Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Avoiding the Glares and Stares: Dealing with Challenging Behaviors in Community Settings

Ah, victory – another trip to the local grocery store is about to come to a close as you finish bagging up the last few apples for lunches for the week. That is, until half a dozen oranges go rolling past your feet, and you turn around only to notice the bag of goldfish half eaten…the other half left a trail from the canned goods aisle over to produce. And finally, another cruelty – the checkout line. Oh the checkout line. If you have a child or loved one with Autism, this may sound all too familiar. How could we leave out the screaming, kicking, and food throwing moments that we have all come to dreadfully anticipate? But not to worry, surely by now you are used to the herd of other shoppers staring at you as though you donned a sign, “world’s worst parent.” And when you feel like it everything that could go wrong already has, “Clean up on aisle 5” is announced loudly throughout the store. You guessed it. That was indeed your son who poured out the olive oil just to visually self-stimulate himself.

Unfortunately, grocery stores are only the tip of the iceberg. For some families, the frustration and anxiety of bringing a loved one with Autism just about anywhere in public feels like being on an episode of Boiling Point. But rest assured, you probably have a beautifully written extinction-based plan that your school’s BCBA consultant wrote for you. If only you could implement it without feeling like you’re being judged by everyone in sight. Behavior management in community settings can be one of the most challenging things a parent, family member, teacher, or consultant can face when trying to teach someone with Autism; or when just trying to get through the day. However, with some effective planning and strategic insight, you might be able to reduce the number of glares and stares, and leave the store without having to apologize to the clean up crew anymore.

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and we have all heard it before. One simple step to reducing challenging behaviors when going out into the community setting is to gather a few items you know your child enjoys. Most people have tried this over and over, but where they typically go wrong is by allowing the child to have the toy through the entirety of the community outing. They quickly will satiate, losing interest and will want to find other things to entertain and reinforce them. Instead, develop a system and decide how and when they are going to earn it. In applied behavior analysis (ABA), we call this a reinforcement schedule. Some examples include letting the child have access to the item every few minutes if they remain seated in the cart between “reinforce time,” or give them access at the end of each aisle. This will keep them interested in the object(s) and motived to earn it back.

We know that visuals can be an excellent resource when dealing with challenging behaviors (Dettmer, Simpson, Myles, and Ganz, 2000). To prepare for this strategy, try going to the store alone and time yourself. If you can figure out how long it usually takes you to get done what you need to accomplish, you can bring a timer on your community visit. Many children respond to visual timers so they can understand when they are going to get to leave or gain access to something preferred. Remember that if you choose to use this strategy, you must plan and leave extra time to check out, bag your items, etc. If the timer goes off, and you are nowhere near ready to leave, you just might have forfeited the future use of an excellent strategy for behavioral management.

Redirection is another key phrase often used by behavior consultants, teachers, and parents alike. This usually takes the form of “Don’t…”, “Put that down…”, “Stop…”, and so on. While this may be a good way to teach our children what we don’t want them to do, it does not do a very good job at helping them to identify what we do want them to do. Try pairing the strategies above with behavior-specific praise (Lucyshyn et al., 2007). This means that if they are doing something good, tell them! Remember to make your statements reinforce the specific behavior you want the child to engage in. For example, “You are doing such a nice job sitting in the cart while Mom finishes shopping!” Overly simple? Maybe. But some positive reinforcement can go a long way. Additionally, remember that many of the challenging behaviors we deal with are attention seeking. If you can increase the amount of attention you provide your child with before they engage in the behavior, it is less likely that they are going to want to engage in the problem behaviors. Finally, try having your child participate in the experience. Although this may make your trip a bit longer, try having your child pick out items for you, search for items with you, and allow them the opportunity to identify shapes, colors, and other familiar items. This could provide yet another opportunity to reinforce them with edibles or toys!

There are a wide number of strategies that can be used to address problem behavior in community settings. Unfortunately, there is no overnight fix. Remember that whatever strategy you choose to use, stay consistent, reinforce the contingencies you have set, and above all remember that every once in a while, someone is going to stare and glare.

Harry Voulgarakis, BCBA, is a Clinical Coordinator and Board-Certified Behavior Analyst at The SEED Center in Stamford, CT. For more information, please call 203-674-8200 or visit our website at

Additional Reading:

Doubet, S., and Ostrosky, M. (2015) The impact of challenging behavior on families: I don’t know what to do. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 34: 223-233

Fettig, A., Barton, E, (2014). Parent implementation of function-based intervention to reduce children’s challenging behavior: A literature review. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 34, 49-61.


Dettmer, S., Simpson, R., Myles, B., and Ganz, J. (2000). The use of visual supports to facilitate transitions of students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15, 163-169.

Lucyshyn, J., Albin, R., Horner, R., Mann, J., Wadsworth, G. (2007) Family implementation of positive behavior support for a child with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 9, 131-150.

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