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Negative Behaviors with Autism: Why it Happens and Eight Ways to Help

A young child in a blue shirt stares longingly out a window.
Each school day, just before circle time, the kindergarten boy ran out into the hallway and pulled his classmate’s belongings out of their cubbies and onto the floor. His teacher tried everything she could think of to make it stop, but nothing worked. She was exasperated.
Headshot of Mo Buti, M.Ed-BD, M.Ed-Admin, QIDP

Mo Buti,M.Ed-BD, M.Ed-ADMIN, QUIP, an advocate and instructional expert for people with autism, was on the case. First, she thoroughly evaluated the situation, exploring each of the possible reasons for that student’s behavior, many of which are included in the list below. Then, once she’d discovered the “why” behind the behavior, she was able to implement a tried-and-true solution, sourced from her 31 years of experience working with people on the spectrum.

And voila! The boy’s mysterious behavior stopped.

Learners with autism can contribute so much to the classroom. Each with unique perspectives, they can offer incredible insight, creativity, expertise, and deep connection. But neurodiverse students without the tools needed to navigate an environment created for neurotypical people can be disruptive, destructive, or even aggressive. Their behaviors can feel impossible to handle, or stand squarely in the way of effective classroom management and learning.
Thankfully in the kindergartener’s case, Mo was able to fix the problem with a single item from the dress-up center.
What was the easy fix? And what made the behavior happen in the first place?

Why Negative Behavior with Autism is Prevalent in Classrooms:

It’s a way of communicating.
People on the autism spectrum embody a huge range of communicative abilities, from non-verbal to hyperverbal, but according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnosis of autism indicates “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction.”

This means that regardless of their verbal abilities, learners with autism experience difficulty expressing their needs, wants, likes/dislikes, answers, or opinions. This can lead to feelings of anger. We all know that feeling misunderstood and not getting your needs met is super frustrating.
Particularly for learners who don’t have any formal system of communication, negative behavior itself is a form of communication.

Unfortunately for educators, practitioners, peers, and learners with autism, physical expression as communication or as an expression of anger can result in harm to property and/or people. Aggression itself isn’t a characteristic of autism, but it can be a by-product of frustration, overwhelm, or lack of communication skills. 

It could be a sensory issue.

A young child holds his hands to his ears with an uncomfortable look on his face and his eyes closed.

Bright lights. Loud noises. A shirt tag. Too-tight shoes. Too hot, too cold. People with autism are often either hypo or hyper-sensitive to sensory input. Little things we may not even think about as neurotypicals can throw off an entire day, an entire week, an entire school year for a learner with autism 

They need "Stimming."

“Stimming” in autism refers to repetitive, self-stimulating behaviors, and can look like rocking, flapping hands, spinning, lining up objects, moaning, or pacing. Neurotypical folks stim too, but usually within the confines of what’s socially acceptable: biting fingernails, jiggling a leg while sitting, spinning a ring on a finger, etc.
Stimming can help with sensory integration, regulating emotions, and calming the nervous system. It’s very important that learners with autism be allowed to stim, but sometimes, when stimming is too loud, distracting, or violates another student’s boundaries, it can be super disruptive

It’s easy to accidentally reward negative behavior.

When a child lashes out and starts pushing or hitting their peers, it’s entirely natural to move other children away from that child, or isolate the child who is lashing out in a separate space.
But what has that child, who struggles with communication skills, learned from that interaction? The negative behavior has been reinforced, and they’ve acquired a new skill: when kids are too close and it feels uncomfortable, and if they push or hit someone, the teacher will remove the problem or give them the desired alone time.
What’s supposed to be a consequence ends up being a reward, and the child will resort to the same behaviors again and again.

They miss social cues.

This is a hallmark of autism, and even when we’re aware of it, sometimes it’s so difficult to remember! Body language is a huge part of communication, but even something that feels obvious to us, like a head nod, can easily be missed by a person with autism.

Change is hard.

Rigidity is a common trait in the autism community. This means that deviations from the typical schedule, transitions from one activity to another, the presence of a substitute teacher, or something being out of place can potentially feel catastrophic to learners with autism.

They’re bored.

A young child in green striped shirt, stares at the camera, with her head in her hands.
A 2016 study found that almost half of “minimally verbal” children with autism had cognitive abilities that exceeded their verbal abilities.
It’s so difficult to gauge a child’s capacity to learn when they aren’t responsive to communication.
Unfortunately, this means that children with autism can too easily be underestimated, and their IEP goals, learning materials, and the language used to communicate with them, can reflect this, especially when negative behaviors are so hard to manage! When autism presents such a huge communication barrier, it’s sometimes impossible to know what an individual’s true learning potential is.

