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Managing challenging behaviours at home

Behaviours of distress

Sometimes, autistic children and young people demonstrate behaviours of distress at home. Our education experts have shared their strategies to help children overcome these behaviours and support the wellbeing of the whole family.  


Give clear expectations 

We know that many autistic children and young people thrive off and enjoy routine.  

Therefore letting them know what to expect of them next, gives them a sense of certainty. Speaking calmly, give them a particular scenario to help them understand what to expect. For example: “If you complete all of your work sheet, then you can have five minutes on the iPad”. Make sure you follow through with a gesture or reward, like playing a game, after the expectation is completed, this shows consistency in what you say and builds trust. 

Communicate the expectation to your child in the way that is easiest for them to understand it. For example, using visual examples. It may be helpful to use Makaton or visual stories like our ‘now and next’ resource

If your child or young person doesn’t want to do as they have been asked, gently remind them that what they expect to happen next will need to wait until they have completed the request. This might be the excitement of moving onto the next activity or contribute to some form of reward.  If they complete the request, show gratitude, say thank you and give lots of praise.  


Praise positive behaviours 

When times are tough, sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of the positive things. Try to identify at least five positive behaviours each day that your child is doing and make sure to recognise them with praise, a smile, a hug, or whatever your young person enjoys.  

The more good behaviours are seen and praised, the more it will be encouraged that they happen again. 

Think of times that are normally a challenge, for example getting dressed in the morning, going to sleep or dinner time. Rather than focusing on the negatives of these challenges, try to identify at least one positive behaviour your child does, (for example sitting at the dinner table). Give specific praise about this behaviour, for example: "I love how you’re sitting.” The next day, try to increase this to two positive behaviours, and so on. 


Give choices 

Giving plenty of choice to children and young people increases their willingness to complete an activity and builds up independence. We know parents juggle a lot, but try to provide lots of opportunities that are enriching and enjoyable for your child.  

Asking them to choose the type of activity they want to do and the reward they would like for completing it can decrease behaviours of distress related to task demands.  

Give a choice between two activities, for example: "Would you rather do an English work sheet, or help me clean the kitchen first?” When they make an independent choice give them praise, for example: “Nice choice." 


Use countdown timers 

The concept of time can be very difficult for any child to understand. Using countdown timers can help avoid a child’s frustration at having to finish an activity. Timers also promote positive routines and can help your child’s self-regulation skills. 

Try to avoid your child or young person getting frustrated by having to finish an activity by using countdown timers. They can be used to pre-warn them of when an activity will be finished. This can be helpful in supporting your child to transition from one activity to the next. Using a timer also promotes positive routines and can help your child’s self-regulation skills. 

Here's an example of using a timer.  

  • Set a pre-determined amount of time, place it in front of the young person and let them know how long they have. For example, 10 minutes for a computer game.    
  • Give them warning about time left on the clock, for example, “you have 10 minutes, five more minutes,” and so on. 
  • When the timer goes off, tell them that the time is up. If they do not want to give up the activity right away, prompt them to ask for ‘one more minute’ and reset the timer for one minute.
  • Once the timer sounds, it is time for the activity to end and let them know it is time for the next activity. 


Give regular brain breaks and movement breaks 

Make sure to incorporate plenty of breaks throughout the day for rest or exercise where possible. For example, a break mid-morning, after lunch and mid-afternoon. Research suggests that regular breaks during a day will decrease the likelihood of children and young people trying to escape or ignore task demands. 

Organise relaxing activities such as listening to music, doing some colouring, going out to the garden, nature walks or reading a favourite book or something else your child enjoys. 


Stop and redirect negative behaviours 

Try to stop and redirect negative behaviours that cannot be ignored. Here are some tips if your child is escalating or is starting to increase behaviours of distress.  

  • Calmly reassure them that you can see they are upset, validate how they feel but also that it is not okay to act out, by saying: “Sorry that you are feeling upset or angry, but it is not okay to act that way.” 
  • Redirect the behaviour by identifying a calming strategy to help them calm down, for example offer a walk outside, offer space alone, offer to chill out on the sofa.
  • Once the situation has been diffused and they are calmer, you may try to talk to them. It can be hard to get a point across when they are already upset or angry. Let them know: “I am here for you when you are calm.” 
  • Try to get them to take deep breaths. 
  • Although it can it difficult, it is important to try and stay calm. By showing you are calm, you are modelling the behaviour you want to see. 

You can also read our condensed list of top tips for families supporting children or young people with anxiety who may show behaviours of distress.