Understanding Triggers for Behaviour

Please see the ‘Behaviour Management’ section for more information on understanding the causes of certain behaviours.

Managing Melt Downs

Melt downs can manifest in different ways, your child may physically lash out, become extremely verbal or become quiet and introverted.

Managing self-injurious behaviour [1]

Working out what your child is trying to tell you with self-injurious behaviour can help you decide how to manage it. Here are some reasons children with ASD hurt themselves and some ways to respond.

  • Your child might find switching from one activity to another For example, he might bang his head on the floor when you tell him that it’s time to put away his train set for dinner. You could try warning him five minutes before you need him to pack away by showing him a photo of washing hands and sitting at the table for dinner. This will give him a warning, plus time to finish what he’s doing.
  • If your child has been doing a puzzle for 10 minutes and starts to pull her hair, she might be trying to let you know that she wants to do something else. Offering her a new activity might stop the hair pulling.
  • Your child might hit himself because he wants you to look at him and talk to him. Going over to him and giving him attention will stop him hitting himself. The next step is teaching him to get your attention in another way – for example, by saying ‘Mum’ or coming to you and showing you a help card.
  • Your child might be feeling frustrated and need help. For example, your child has been playing with a doll but the leg comes off, so she starts to scream and scratch herself. If you help her fix the doll, it will stop her hurting herself. The next step might be teaching her to say, sign or show a picture to tell you when she needs help.

Please see below some online resources to help assist you manage a melt down:

Managing Violence

You probably can’t prevent all your child’s outbursts. These tips can help you manage the aggressive behaviour when it happens. The first and most important thing is to stay calm. Most aggressive outbursts or tantrums happen because your child has feelings building up and he can’t communicate them. By managing your own feelings and staying calm and quiet, you won’t add your emotions to the mix.

During an outburst your child will be feeling very stressed. It’s hard to process what someone else is saying when you’re feeling stressed, and this is especially true for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who can have trouble understanding language.

It can help if you limit what you say to short phrases or even just a couple of words – for example, ‘Sit down’ rather than ‘Lachlan, come over here and sit down’.

You might need to move your child to a safer place, away from anything that could hurt her – for example, shelves that could fall over or glass objects. A quiet enclosed space outside might be an option. You might also need to get other people to move out of the way to keep them safe.

Visual cues can also help in these situations – for example, you might have a picture of a quiet place in your home that your child can go to.

If you find you have to use physical restraint when your child has an aggressive outburst, speak with your child’s paediatrician or a behavioural therapist about other options. Physical restraint can be dangerous to both you and your child, and can often increase your child’s anxiety and make the situation worse. Positive behaviour support is always preferable to physical options [1].

Please see below some online resources to help assist you manage a violent episode:

Managing Wandering

Nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder try to wander or run off, even when there’s an adult supervising them. Sometimes children with ASD wander aimlessly. Other times they want to get somewhere in particular, or they bolt suddenly to get away from something. Children with ASD wander for many reasons. For example, they might want to:

  • avoid something in their environment, such as noise
  • go to a favourite place, such as the park
  • seek out a sensory stimulus, such as water
  • feel in control
  • be chased.

Understanding why your child wanders can help you prevent wandering. You can do this by looking at the wandering as an ABC sandwich:

  • Antecedents: the ‘triggers’ for the wandering
  • Behaviour: the way your child responds to the trigger
  • Consequences or ‘rewards’: what your child gets out of wandering, such as leaving a stressful situation, or getting to a favourite place.

You can work on your child’s wandering by changing either the triggers or the rewards your child gets from wandering. For example, your child loves water and always runs towards pools, rivers or lakes. If you’re going for a walk or picnic, you could check whether there are any large bodies of water near where you’re going and change your route or picnic spot to avoid the water. Or if you know that your child runs away from noise, you could think about how to make the environment quieter for your child. Another option might be to find a safe, quiet space that your child can go to when it gets too much.

Other tips for preventing wandering include:

  • putting locks on your doors that your child can’t reach
  • using security gates and fences in your garden
  • using a harness and lead (if you’re comfortable with this) to stop a younger child from running into the road
  • keeping your eye on where your child is, in and around your home.[2]

The US based National Autism Associations has some great tips on wandering within their Big Red Safety Toolkit: nationalautismassociation.org/docs/BigRedSafetyToolkit.pdf

Safe Return Program

Autism NT has partnered with NT Police and Alzheimer’s Australia to bring you the Safe Return Program for persons of all ages diagnosed with ASD. This program is specially designed to help ensure the safe and quick return of your family member if they have wandered off.

How does Safe Return work?

When a loved one is registered with Safe Return, they are provided with a PROMIS ID on an engraved bracelet with the PROMIS ID number and Police hotline phone number. The PROMIS ID number is linked to the NT Police database, available 24/7.

If your registered, loved one has gone missing you can call the hotline with the PROMIS ID number, the NT Police will have a photo and all the details about the missing person. This will assist the NT Police to identify the person, and quickly and safely assess how to approach your loved one and return them to your safety.

To register for the Safe Return Program, contact Autism NT:

ph: 8948 4424
e: autismnt@autismnt.org.au

Emergency Planning

It is useful to have a plan in place to quicken your response when an episode begins. Please find the template page to record your child’s important information and contact details, please feel free to adjust this to your particular needs.


[1] raisingchildren.net.au/articles/aggressive_behaviour_autism_spectrum_disorder.html/context/1391
[2] raisingchildren.net.au/articles/wandering_autism_spectrum_disorder.html/context/1391