Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Designing Environments to Reduce Challenging Behaviors

Challenging behaviors – defined as abnormal behaviors that deviate from one’s culture in frequency, intensity, or duration – are common among autistics, and have the potential to cause hardships for the autistic and others (Jang, Healy, & Mannion, 2011; Matson & Minshawi, 2007; Myers & Johnson, 2007). However, there is so much more to autism than challenges and hardships. When we focus on problematic behaviors, we prime others to look for the negative and ignore the positive. In the right environment, autistics can make significant contributions to society (Mottron, 2011).

child blocking out sound and light with headphones and dark sunglasses

Autistics engage in challenging behaviors for a variety of reasons – difficulty communicating their needs, they may be anxious or stressed, or they may be overwhelmed by their surroundings. Instead of focusing on behaviors as problematic, why not focus on challenging behaviors as ways autistics communicate their needs? An example, my family and I went to a restaurant and were seated in an area with bright overhead lights. My son began his wiggling dance that occurs before becoming overstimulated. If I viewed this wiggling as a problematic behavior, I would ask my son to sit still, get him to focus on something else, ignore the wiggling, etc. If I, however, viewed challenging behaviors as his way of communicating sensory challenges, I would focus on arranging a more conducive environment. I noticed an area in the restaurant with dimmer lighting; our server happily accommodated us. When I focus on arranging conducive environments for my son, his challenging behaviors disappear.

Heidi Hillman PhD, BCBA-D

Heidi Hillman PhD, BCBA-D

I am reminded of Bogdan and Taylor’s (1994) recommendation to abandon the term “challenging behavior” to help focus on problematic environments rather than behaviors. The article was written 27 years ago, yet we still define autistics by their challenges. I encourage we focus on designing environments to help reduce challenging behaviors rather than making autistics exist in challenging environments. What are ways we can begin designing autistic-centered environments? First and foremost, don’t be afraid to tell your child they are autistic. Many parents I work with say they are afraid their child will “feel different.” Don’t worry, we already know we are different; we know we don’t fit in. Knowing we are autistic helps us realize there is not something “wrong” with us; validating our perception we interpret the world differently and that normal is subjective.

Second, view autistics as sensitive rather than challenging. Sensitive, according to Websters dictionary, refers to capable of perceiving with a sense; responsive to external conditions; easily upset. Wow! That explains many autistics. My son is a sensitive soul. He is passionate, energetic, sensory-sensitive, and quickly melts down. Rather than viewing his behaviors as problematic, we view them as signs his environment is not suitable for his sensitive being. Imagine if we viewed autistics as sensitive rather than defining their behaviors as challenging. What kid wants to be reminded of their social deficits, food selectivity, and other quirky (often negatively portrayed) traits?

Third, our first impressions of autism begin within our family. Engage in open, honest, and positive conversations about autism with your family. Champion your child, be supportive, teach them to be comfortable in their autistic identity. Your goal is raising an autistic child to be their unique self. Family’s love and understanding are a big part of autistic children developing a positive sense of self.

Fourth, don’t just love your autistic child, unconditionally love them; there is a difference. Conditional love teaches, “you are only valuable when you conform for the convenience of others.” Unconditional love shows your love does not have conditions, you love and accept your autistic child for who they naturally are. Please do not fall into the trap that is the core of many parenting techniques – loving your child only when they follow directives, look people in the eye, don’t stim, wear sensory-aversive clothes, eat food to comply, or when they hide their tears but are falling apart inside. This is profoundly destructive psychologically. Be comfortable with your child’s autistic identity, their quirks, their challenges; celebrate. Don’t make them fit in, that only furthers the “challenging” behavior ideology.

Fifth, when developing treatment plans, focus on the child’s best interests, not the parent’s, not the therapist’s, and not cultural standards. Quite often we start with the wrong question – how I can get my autistic child to comply. Start with the question “what does my child need and how can I meet those needs?” It will lead you in a strength-based direction, rather than focusing on eliminating challenging behaviors.

Sixth, the experts on autism are autistics. Prestigious university degrees, trainings, and state licensures may make a person an expert in a field, but it does not make them an expert on being autistic. Over the years working in the autism field, I began realizing many who work in the field or publish scholarly work on autism are not themselves autistic. The best way to understand the behaviors of autistics – seek out autistics. They personally know what it is like to live an autistic life. I think about how much families would benefit if they were introduced to the wealth of knowledge provided by autistics.

Lastly, understand your autistic child’s sensory challenges by allowing them to be the expert. For the child with food selectivity, is it due to texture, taste, smell? We all have foods we dislike. Instead of reinforcing food acceptance, find the motivating factor behind your child’s food selectivity, and use that to your advantage. For those autistics who prefer to wear a limited range of clothes due to sensory aversions – rather than forcing compliance to wear a variety of clothes, simply purchase more preferred clothes. When I discover a pair of pants my son likes, I purchase five pairs, in multiple colors. When we make autistic children wear uncomfortable clothes, we teach them their opinions don’t matter; that sensory pain must be endured. For many autistics, stimming serves as an outlet to reduce anxious feelings, alleviate boredom, or show unabashed joy. Stimming looks odd, but mainly to non-autistics. When we reduce a stim just because it is socially odd or does not meet our expectations, we have lost sight of the needs of the autistic. Rather than identifying stimming as an unwanted behavior, view it as a coping mechanism. When we remove a coping mechanism that is not negatively impacting a child, we are not serving the best interest of the child.

Yes, autistics have challenging behaviors, but they also have strengths and capabilities. I encourage us to define autistics by their capabilities rather than their deficits. Re-define normal and encourage your child to veer off the “normal” map. Let your child discover they may not fit into any box – and celebrate that fact. Embrace your child’s autism as a unique, diverse aspect of them rather than modifying their behaviors so they resemble “normal.” Autism is not an easy developmental condition to live with – requiring patience and understanding from everyone. Yes, my son’s sensory challenges, exceptional memory, adherence to routines, and literal interpretations can be draining. However, the best part of each day is seeing my son flap his hands in joy – it means we are on the right track, and I usually join in with my own happy dance.

For more information, Heidi Hillman can be reached at


Bogdan, R., & Taylor, S.J. (1994). The social meaning of mental retardation: Two life stories. London: Teachers College Press.

Jang, J., Dixon, D. R., Tarbox, J., & Granpeesheh, D. (2011). Symptom severity and challenging behavior in children with ASD. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 1028-1032.

Matson, J.L., & Minshawi, N.F. (2007). Functional assessment of challenging behaviors: Toward a strategy for applied settings. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 28, 353-361.

Mottron, L. (2011). The power of autism. Nature, 479, 33–35.

Myers, S.M., & Johnson, C.P. (2007). Management of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 120, 1162-1182.

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