Autism & Maladaptive Behaviors: What’s a Parent to Do?

Maladaptive behaviors are attempts to decrease anxiety and gain personal agency and control. The non-adaptive nature of these behaviors also prevents children with autism from participating in family and community activities.

Examples of maladaptive behaviors include tantrum-related behaviors such as hitting, kicking, or screaming.

Unsure as to whether your child is having tantrums or meltdowns? Look to our blog post What to do when your child has a meltdown in public for an overview of the difference between the two. You may also want to check out our free downloadable guide for parents, 10 Tips for Managing a Meltdown.

Meltdown behaviors are just one subset of maladaptive behaviors. Other examples include aggression and sleep disturbances. Whatever the maladaptive behavior looks like in your household, you can put ABA therapy principles to use and help lessen the likelihood of future behaviors.

Identify the function of the maladaptive behavior

The first and most important step toward mitigating maladaptive behavior is discerning its function. Why is your child hitting or biting? What’s his objective?

One of the core principles of ABA therapy says that all behavior is a form of communication. Your child’s maladaptive behavior isn’t random; rather, it’s an attempt to convey a message.

The problem is that the message is getting lost in translation. The unhealthy behaviors distract from the underlying communication and block others from understanding your child.

Using Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC) data sheets can help you to gain clarity. Once you’ve compiled data, you can examine the patterns of your child’s behavior and better discern what drives it.

For example, you might notice that the maladaptive behavior fits into an attention-seeking pattern, or conclude that it’s related to sensory issues.

Once you have a better sense for your child’s motivations, you can partner with his ABA clinician or behaviorist to develop an effective behavior support plan.

When problematic behavior occurs, respond consistently

Another foundational principle of ABA therapy states that you cannot control another person’s behavior. However, you can influence it by changing your own.

As such, you can discourage your child’s maladaptive behaviors by providing regular reinforcement that points him in a different direction. Over time, your child will learn to choose healthier behaviors in order to get his needs met.

For example, perhaps your child bites others to get attention. You can teach your child healthier ways to communicate and gain people’s attention. But even as you’re working to promote more positive choices, it also behooves you to discourage this aggressive behavior. Thus, you should determine (and clearly communicate!) a tangible consequence for biting, and a tangible reward for not biting.

Since the choice to bite is highly problematic, it could result in the loss of a much-loved activity, such as watching a favorite TV show.

Once you’ve chosen a consequence, you must stick to it. For example, any time your child bites, he loses his TV-watching privileges for one day – no ifs, ands, or buts. But every day that he doesn’t bite, he receives an additional half-hour of TV time.

Gradually, your child will realize that biting reliably deprives him of something that’s important to his happiness. As a result, you’ll likely have fewer instances of biting!

That said, do be prepared to face an extinction burst: an initial period of fierce resistance in which maladaptive behaviors get worse before they get better. But after the extinction burst ends, you should see a decrease in the problematic behavior.

By the same token, it’s essential to …

Teach your child healthier ways to communicate

It’s not enough to simply discourage negative behaviors. Instead, parents must actively teach and promote positive, healthy behaviors.

In a recent Stanford study, Maladaptive Behavior in Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Role of Emotion Experience and Emotional Regulation (PDF), the authors wrote, “The present study suggests that less use of adaptive emotion regulation strategies is crucial for increased negative emotions, and in turn, is associated with increased maladaptive behavior in ASD.”

In other words, if your child doesn’t employ emotional regulationstrategies, his negative emotions will then increase … and these negative emotions correlate with a higher instance of maladaptive behaviors.

One reason why ABA therapy is so crucial for children with autism is that it provides a framework for learning emotional regulation skills such as emotions labeling.

If you want to decrease maladaptive behaviors, coach your child in emotional self-management. Teach him to express his needs, wants, and emotional states, and note how the problematic behaviors decrease.

Be aware that frustrations feed maladaptive behaviors

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders lists deficits in social communication as a defining characteristic of autism. Can you imagine how frustrating it must be to struggle to interact with other people every day? If so, then you’ll understand one reason why many children with autism engage in maladaptive behaviors.

When children with autism receive early intervention in the form of ABA therapy – a proven, systematic therapeutic program – they are empowered to learn functional communication and improve their future outcomes as well.

While maladaptive behaviors can be complicated and frustrating, following these recommendations can help you and your child mitigate dysfunctional emotional habits and develop positive emotional regulation skills for improved communication and understanding.

Want to access ABA video lessons and start learning from home? Then be sure to sign up for your free trial of FirstPath Autism today!