Behavioral Characteristics of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have an average appearance, but their behavior can look very different from the standard. They may display social avoidance, repetitive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors and intense temper tantrums. Let's learn about the behavioral elements of ASD in this lesson.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Alex Brown is a 5-year-old boy with olive skin, big brown eyes, and soft curly brown hair. He enters his kindergarten classroom but pays no attention to the kind teachers that greet him excitedly at the door. Instead he goes straight to the corner of the room and begins playing computer games. Alex's mother explains to the teachers that he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of three.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term used for a group of communicative and social disorders that can sometimes coincide with intellectual and learning disorders. Children with ASD look like their peers, however they exhibit atypical behaviors. The cause of ASD is not entirely known, but scientific research and theories hypothesize that ASD can be caused by a combination of neurological, genetic, and environmental factors.

Behavioral Characteristics of Children with ASD

As Alex continues through his first few months in kindergarten, his two teachers, Mrs. Green and Mr. White, take notice of several unusual behaviors of Alex that are typical with ASD. Most of these behaviors are due to an intense anxiety of social situations and world they perceive as chaotic.

  • Social Skill Deficit Behaviors

Alex doesn't engage in eye contact or look at faces of each of his classmates and teachers. If a teacher calls his name, he will rarely turn in response. He tends to be very inward-focused in his play and when he does school activities. When he wants something that another child is playing with, he grabs it without considering the other child's feelings. Alex is displaying some social skill deficit behaviors including lack of eye contact, facial recognition of others, and lack of empathy.

  • Repetitive Behaviors

When Alex becomes nervous or anxious, he flaps his hands. Repetitive behaviors like hand flapping, rocking back and forth, and hand waving are common in children with ASD. These behaviors are soothing in a world that appears chaotic and scary. Activities like arranging toys in a perfect line, or stacking cans in a tall column, are also ordered behaviors that can feel calming.

  • Emotional Dysregulation Behaviors

Tantrums may be common in two-and three-year olds but not for five-year-olds. Alex struggles with tantrums due to ASD. Often when another child has a tantrum, he/she stops crying after the adult walks away and does not give them attention for negative behavior. Alex's tantrums continue for around 30 minutes even if nobody is paying attention to him. Children with ASD have difficulty communicating their feelings and needs, and this can lead to incredible frustration resulting in longer and more severe tantrums than children without ASD.

  • Self-Injurious Behaviors

Alongside severe tantrums come self-injurious behaviors. Sometimes Alex is so frustrated that he bangs his head on a wall multiple times, pulls his hair out, or bites himself. Another theory of why children with ASD engage in self-injurious behaviors is that it may be a way to self stimulate. For example, a child might excessively scratch themselves because it feels good. On the other hand, a child who has a very low arousal level may surprisingly find pleasure in an action like biting their wrists. In Alex's case, it is done as a result of feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

  • Speech Deficits and Abnormal Communication

Alex demonstrates very little speech compared to his classmates. Sometimes when he does speak his words make little sense. On one occasion, he told a little girl 'The green frog jumped' instead of saying 'Hello.' Sometimes children with ASD will say random things that are out of context; these are usually things they have heard before, perhaps from a book or from their parent.

  • Abnormal Responses to Sensory Input

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