Common behaviors and challenges for kids with autism

Like all kids, autistic kids have unique habits. You can't put them all in one category.

But here are some behaviors, habits and challenges that are common in kids with autism. It's worth taking note of these, and trying to understand what they mean for your child.

Click on the title to open a box to read more. (Then click on the title again to close it)

Repetitive movements

People with autism often have repetitive patterns of movement.

Here are some common ones:

  • Pacing back and forth
  • Flapping their hands
  • Rocking back and forth

These are often called self-stimming behaviors. This means a person is giving themselves the sensory stimulation that they need. This comes from how the autism affects their experience of sensory information. 

Often these are things that soothe the person when they are stressed.

There is nothing wrong with these behaviors unless the action is hurting them. This does happen sometimes.

In this case, you will have to talk to their doctor and therapists to find a solution.  For example, kids who bang their head may have to wear a helmet. Kids who chew on their wrist may have to wrap it in a cloth or learn to use a rubber chew item instead. (There's even a line of "chewelry"! Jewlery you can chew! Click here to see some samples.)

Click here to see a short video with examples of stimming.

Getting upset and stressed

There are many reasons why kids with autism get upset easily.

They experience the world differently and can get overwhelmed. Some things that we barely notice can be very stressful to them. For example, sensory stimuli like lights, sounds, smells or textures.

Many kids with autism have trouble communicating their needs. This makes everything more stressful. Imagine if you had to walk around all day with a stone in your shoe and a loud buzzing in your ear, but you could not tell anyone what was annoying you. 

Here's what you can do:

  • Understand your child's triggers. (These are the things that make them upset.)

  • Minimize these triggers if possible at home, school, and wherever they spend time.

  • Create a strategy to warn and prepare them if they are going to be in a stressful situation.

  • Have a place they can go to calm down, or a process that they can use. This may be going to a quiet corner of the room, putting on headphones and listening to music, sitting in your lap, or taking a lap around the room or block.

  • Use visual supports to help them know what to expect.

  • Work on ways to help them communicate their feelings and needs. Speech therapists can help with this.

Read this Bog Post, written by an autistic adult who advises parents: Anxiety Looks like Anger.

Being overwhelmed by social interactions 

One of the most common aspects of autism is having trouble with social interactions.

This can come out in very different ways, and change as a child gets older.

These are some things you may notice:

  • Not making eye contact with others

  • Not liking physical contact with others

  • Trouble interacting with people in typical ways

  • Trouble making friends 

  • Not understanding social cues. This means a kid may not be able to "read" facial expressions or body language.

  • Social anxiety. This means someone gets stressed when they are with other people.

Social skills can be learned! Most kids develop these skills naturally, but many kids with autism have to practice and learn them in a more structured way. Therapy and skills training can help with this!

Here are some things you can do:

  • Understand that this is because of how their brain is "wired", not because they don't love you, and not because they are rude or insensitive. Be patient with these challenges and know that they may show love and affection in other ways.

  • Include social skills in your goals for your child. They can be learned, and  If you're getting services through Early Intervention, Special Education or Transition, ask how to include these skills in your child's plan. 

Click here for an article about making friends. (From the Washington Post. It will open in a new tab.)

Wandering away

Does your child sometimes wander away and get lost?

There are things you can do to keep them safe.

Here's what you can do:

  • Use visual supports, like  a social story or checklist. These can help teach your child not to wander off and what to do if they are lost.

  • Teach your child their address and phone number if possible.

  • Get special door locks and alarms.

  • Get I.D. for your child to wear, like bracelets or shoe tags. 

  • Look at tracking apps that can help you find a lost child.

  • Many towns let you register your child with the police department so the police know what to expect and how to interact if they find them.

Look at the following programs and resources to help track your loved one and find them if they get lost.

Project Lifesaver:

  • Training for caregivers and first responders (like police or firefighters).

  • System to recognize your child and call you if the police or fire department finds them.

  • Tracking technology

  • Read more about Project Lifesaver  (Click on the name to open the website in a new tab on your screen)  

Big Red Safety Box:

  • You can get a box filled with resources to help prevent your kid from wandering away.

  • Includes a booklet with tips and information

  • I.D. cards, wristbands, and door alarms

  • Read more on the Big Red Safety Box website.  (Click on the name to open the website in a new tab on your screen.)   

Sources: Project Lifesaver, National Autism Association

Sensory issues

Many people with autism react to sensory information in unusual ways.

Sensory means something that relates to our 5 senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

A piece of sensory information is often called a stimulus. (More than one would be stimuli.)

It's very common for people with autism to be extra-sensitive to things like bright lights, loud noises or textures that don't feel good on their skin. As a result, they may be very picky eaters, hate to wear socks or get stressed in busy places.

They may also be less sensitive than usual to some sensory stimuli. For example, they may not react to pain unless it's very strong, or be able to sit next to a loudspeaker and not react.

But there are things you can do!

  • Therapy can help them get used to the sensory stimuli in their environment.

  • You can adjust their environment to make it easier for them to handle. (Yes, you can get socks without seams!)

Click on this link to learn more about sensory issues. (It will open in a new tab on your screen.)

Source: Autism Speaks

Communication challenges

Communication skills can vary widely in people with autism.

Many kids who do not have autism can also have trouble with communication.

Here are a few things to know: 

Communication includes 2 sides:

  1. Understanding what people are saying to you: this is called receptive language.

  2. Making your own needs or comments known to others.

Some kids with autism have very good receptive language (they can understand everything) but have trouble communicating what they want to say to others. Make sure that you don't assume that a child who does not speak cannot understand!

Speech therapy can help kids at any age to learn to communicate better.

Whether it's verbal (speaking) or non-verbal, your child can learn strategies to help them communicate their needs and understand others. 

Many kids and adults with autism have unusual speech patterns.

They may repeat words or phrases over and over again. They may blurt out things that are not appropriate. Or they may speak in a rhythm that seems odd. In all these cases, the good news is that they are learning language and communicating. This is a place to start with helping them to communicate more effectively.

Note: repeated speech is called echolalia. Click here to read more about it.

Some people with autism do not talk at all, even as adults.

This is called being non-verbal. But there are many other ways they can learn to communicate. Even as babies, kids can often learn simple sign language to tell you what they want. As they get older they can use pictures. This is why visual schedules and other supports can be so helpful. There are also adaptive communication devices that use technology to help them "say" things by pushing buttons. These are systems that they can learn to use with help from speech therapists. 

Click here to learn more about communication challenges in kids with ASD. (It will open in a new tab.)

Sources: VeryWell Health,