Navigating Severe Problem Behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorder

behaviors in autism

Raising a neurodivergent child can be a complicated experience, especially when severe problem behaviors in autism begin to surface. These behaviors can be anything from self-injury and aggression to unexpected sexual behavior. Parents and caregivers need accurate information on why these challenging behaviors in autism occur and how to address them effectively.

If you have a child on the spectrum, chances are you’ve dealt with problem behaviors at one time or another. It’s important to remember that these challenging behaviors are a part of the autism spectrum and are not necessarily indicative of bad parenting or troubled youth. Many of these difficult behaviors in autism are coping mechanisms for children struggling to make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense to them.

This blog will explore the complex world of problem behaviors in autism and provide the tools you need to make your life safe, secure, and functional for everyone.

What Are Some Severe Problem Behaviors in Autism?

Severe problem behaviors in autism that can lead to significant and long-term consequences generally fall into a few categories. These include:

1)    Self-Injurious Behavior

2)    Physical Aggression Toward a Person

3)    Verbal Aggression

4)    Object Aggression

5)    Elopement

6)    Theft

7)    Inappropriate Sexual Behavior Toward Self and Others

8)    Bullying/Intimidation

What Is Self-Injurious Behavior?

Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB) is defined as any deliberate action that causes oneself physical harm. SIB can take many forms, and its appearance can vary depending on the individual. Some common manifestations of SIB include head-banging, biting, scratching, and hair-pulling. In severe cases, individuals may attempt to harm themselves more seriously, such as by cutting or burning their skin.

Due to its severity, SIB can be highly distressing for the individual and their family members. If you think your neurodivergent loved one may be engaging in SIB, you must talk to a doctor or autism specialist who can help you develop a plan to address the behavior.

What Is Physical Aggression?

Physical aggression is any type of behavior that results in bodily harm to another person. This can consist of hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing things. People with autism may engage in physical aggression for various reasons, including frustration, seeking attention, and sensitivity to environmental stimuli. While it is crucial to identify the cause of the aggression, it is also essential to manage the behavior to keep everyone safe.

What Is Verbal Aggression?

One of the most common problem behaviors in autism is verbal aggression. This can take the form of yelling, swearing, or making threats. It can be directed at others or simply involve outbursts. While verbal aggression is often seen as negative behavior in autism, it can also be a way for people with autism to express themselves. Sometimes verbal aggression is the only means to communicate distress or frustration.

What Is Object Aggression?

Object aggression is another typical problem behavior in autism. This can involve anything from hitting or throwing objects to smashing or destroying them completely. While object aggression can be challenging for individuals and those around them, it is essential to remember that it is often not intentional.

What Is Elopement?

Elopement occurs when an individual with autism leaves a safe or secure area without permission or supervision. Elopement can pose a severe safety risk, as the individual may encounter harmful environmental factors such as traffic or bodies of water. Additionally, elopement can be disruptive to both the individual and those around them.

While there is no single cause of elopement, it is often the result of seeking sensory input or escaping an overwhelming situation. Individuals with autism may seek out new environments to receive the information they need or attempt to flee from loud noises or bright lights.

Elopement can be prevented through visual supports and schedules, which can help provide predictability and structure for individuals with autism. Additionally, encouraging safe behaviors in autism through rewards or privileges can help reduce the occurrence of elopement.

What Is Theft?

Theft is taking or trying to take something without the owner’s permission. It is often motivated by a desire for the item or a need to acquire objects to meet another goal, such as gaining attention. While all children with autism may engage in problem behaviors at some point, theft is more common in autism than in other developmental disorders. This may be because autism is characterized by repetitive and restrictive behaviors, making it difficult for individuals to understand social rules and constructs.

Additionally, some research suggests that individuals with autism have difficulty understanding the concept of ownership. As a result, they may not realize that taking something without permission is wrong. This contributes to problem behaviors in autism.

Theft can be a challenge for families and caregivers of individuals with autism, but various strategies can be used to address the problem behavior. These include providing clear rules and consequences, increasing supervision, and teaching alternatives to steal. With proper intervention, individuals with autism can learn to control their impulses.

What Is Inappropriate Sexual Behavior Toward Self and Others?

Autism Spectrum Disorder affects social interaction, communication, interests, and behavior. Some people with autism exhibit problematic conduct, like engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior (ISB). ISB is defined as any sexual behavior that is unwanted, non-consensual, or inappropriate for the person’s age or developmental level.

There are a variety of possible triggers of inappropriate sexual behavior in autism. It may be due to differences in how the autistic brain processes information, making it difficult to understand social cues and personal boundaries. It may also be a result of other mental health conditions that are common in autism. In some cases, ISB may be a form of self-stimulation or self-injurious behavior in autism.

Whatever the cause, ISB can be very distressing for individuals with autism and those around them. It can lead to social isolation and conflict and put the individual at risk for exploitation or abuse. If you suspect someone you know with autism is exhibiting ISB, it is crucial to seek professional help immediately.

What Are Bullying and Intimidation?

Bullying and intimidation typically involve some form of aggressive, dominant behavior by the individual with autism. This may manifest as staring, pointing, pushing, hitting, or biting. These behaviors in autism aim to gain power over another person and make them feel subordinate. These actions can profoundly affect the victim’s mental and emotional well-being.

Why Do These Problem Behaviors Occur in Individuals with Autism?

As mentioned throughout the article, there are several reasons why problem behaviors occur in children with autism. A primary reason may be that they are experiencing sensory overload. They’re bombarded with too much sensory information and stimulation from their environment with limited means of processing it. This can lead to acting out.

Another reason for problem behaviors in autism is that the child may be trying to communicate their needs. Neurodivergent children may not have the verbal skills to tell you what they want or need, so they resort to verbal or object aggression to get your attention. It’s essential to figure out what the child is trying to communicate and address their needs in a way that doesn’t involve more problem behavior.

Finally, some children act out because they’re experiencing anxiety or stress. This can be due to anything from changes in routine to social anxiety. If your child’s problem behavior seems triggered by specific situations, it’s essential to try to avoid those situations when possible. If circumstances are unavoidable, help your child better cope with the emotional distress they may experience.

How Can You Address Problem Behaviors in Autism?

There are some ways to address problem behaviors in autism. One way is to provide a safe and predictable environment. This means having a routine that the child can rely on and ensuring they have plenty of time to process any changes. It’s also essential to provide opportunities for the child to express their needs and wants appropriately.

One fundamental approach is to provide autism treatment early on and ensure that it is comprehensive and individualized. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) utilizes positive reinforcement and specialized techniques to help reduce problem behaviors. ABA Therapy is an evidence-based science for autism that is now considered the gold standard. For more severe problem behaviors, medications may also be prescribed.

Whatever you do, don’t give up hope! With patience, understanding, and an excellent team of advocates, you can find ways to help your child thrive.

ABA Therapy and Problem Behaviors in Autism

Parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder need accurate information on the range of problem behaviors possible. These behaviors can be frightening and confusing, but they are not signs of poor parenting choices or “bad” kids. Many of these behaviors in autism are simply coping mechanisms for children who struggle to make sense of the world.

If you’re challenged by managing problem behaviors in your child with autism, let ABA Centers of America make life easier. Reach out for support in navigating challenging behaviors and techniques for raising a healthy, happy, neurodivergent child. For more information about us and our approach, call (844) 923-4222 for a free consultation or visit

Discover how our autism treatment services can help you.

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