5 Tips for Managing Emotional and Behavioral Issues in Children with Autism

Published on 13th October, 2019

5 Tips for Managing Emotional and Behavioral Issues in Children with Autism

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’ve experienced the difficulties that often come with caring for a child with autism. While these unique, special children may bring a lot of joy to parents and carers, there are also times when their emotional and behavioural issues cause frustration and stress. While there’s usually no quick fix for emotional and behavioural issues, there are some guidelines and steps you can take to more effectively manage your child’s difficulties. Here are some tips and information that may be helpful when managing a child with autism’s emotional and behavioural issues.

1. Schedules for Structure and Routine.

Children with autism need a lot of structure and routine to be able to flourish. It would be helpful to create a visual schedule, which shows the child his or her daily activities. Schedules are helpful not only in school, but also for home use. That way, your child could have structure not only for school activities, but also for events that happen at home.

A schedule should incorporate both visual images and simple clear words, as well as allow completed activities to be checked off. It would be helpful to tailor schedules to match your child’s age and level of understanding. Schedules may even help with changes - which brings us to the next point.

A great guide to creating visual schedules for your child can be found here: https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/using-visual-schedules-a-guide-for-parents. If you are swamped, don’t worry. Schedules don’t have to be fancy, they can be really simple. Here is an example of a simple visual schedule you could whip up in less than five minutes, for busy parents.

5 Tips for Managing Emotional and Behavioral Issues in Children with Autism

2. Changes.

You have probably found that your child with autism tends to respond negatively to changes in routine. There are a few things you can do to ease your child into changes. Firstly, it is important to pre-empt your child about changes as early as possible. You could do so through several steps. Start off with teaching your child a symbol that represents change. A common one I use when working with children with autism was the “∆” symbol. Using that symbol, you could inform the child of an upcoming change by placing a visual containing the “∆” symbol onto the child’s schedule, next to the activity that has a change. Beside the “∆” symbol, you could then write down the change that is occurring. I like to do this with a laminated “∆” symbol and paste it on the schedule with Velcro or blu-tack, so it’s a familiar item that the child can associate with change. In a way, that provides some consistency in the midst of the changes.

If something, let’s say, the haze, causes schools to close, and you’re rushed for time, you could just write it onto your schedule, like this:

5 Tips for Managing Emotional and Behavioral Issues in Children with Autism

While it’s good to give your child advance notice of changes, in life, changes often pop up without advance warning. It would still be helpful to do the above to inform a child of a sudden change. However, the child may not react well, especially if there wasn’t time for advance preparation. This may lead to a meltdown, in which case, the following point may be of help.

3. First-Then Schedule

When a child is in the middle of a meltdown, with tears, hitting, screaming and so on, I usually bring the child to a safe area, where he or she can be kept safe from hurting himself/herself or others. I’d then write up a First-Then Schedule. The First-Then Schedule is for the child to first show desired behaviours, then get to do something pleasurable for them. An example of a simple First-Then schedule is as follows:

5 Tips for Managing Emotional and Behavioral Issues in Children with Autism

(The “Volume 2” refers to a set volume to speak at that I’ve taught the child previously. Teaching a child different volumes suitable for different situations can be really helpful). I’ve found the First-Then schedule particularly useful in helping kids to calm down. One thing to make sure of is this – Do not let the child have the reward promised until the child has shown appropriate behaviours for a set amount of time. Otherwise, you may be reinforcing the meltdown, instead of the desired behaviours!

4. Forced Choice.

Another technique I’ve found really effective when working with children with autism is the Forced Choice. The name is pretty self-explanatory. When a child is having difficulties following instructions, such as if he or she is having trouble disengaging from an activity, the forced choice could be very helpful. You basically offer the child a forced choice between options that are all to do with what you would like the child to do, with slight variations. This allows the child to have a sense of control and autonomy over what to do, and often helps them calm down and follow through with instructions.

For example, if a child is having trouble disengaging from playing with his toy train to go to do his homework, I may offer a forced choice of:

  • Play trains for 5 more minutes, then do homework
  • Play trains for 3 more minutes, then do homework

This may even be incorporated into the First-Then schedule:

5 Tips for Managing Emotional and Behavioral Issues in Children with Autism

5. Visuals

If you notice, I have been using a lot of visuals, despite my very primitive drawing skills. Children with autism often process visual cues much more easily than auditory cues. Hence, using visuals are a lot more effective than telling a child what to do verbally. Often, when the child is high-functioning and has a good grasp of language and well-developed verbal abilities, carers may tend to think that visuals are not necessary. However, visuals are likely to benefit all children with autism, even those with good verbal and language skills.

When we are in a highly emotional state, we tend to have difficulties processing environmental cues. This is even truer for children with autism. Hence, visuals would be helpful, to aid the child in processing and understanding instructions. You don’t have to be an artist (I’m definitely far from one), to create some visuals for your child. Simple drawings or even just instructions written in a structured, clear manner can be helpful for your child’s understanding. Besides, the Internet provides lots of images that can be used in the creation of visuals.

There are many intervention tools and methods that may be incorporated into the managing of your child’s emotional and behavioural issues. While these may take a long time to gather and master, this article hopes to start you off with some basic tips. Hopefully, these will prove useful to you.

If you are experiencing a lot of difficulty and stress managing your child with autism, it is recommended that you seek help from a trained professional, such as a behavioural therapist or a clinical psychologist experienced in working with children with autism.