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Challenging Behaviour and Autism

Challenging child

Challenging behaviours are defined as 'culturally abnormal behaviour(s) of such an intensity, frequency or duration, that the physical safety of the person or others is likely to be placed in serious jeopardy, or behaviour which is likely to seriously limit use of, or result in the person being denied access to, ordinary community facilities.'

There are numerous possible causes of challenging behaviours in people on the autism spectrum. For example, some behaviours are caused as much by the way someone is supported - or not supported - as by their autism.  Other behaviours may be caused by the fact that some people on the autism spectrum struggle to understand what is happening around them or struggle to communicate what they want or need.  Challenging behaviours may also be caused by anxiety and stress, sensory processing differences, underlying medical conditions, and specific situations that the person finds distressing.

Challenging and disruptive behaviours can cause all sorts of problems for people on the autism spectrum, their families and carers, and society as a whole. For example, challenging behaviours may make it difficult for someone to make friends, to attend school/college, to hold down regular employment or to live independently.

There are a number of interventions commonly used to prevent or reduce challenging behaviours in people on the autism spectrum. These include behavioural techniques, medications, medical procedures, augmentative and alternative communication, assistive and augmentative technology, psychotherapeutic interventions and physical restraints.

There is very little high quality research evidence on the effectiveness of most of these interventions for people on the autism spectrum, although this does not necessarily mean that they do not work. There is some high quality research which suggests that some antipsychotics may help to prevent or reduce challenging behaviours in some individuals but the same research suggests that antipsychotics may also cause significant and adverse side effects.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have each developed guidelines on dealing with challenging behaviours. These guidelines stress the importance of developing a personalised behaviour support plan based on a functional assessment of the challenging behaviours in each individual. 

Further research is needed to examine the impact of challenging behaviour on people on the autism spectrum (and their families and carers) and to identify those interventions which appear to be effective in preventing or reducing those behaviours in specific individuals. Any future research should also involve people on the autism spectrum to review the ethical basis of interventions in this area.

Updated
02 Nov 2017