What We Miss in Misbehavior

Excerpts from

1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s

Revised and expanded 2nd edition (2010, Future Horizons, Inc.)

By Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk

Reprinted with permission of authors


From Chapter 3, Behavior:

What we miss in misbehavior. Georgia is “misbehaving” again and your nerves are stretched thin. You’ve tried every behavior management strategy you can think of, all in vain. You’re tired, frustrated and at your wit’s end. Why does Georgia behave like this and what new miracle technique don’t you know?

Many of the behaviors we label problematic are symptoms of the child’s physiology, biology and neurology. Acting out, noncompliance, disrespectful words or actions may arise more from inadequate communication skills, a challenged motor planning system, sensory sensitivities or social thinking impairments than deliberate disobedience. Effective behavior modification (not just management) requires that you understand and accept that in many – perhaps most – situations, the key to a child’s appropriate behavior is you and your perspective. When loving or working with a child with autism, misbehavior means misunderstood.

Before assuming misbehavior, pause and ask:

  • Is it his problem or mine? Is his behavior negatively affecting himself or others, or just me? Whose behavior needs addressing? Should it be mine, as the adult in the situation?
  • Are my expectations reasonable for his skill level in this situation? Many children need to be taught appropriate behaviors in increments, breaking a larger skill down into step-by-step components. Have you done this?
  • Has he mastered this behavior and can he use it consistently in different situations? If Paula has learned to ask for help at home with her jacket, has she generalized that skill to other situations, or have we assumed the knowledge would transfer? Generalization needs to be taught.
  • Is the child capable of modifying his own behaviors under all or most circumstances? Children with autism or Asperger’s strive to do the right thing, but environmental influences can wreck havoc on the best of intentions. Teaching an appropriate behavior, even mastery of that behavior within a defined situation does not automatically mean he can control behavior under times of added stress, added sensory invasiveness, routine changes, or surprises (even positive ones).
  • Are you sure the problem is not language/communication-based or stems from social thinking challenges? Have you taught the prerequisite communication or social skills needed to be successful in this situation? If the student hasn’t been taught such skills, it’s likely he doesn’t know them.
  • Are accommodations or supports missing? Did she forget her daily planner or did you take down the classroom rules and forget to put them back up?
  • Is there a possible medical reason for the behavior? Children with limited communication abilities cannot usually tell us if their throat hurts, their stomach aches or their head is pounding. Be alert for physical ailments that may produce negative behaviors.


Game plan for meltdowns. A child or student’s meltdown is a stressful experience for everyone involved. Having a working plan put together ahead of time can alleviate some of the stress and allow you to respond calmly.

Follow these six guidelines for effective behavior management during a meltdown. You’ll find the episode is over more quickly for everyone.

  1. Never try to teach during a meltdown. It won’t work. Ask yourself how open you are to learning when you are angry, terrified, overwrought, over-anxious or otherwise emotionally disabled.
  2. The more stressed the situation, the more reduced and concrete your language should be.
  3. Set a rule that once a situation gets out of hand, one       previously designated person communicates with the child one-on-one. Everyone talking at the same time will only escalate the situation for the child.
  4. Rehearse your behavior plan ahead of time. Many plans that look good on paper are just not effective in practice.
  5. Time-outs are good —for both of you. When your child has danced on your third nerve for the tenth time since lunch, don’t blow. Tell her: “I am angry right now and I can’t be around you. I am going to my room to calm down for a few minutes, then I will come back and we will talk about it.” Modeling self-control will help your child begin to understand how she can manage her own behavior too.
  6. Choose only battles with significant consequences. Yes, she must wear her seat belt in the car and she must wear a helmet when riding her bike. But are books on the shelf upside down really an issue? Establish a list of nonnegotiable have-to items (taking her medicine, going to school, wearing sunscreen at the beach, the afore-mentioned seat belts and bike helmets) and be as flexible and creative as you can about everything else.

About the authors

Four-time ForeWord Book of the Year finalist Ellen Notbohm is author of one of the autism communities most beloved books, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, and the other award-winning books on autism. To contact Ellen or explore her work, visit www.ellennotbohm.com

Veronica Zysk is Managing Editor of Autism Asperger’s Digest, winner of multiple awards for excellence. She has co-authored or edited more than a dozen books on autism and Asperger’s, working with many noted authors including Temple Grandin and Michell Garcia Winner. To contact Veronica or to explore Autism Asperger’s Digest, visit www.autismdigest.com .