tell me more, stop, go” and so on.

7. Kids may back off or melt down if the demand or directive is too great or if the environment is too complex.

8. Encourage the child often “to use his/her words” when they want or need to express something. If the child is non-verbal, encourage signing, using the picture exchange program, or picture symbols. They are a great way to assist the child to express what it is he/she wants without hitting or violence.

9. If a child has reached the melt-down stage, allow the child time to calm down in a designated safe spot the child feels secure with. Let him/her know, “ when you are calm and ready to (?), you let me know.” With lower functioning children the phrase may sound more like: “ when you are calm/ready and can show me nice hands and feet, we will (?).”

10. When you want to replace a challenging behaviour, choose a replacement behaviour that the child will be able to handle.

11. The most powerful reinforcer for an autistic child is him or her “getting what they asked for.”

12. Make sure you use clear, positive language with the child. Avoid using too many words. For example, “Where do you get an apple?” Instead of saying, “farmers grow apples apple’s in orchards and there are many colours and varieties.” If you say this, you will for sure, surely mess the kid up (depending on the child’s level). Instead say, “apples come from apple trees.” Period. Remember, more is not better with an autistic child. Depending on the child’s level on the spectrum, start with something simple and work towards adding more information for the child as he/she learns. Please read below:

13. Familiarize yourself with Lev Vygotsky work. Vygotsky was considered to be an sociocultural or sociohistoric theorist specializing in developmental psychology and his work is socially based. He believed that language is what makes thinking and learning possible. Guidance, support, and structure (all major learning tools when teaching autistic children), is provided by the surrounding society (of each individual) or child that increases their knowledge. He is known for his work in special education, regular education and early childhood education. He believed that the area of impact is that guided learning is attained through working around a child’s “Zone of Proximal Development.” Skills a child accomplishes on his own with the assistance of adults, psychological or environmental “tools” such as utilizing language, writing, T.V., computers, and other learning aids. All these things assist children to think, learn and express thoughts.

One of the biggest learning aids in my opinion when working with autistic children, has been utilizing the scaffolding method next to guided learning. What is scaffolding?

Vygotsky has defined it as: “the role of teachers and others in supporting the learner’s development and providing support structures to get to that next stage or level” (Raymond, 2000, p. 176).

An important aspect of scaffolding instruction is that the scaffolds are temporary. As the learner’s abilities increase the scaffolding provided by the more knowledgeable other is progressively withdrawn. Finally the learner is able to complete the task or master the concepts independently (Chang, Sung, & Chen, 2002, p. 7).

Therefore the goal of the educator when using the scaffolding teaching strategy is for the student to become an independent and self-regulating learner and problem solver (Hartman, 2002).

As the learner’s knowledge and learning competency increases, the educator gradually reduces the supports provided (Ellis, Larkin, Worthington, n.d.).

And, well, there you have it.

14. Everyone wants to know what is going to occur each day. Utilizing visual schedules immediately informs your child what is going on, and what is expected. Utilizing visual schedules reduces the daily anxiety that occurs with your autistic child and minimizes misbehaviours as a result.

15. And last but not least, displaying plenty of patience, understanding and compassion will go a long way in aiding your child towards some level of independence and your own personal sanity!

Next: Why visual symbols are beneficial to your child and how to use them.




  1. question: did you tell your daughter that she is autistic? I am curious to know if the kids are told that they have asd. this is very interesting subject, I learn a lot reading your blog.

    Comment by Ela — August 2, 2007 @ 19:55

  2. Hi Ela! Yes, Michaela has known that she is autistic since she was 8 years old. She was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at this age (its normal that a formal diagnose of Aspergers me made around this age). She has been aware for many years that she is different. When she was told she was autistic and why she is different, she was relieved to have this understanding. I wonder if she would have had this acceptance if she was told much later in life? I think I would have utilized a psychologist to assist me should this had been the case. Thanks for reading! 🙂

    Comment by cheles — August 2, 2007 @ 21:18

  3. whops….Aspergers be made not Aspergers me made! Sheesh. I’m loosing it, lol.

    Comment by cheles — August 2, 2007 @ 21:19

  4. It must be taugh but with such knowledge and skills given to her by you, meaning schedules and order in life, she is going to be better of then any other kid. this is great.

    Comment by Ela — August 3, 2007 @ 04:15

  5. I’m hoping that she will grasp everything that she is being taught so she can have an independent life as much as possible! Finger’s are crossed over here, lol. Thanks Ela, Hugs.

    Comment by cheles — August 3, 2007 @ 06:40

  6. i am a special education student teacher who wants to learn more about students with special needs including those with autism , how i can cater for their needs and help them to move from one activity to the next without confusing them, i am so eager to learn new things and strategies in which i can deal with these students. help me please!

