Understanding the Behaviour

Families of individuals with Autism are often faced with a number of behaviours that prevent the progress of the individual’s education, independence, employment opportunities as well as the overall quality of life. Behaviours can vary in nature and intensity from person to person.

A behaviour can be judged as socially appropriate or inappropriate based on the situation, time, place or people involved. The distinction can be subtle and heavily influenced by cultural factors. Factors like age of the individual, gender, social status of the individual as well as marital status could influence the behaviour to be judged as appropriate or inappropriate.

Like in any of us, the behaviour in an individual with autism has too a reason / function. The function however is not obvious in many.

Three common behaviours are described below with some explanations for the possible reasons. Please be aware that the reasons for the behaviours are not limited to the examples used.

1. Repetitive behaviours / Stereotypic behaviours – These behaviours often have a self stimulatory function. Self stimulation can be in the context of lack of stimulation / boredom or a way of managing anxiety related to the external changes.

2. Aggression – Aggression could be due to a variety of reasons. It could be in response to a new situation, change in routine or when the environmental demands are too much to cope with. The aggression can  often be linked to anxiety. Understanding the reason of the anxiety and managing the reason is best way to resolve it. Often reducing demand on the individual, giving calming cues, clear direct instruction to calm down, moving the individual to a less demanding environment etc could help. Aggression is best prevented than managed after it has happened.

3. Self injurious behaviour – SIB can be repetitive/ self stimulatory, a response to a situation, a form of communication  or problems with the pain threshold.

Effective management of the behaviour can lead to better outcome for the individual (Individual is more likely to achieve their true potential) and less stress for the family.

We hope you would find the resources below helpful in your journey to get / provide the right help.

1. Understanding the behaviour: This information is provided by the National Autistic Society of UK.

2. Functions of behaviour: A web site from Ireland which gives a good description of the functions of behaviour in individuals with autism.

3. Self-Injurious behaviour: More information on self injurious behaviour.

4. Some simple tips for understanding and managing behaviour

Sexual Behaviour in people with Autism

Interest and curiosity about sex are a necessary part of normal development including people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Like the general population, most people with Autistic Spectrum conditions also has sexual feelings , needs as well as behaviours. Only a small proportion of people with Autistic Spectrum Conditions are asexual.

Like everyone else, in people with Autistic Spectrum Conditions also,  the sexual behaviours present the greatest challenge in adolescent years. Young adults with autism finds the growing up through adolescent years as most challenging. Understanding and developing a “normal” concept of sexuality happens through peer interactions, information gathered from media and other sources as well as what they see around them. Young adults with Autism often do not have these learning opportunities which makes it even more difficult for them to cope with this issue.

  1. Masturbation or touching genital area in the presence of other people.
  2. Inappropriate sexual behaviours towards other people like touching, kissing, staring etc
  3. Sexually inappropriate language. Words and sentences picked up from peer group, films or TV could be repeated in social situations inappropriately.

 How do you Manage the sexual behaviours?

Please note that this is a simplified approach outlining the general principles. Managing a sexual behaviour would need careful evaluation of the individual factors and a personalised approach to support/ management.

There are a number of treatment approaches to managing sexual behaviours. What is described below is a common sense approach that parents could follow. It is important to provide children / young adults with autism as much exposure to social circumstances as possible for them to develop an understanding of developing friendships and close relationships. However if these situations needs to be used as learning experiences, they need to be supported guided and trained. The training has to start with boundaries of normal behaviour (such as “nose picking” in front of other people) and progress towards boundaries of social behaviours and sexual behaviours.

Use of social stories are very useful in making people with autism understand the social expectation. Social stories provide a set of instructions in a positive context (avoiding don’t do approach). As people with autism may find difficult to generalise the learning the social stories need to be constructed for a variety of situations.

Through the training and social stories it is important for people with autism to know the  OK not OK behaviours clearly. Using social stories the message would need to be repeated over and over again to make the learning effective.

National Autistic Society: Information on Puberty and sex education in people with autism. 

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