As children grow and develop, they begin to develop social behaviors by observing and imitating the actions of others. Behaviors which foster social interaction are referred to as pro-social, whereas behaviors which lead to less favorable results and outbursts are referred to as anti-social.   Many low-functioning autistic children engage in very unusual and repetitive movements commonly referred to as stereotypical or self stimulating behaviors.

Autistic children's behaviors are triggered by internal biochemical responses.  Anxiety releases both chemical and hormonal responses which in turn
arouse the neorological system into an agitated state.  When too many stimuli
are taken in through their senses, the child responds with sudden loud outbursts in an attempt to block out any unpleasant sensations.

When recording the behaviors of a specific child for the purpose of assessment,
each  behavior must be described, along with occurrence and frequency.


By 6 or 7 weeks of age, infants have begun to socially interact with adults by focusing on faces, making eye contact, smiling, laughing and cooing.  During the toddler stage,  children develop behaviors, skills, knowledge and attitudes necessary for interaction with others. Sharing, cooperating, kindness and generosity towards others are also necessary  social skills for establishing and maintaining relationships.

Assistants who use positive discipline in a safe and caring environment, ensure that the child's self esteem is fostered at all times.  Behaviors such as initiating contact with others, helping, sharing toys, taking turns, and showing concern for others are all modelled by the caring assistant.  When  children engage in pro-social behaviors they should be immediately  rewarded with tangible or social reinforcers. When the adult labels the desired behavior, smiles, establishes eye contact, and physically gets down to the child's level, it further illustrates to the child that their actions are meaningful and worthwhile. Voice intonation and varied pitch should also be used by the assistant as additional cues. By increasing the amount of positive reinforcement for socially acceptable behaviors, less desired ones will soon deminish.  It is recommended that the assistant reinforce positive behaviors four times as often as they would for anti-social behaviors. When methods of positive discipline such as these are used, children learn to modify undesired behaviors through internal control rather than being punished for them.

Social Reinforcers

Touching or Patting
Peer Approval

Tangible Reinforcers

Child's favorite toy given during brief solitary play times
Small amounts of food or beverage


VERY GOOD !                                                           PERFECT

GOOD JOB                                                                THAT'S RIGHT

TERRIFIC!                                                                  BEAUTIFUL!

THAT'S THE RIGHT ANSWER                             GOOD FOR YOU!

THAT'S GREAT !                                                      WOW !

GOOD THINKING                                                  WONDERFUL

NOW  YOU'VE FIGURED IT OUT !                      MUCH BETTER

EXCELLENT WORK                                               FANTASTIC

THANK YOU FOR ________                                 ALL RIGHT !

I KNEW  YOU COULD DO IT !                              YOU  REMEMBERED !


The behaviors that many autistic children engage in on a daily basis are extremely disruptive to others. Maladaptive or socially unacceptable behaviors occur when individuals haven't learned to regulate their own behaviors in response to other people's actions. In order for children to adjust their behaviors, they must first understand cause and effect relations, briefly attend to others and understand simple commands.

When children do not possess the ability to effectively control their behaviors, anxiety increases often causing sudden and intense behavioral outbursts.  These continually distract others and become very difficult to deal with  in a regular  school setting.  A great deal of patience and consistency is required when dealing with these  behaviors.  By carefully observing the child over extended periods of time, the assistant is able to detect small non-verbal signs of stress, thereby sensing  the precise moment to intervene.

Subdued lighting and soft music appear to have calming effects on most autistic children.  Alternate activities such as brief walks, swinging, and listening to music help the child to refocus. During sitting activities, some children may be calmed by having their back gently rubbed or their shoulders messaged, while others prefer to sit slightly back from the large group. Soft toys or short lengths of knotted rope have been helpful in  reducing some children's desire to engage in inappropriate body touching. If anti-social behaviors do not harm or distress others, they may be selectively ignored.  Negative behaviors appear to decrease when more emphasis is placed on giving verbal praise for positive behaviors. At no time are threats, punishment, physical power, shame, sarcasm, and withholding love acceptable methods of discipline for young autistic children.  Autistic children, as with all young children will from time to time test the limits. When making a conscious decision to not comply with requests, they may shake their head in disapproval, make direct eye contact, or dart away giggling, stopping occasionally only to solicit attention from the adult. These behaviors may also be shaped into more appropriate forms of social interaction through the use of  modeling, consistency and firm redirection.  Structured learning environments must be provided, limits set, and adequate time allowed for daily routines, tasks and transitions.

The following are anti-social behaviors exhibited by one autistic child during the
course of a complete school year:

Lack of Attending

Aggression towards other children

Aggression towards assistants
  Task Related Behaviors Eating Behaviors Toileting Behaviors Play Behaviors STEREOTYPICAL BEHAVIORS

Self stimulating behaviors interfere with attending to meaningful activities and slow down the learning process.  They are most prevelant when the autistic child is left alone for long periods of time, and are significantly reduced during task related activities. Many stereotypical behaviors appear as a series of interconnected behaviors taking place over several minutes.  It is impossible to eliminate all of these, however providing alternative activities may help to  shape them into more acceptable forms of social behavior. When setting up a daily schedule of activities and routines, brief periods of  time must be allotted for non-structured solitary play.

The following is a list of observed stereotypical behaviors from one low-functioning autistic child over a three year period.  Some behaviors almost disappeared over several months, then reappeared later in slightly different sequences.  Other behaviors such as darting, uncontrollable giggling and loud vocalizations took up a good portion of the child's day.

Examples of Stereotypical Behaviors:


Gaze Handflapping Spinning Walking/Sitting Touching/Scanning/Sensing Self Exploration and Fixations BEHAVIOR MANAGEMENT

Many of the anti-social and stereotypical behaviors engaged in by the autistic
child impede learning, therefore, adults must make every effort to shape these behaviors into other socially accepted forms of  behavior.

There are currently two theories currently used in behavioral management:
 the developmental theory of learning and the behavioral approach.

Developmental theories of learning emphasize that learning is achieved through
a series of stages.  Competence within a given stage must be achieved before the
individual progresses to a higher level.  The adult knows what to expect
of children within different stages of social, physical, intellectual, creative and emotional development, then guides them towards greater competence
within their current levels of functioning.  Charts of typical development can
be found in Early Childhood Development textbooks or through local health agencies.

Behavioral theorists believe that all behaviors are learned through gradually
responding to the environment.  When adults change the way they respond to
the child's behaviors, the child will learn to gradually modify them.  Behaviorists
are primarily  concerned with the behavior, and what happened immediately before or after it (antecedent, behavior, consequence).  Applied behavioral modification techniques focus on achieving measurable changes in observable behaviors carried out through planned systematic approaches.  Reinforcers are used for desired behaviors and withheld when inappropriate behaviors are engaged in.  Many behavioral management consultants are training assistants and parents in carrying out discrete trial training using the principles of the Lovaas method. The emphasis is on intense 1:1 trials within a structured setting with minimal distractions.  Once the behaviors are learned in a specific teaching site, they must then be transferred into more natural social settings in order for the child to be able to generalize their behaviors from one setting to another.

When looking at skill levels of non-verbal autistic children, it can be noted that all areas of development have not progressed at the same rate. When establishing behavioral intervention programs for autistic children, differences in social and intellectual levels must be taken into consideration and appropriate adjustments made.

For many years,  programs for autistic children were developed using only one of theories.  Greater success may now be achieved by developing programs using combined information, techniques and  methods from both the developmental
and behavioral theories.


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