People with autism can be deeply literal.

There are an estimated 25,000 idioms in the English language. Which means there are 25,000 ways for literal-brained people to misinterpret English.
Now, back to that kindergartener. Mo Buti used her superpowers of observation, and noticed that when it was carpet time, the instruction the teacher gave her class was to “put on your thinking caps.”
In response, the boy would run into the hallway, emptying cubbies in search of that elusive thinking cap.
So now that Mo understood the cause of the behavior, what does she suggest doing about it?

Autism Classroom Strategies to Address Negative Behavior

1. Observe: Try putting yourself in that child’s shoes (or, if you’re a literal person, look at the situation as if you were inside their body and experience). This can be really tough if you’re an educator in charge of an entire classroom! In this case, Mo suggests:

  • Video observation! This is a great option because it allows us to look at how the child responds to our own behavior and instruction. Typically, consent should be obtained from families prior to setting up the camera.
  • Grab a substitute for a few hours.
  • Switch places with a paraprofessional.
Once you’re able to observe, try thinking like a behaviorist: look for the ABCs of the situation, or the Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence. This can be tricky! Be a detective, and remember that each child with autism is different.
Look for all sorts of clues: is the child ducking away from the fluorescent lights? Do they give any sort of indication right before a negative behavior takes place, like clenching their jaw or becoming squirmy? Can you spot a negative behavior being rewarded?

2. Visual Supports: When the world around you is a smorgasbord of sensory input that you struggle to synthesize, visual supports can go a long way in focusing attention, clearly communicating expectation, breaking down tasks, smoothing transitions, and preparing autistic learners for changes to the schedule.

Seven pages of a Readtopia graphic novel, with each page demonstrating a different reading level.

3. Offer opportunities for stimming: As we mentioned above, stimming is important to autistic individuals’ sensory integration, but if it disrupts an entire classroom’s ability to learn or hurts someone, these safer less-disruptive substitute behaviors can help.

A young child holds a colorful stimming toy, while sitting a cement stoop outdoors.

Less-disruptive alternatives include:

  • Creating a safe space in the classroom for stimming.
  • Offering pinwheels for blowing.
  • Providing handheld fans to hold.
  • Yoga-ball seating (Bungee-cord seat belts can work for flailing bouncers! Just make sure they’re loose enough as to not be restraining).
  • Offering thinking putty or beeswax to keep their hands busy (important to consider sensory aversions).

4. Engage learners with autism with the right learning materials: When any child is focused and fully engaged in learning, the need to resort to negative behaviors decreases and motivation to communicate thoughts, ideas, and answers increases.

5. Direct, respectful, age-appropriate language, instruction, and clear boundaries: Ensuring that our communication and instruction is as crystal-clear and direct as possible can be super helpful for learners with autism. Think like a literal person: does the instruction “show your work” really convey the task we are hoping they complete? Think like a person who doesn’t understand body language or subtleties: are we becoming frustrated because they don’t stop talking when we imply that we’d like them to stop?

6. Robust, individualized communication strategies: When someone has a system to communicate and feel understood, it can reduce a lot of negative behaviors that are ways of communicating either needs or emotions.

7. Offer a quiet space to decompress: If a child is constantly running from the classroom or covering their ears, offering a space that feels private and limits sensory input, like a room or a teepee, can go a long way in helping the child self-regulate.

8. Give learners a thinking cap: Okay, so remember the kindergartener that emptied the cubbies in search of a thinking cap? Mo walked over to the dress-up center, located a hat, and plopped it on that kindergartener’s head. And guess what? He stopped emptying cubbies. Creative solutions like this are an awesome and fun way to support learners with autism.

Open laptop with Readtopia Thematic Units website open to Marine Life Teacher Guide page.

At Building Wings, a team of passionate advocates, practitioners, and educators work together to create engaging and accessible learning materials for learners of complex needs, like autism. These materials save special educators from the task of having to create and adapt their own learning materials.

That something is Readtopia, and since its inception, we’ve heard many anecdotes from teachers and practitioners about learners who’ve traditionally been hesitant to communicate who have been so moved by the very same stories that have inspired generations that they participated in class discussions independently for the first time.

We hope that Readtopia’s instructional guides, age-appropriate materials, and leveled graphic novels included in SEL-focused units like Empathy, Grit and Kindness (anchored by Anne of Green Gables), Working Together (anchored by The Gold Bug), Life Lessons (anchored by Aesop’s Fables), and Values and Responsibilities (anchored by Black Beauty) can serve both the learner with autism and the special educator as a vehicle to engagement, helping to reduce some of those negative behaviors and therefore making learning more accessible to everyone in the classroom.

View Sample Lessons and Age-Respective Learning Materials within Readtopia


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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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