    Comment by sham — November 20, 2007 @ 06:15

  7. I am a grandfather of an autistic 6 year old boy who is the higher functioning
    autistic spectrum type. His mother[my daughter] and myself have just completed an R.D.I Intervention program . We needed the skills as you mentioned such as scaffolding and others to complete the program. The
    child is doing much better because of the program. The program focuses
    on eye contact and non-verbal visual communication. I appreciate your
    website and views on autism.

    Comment by Roderick Lyons — December 2, 2007 @ 03:06

  8. Thank you so much for your comment. These programs are amazing and they help so much to decrease the daily challenges that families of autistic children go through each day. I haven’t had much time to write about autism lately, but I intend on doing so soon. My readers are so important to me….you all remind me that I am not alone. Hugs.

    Comment by cheles — December 2, 2007 @ 11:08

  9. Hello, good information but I beleive you should reconsider referring to your child as autistic. I am currently enrolled in an Educational Assistant course at college and we reframe from saying “autistic students”. Having autism does not define the person. Instead of an Autistic student we say “a student WITH autism” or “a student with the exceptionality of Autism”

    Comment by Erin — November 16, 2010 @ 23:47

    • Hi There, thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

      To be professionally correct, you are absolutely right. However, Temple Grandin in her book “Thinking in Pictures” often identifies individuals with Autism as: “Autistics, autistic children, etc.”. Or, has been quoted saying: “Autistic and Asperger’s brains……., etc.”

      Temple is also noted saying, “people with autism or having a child with autism or people with Asperger’s” as well.
      This from a brilliant woman with a Ph.D who lectures all around the world about autism.

      I think what is most important here is this:

      a. Always be respectful towards your student. He/she whatever thier challenge, is a human being first.

      b. Never introduce your student to others as a person with a challenge. Most people with half a brain will figure things out pretty quickly. A simple, “This is Mary or Joe” will suffice.

      c. Never talk about your student or anyone with a challenge or disability about thier challenge, in front of them to others. This is a major sin in my opinion. They have challenges: they are not stupid!

      d. Labels are not always evil: labels give parents of children with autism the necessary funding for services they deperately need to help them cope with life. If a person with a challenge or a disability addresses themselves to others as “autistic or a person with autism”, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be the one thing that helps them to connect with others for help in this very confusing world of thiers. My daughter will not hesitate to tell another she is “autistic or is a person with autism” if that person is irate or yelling at them saying things like, “are you stupid? how could you not get that?” She will tell them the above (that she has autism) and then add: “please explain it to me again”. This is a social strategy for her to use when she needs it.

      f. It is important and professional to address any individual with a challenge properly especially when you work with his or her’s professional team.
      I think what is key here is, is a persons intentions when they address any person with a challenge or disability. Respect along with common sense is first and foremost vital.
      I love Temple Grandin because she is not anal about such things and yet, she remains an incredible professional & yet is a “black and white” individual. Which is why I adore working with individuals with autism. There is no messing with them: they call it how they see it. Gotta love them!

      Here is an interesting quote from Temple’s book “Thinking In Pictures” on page 56:

      “There is concern among people with Asperger’s that genetic testing could eliminate them. This would be a terrible price to pay. Many gifted and talented people could be wiped out. A little bit of autism genetics may provide an advantage though too much creates a low-functioning, non-verbal individual. The development of genetic tests for autism will be extremely controversial.” – Temple Grandin

      They way I see it, Temple and fellow Asperger individuals refer to themselves as a collective “them”. That’s a pretty big “defining” is it not? I apologize to anyone if I am incorrect or offensive, it is not my intention to do so.

      I wish you much luck and good wishes in your learning 🙂

      Comment by C'hele — November 24, 2010 @ 06:58

  10. Hi, I am Ms. Diana Jean Ignacio, a student of Angeles University Foundation and I am currently writing my thesis for my Masteral Degree on Special Education.
    This article was very informative. I would like to ask your permission for me to use it as a related literature for my study which has a title of “The Effects of Errorless Teaching in Enhancing the Math Skills of a Child with Autism”.
    May I also know the name of the author?Thank you!

    Comment by Diana Jean Ignacio — May 11, 2012 @ 19:01

    • My apologies Diana. I have not been visiting my blog in some while. A good place to visit online for the information you need is: “POPARD” (Provincial Resource Program for Autism and Related Disorders). Hopefully you will find information there. Much luck to you on your thesis :).

      Comment by C'hele — July 22, 2012 @ 03:20

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