Categories / 
Family resources
5 ways to prevent behavioral outbursts in children with autism

5 ways to prevent behavioral outbursts in children with autism

Many children of all ages struggle with behavioral challenges throughout their development. Every child with autism is unique and may also face these challenges. 

To help support your child during behavioral challenges, parents and caregivers can work with their care team and take note of what does and doesn’t work for them. There are different proactive strategies backed by research that you can try to implement to help prevent behaviors that are harmful to your child and to help support them in their growth. 

1. Visual supports

There are various ways to use visual support to help your child throughout the day, so you may try out one at a time to determine which one is the best option for your child. 

Here’s an overview of a few of the options for visual support:

First-Then Visual

This type of visual is fairly simple to create and implement as it’s used to help your child prepare for the current task required and to understand what will come next through a chart. You can create this type of chart visual using a board or paper that is labeled “first” on the left side and “then” on the right side. 

If your child is able to read, this can be a helpful option. If not, this type of visual can still be helpful if your child responds well to photos which can be used in place of words to help them understand different concepts. Oftentimes, the “first” side will have a non-preferred task and the “then” side will have a preferred item or activity. 

For example, first, we eat dinner, then (you can) play outside. This helps the child not only hear what is expected of them before they can access their preferred activity but also helps them visualize what they will be doing until the activity is completed. 

Stop Signs

Ensuring your child’s safety is important in each of their different activities. Preparing your child by teaching them to identify and understand different safety signs outside can help in using the same signs as visual prompts inside and in their daily routines. 

Placing a laminated stop sign on the doors leading outside (or any other areas in the home that are unsafe for your child) can serve as a reminder to your child to pause and not go out that door if they are unaccompanied by an adult. This may take some time to teach and reinforce, but through partnership with your child’s care team and once your child starts to have the hang of it through practice, it can be very helpful. 

Visual Schedules

The first-then visual above is a type of simplified visual schedule showing two activities. Furthermore, you can consider creating a full visual schedule as well to help your child prepare for multiple upcoming events. There are numerous ways to set this up. For example, you could set this up as a schedule of their full day. Or you can create one to support them through a portion of their day, such as their morning routine (brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, getting dressed for school, etc.), resulting in a stress-free morning for your child and your family. 

Visual Prompts 

Using visual prompts can be an effective way to remind your child of what’s going to happen and manage their expectations. 

Here are a few examples:

  • A visual of the rules or behavioral expectations can be placed in areas your child frequents throughout the house. For example, a visual for “use a calm voice” if your child tends to scream. To make these visual reminders comprehensible, remember to use colors and shapes that your child resonates with.
  • Does your child commonly forget to flush the toilet and/or wash their hands after using the bathroom? A visual prompt taped somewhere in the bathroom that they can easily see can provide a reminder to wash up before they leave the bathroom. 
  • Similarly, if forgetting things before leaving for school is a common challenge, putting a visual prompt on the front door with a checklist of items to make sure they have before they leave (backpack, lunch box, etc.) can help them to avoid forgetting important items. This can be especially helpful if it’s one of your shared goals with your child’s care team for your child to start packing their school backpack themselves, and to perform other morning activities independently. 

These prompts can serve as a proactive strategy for preventing your child from being confused or frustrated when assessing what routine activities need to be done in different situations.

2. Avoid asking, and use guide words instead

This one can be tricky and should be used at the discretion of your child’s care team and yourself. Teaching your child to self-advocate is important, but it is also essential to be mindful of guiding your child instead of creating confusion in the way instructions are given.

Let’s explore this using an example. Imagine it’s time to get ready for bed. You say “can you go brush your teeth?” This choice of words may be overwhelming as it may prompt different options for response and action for your child. For example, if they answer no, this may result in challenging behavior and be contradictory to the intention of your question. Alternatively, it may be helpful if you say “It’s almost time for bed, please brush your teeth”, as this is more direct and can eliminate confusion or overwhelm for your child. 

3. Provide verbal priming statements

Providing your child with information in advance can help in adequately preparing them for upcoming events and expectations.

Priming statements can be as simple as stating “after breakfast, we’re going to the grocery store.” Or they may have more complicated communication about the expectations while at the grocery store. For example, you may say, “let’s remember to follow the rules we’ve been practicing at home while we’re at the store. We walk right next to Mama, and we use our inside voices.” 

Priming statements are a simple way to outline the expectations to avoid any surprises that may result in behavioral outbursts from frustration or confusion. 

4. Consider using timers

Timers are great for helping us keep track of time and better visualize how much time is left before an activity ends or an event occurs. 

There are different kinds of timers, so consider playing around with different ones to find one that works best for your child and family. For example, alarms that make loud sounds can be overwhelming for some children with autism, so a timer that vibrates or makes a quieter sound may be preferred. 

Visual timers are also great for making the concept of time more concrete for children who do not yet have a strong understanding of it.

One way to be proactive with the use of a timer is to use it to help your child prepare for upcoming transitions. For example, if you tell your child they have “10 minutes until bedtime”, you can set a timer to help them keep an eye on the remaining time, so they are not caught off guard with a sudden transition from a fun activity to getting ready for bed. This can help them in their daily routines and in knowing what to expect.

5. Providing choices

Autonomy and promoting independence in children is important. Providing choices can also be a good way to give your child the freedom to make their own decisions, within reason and with guidance. 

Providing choices can even be done with non-preferred activities. For example, you can ask, “do you want to clean up your toys or take a shower first?” While both of those options may not be their most preferred or enjoyed activities, allowing them to choose the sequence of activities can provide them the feeling of freedom and control which can foster confidence in your child.

Wrapping it up

Every child with autism is different, and some of these methods may be effective than others in supporting your child. With patience and through the partnership of your child’s care team, you can learn how to best support your child in their development.

Other articles from Forta

Autism and anger: how are they connected?
Read more
4 ways to monitor your child's progress in ABA therapy
Read more
Estimating the costs of autism on a family
Read more