Dealing with Behavioral Problems in Autistic Adults: Practical Solutions

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Caring for an adult with autism can sometimes be challenging. However understanding more about the condition, and making some simple adaptations can help decrease the occurrence of problem behaviors. Problem behaviors usually include stereotypical behaviors such as arm flapping, pacing and body rocking, compulsive and ritualistic behaviors, non compliance, disruptive behaviors and aggression. This article focuses on some of the factors that could be the cause of a problem behavior in an adult, and also some ideas to help reduce such behaviors.

Factors That Can Lead To Behavior Problems:

Change in routine: People with autism like to do things according to a routine. They like schedules, timings and organization. Routine helps them feel safe and comfortable. However when there is a change in the routine, it causes a lot of distress. This can manifest as a behavior problem.

Sensory factors: Adults with autism may have a need for sensory stimulation, or may be hypersensitive to some sensory experiences. This is often the cause for many stereotypical behaviors especially rocking, arm flapping, and even some self injurious behaviors.

Medical factors: Adults with autism also experience hunger, thirst, stomach aches, headaches, tiredness etc. However they may not be able to distinguish all these symptoms from one another, and may not understand why they are uncomfortable. This can also cause problem behaviors.

Social factors: Adults with autism have difficulties with social skills. Sometimes when faced with social demands that are too much for them, they may show some problem behaviors.

Inability to communicate needs: A lot of adults with autism struggle with difficulties in communication and language, and so they are not able to express their needs, desires or discomforts. This can often be another cause of a problem behavior.

Reducing the Occurrence of Problem Behaviors

Here are a few ideas for dealing with behavioral problems in autistic adults.

Structure and routine: Structure and routine helps people with autism to feel safe and comfortable, and function better. A study carried out in 2009 showed that adults with autism living in a highly structured situation had fewer behavior problems than others. Introduce structure into the day and week through schedules. Whenever there is going to be a change in the schedule, make sure the person is prepared about it well in advance. Also while visiting a new place, the autistic person can be shown pictures; and the plans for the day can be discussed so that he or she is able to be prepared.

Meaningful activities for sensory needs: Meaningful activities can be offered to people to cater to their sensory needs. For example a person who rocks a lot can be asked to sit on a swing chair. Similarly, others may enjoy sports, art, or music activities depending on their sensory needs.

Positive family interactions and family support: A positive family who supports the adult with autism and encourages them helps to reduce behavior problems. One study showed that when mothers had a good relationship with their autistic sons and daughters, it helped reduce behavior difficulties.

Adaptations in the environment: Sometimes for autistic people who have hypersensitivity to various sensory experiences, adapting the environment can help. Some may be able to work better in a dark room. Others may need a quiet environment. Thus, identifying the factors in the environment that cause distress and eliminating them, can help in reducing behavior problems.

Catering to medical needs: If a person who usually does not show a behavior problem suddenly presents with one, overall health must be looked into. Illnesses can manifest as problem behaviors.

Training in communication: Training the person to communicate better will help him or her to express their needs, and will thus reduce behavior problems. For non verbal autistic adults, communication boards or picture cards can be used. Some people prefer to use gestures. Both the adult with autism and the caregiver need to be familiar with the communication techniques.


Holtz, R. A. (2009). A Community-Based Accommodation Program for Adults with Autism and Mental Retardation. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities , 118- 126.

Leann E. Smith, J. S. (2008). Symptoms and Behavior Problems of Adolescents and Adults With Autism: Effects of Mother–Child Relationship Quality, Warmth, and Praise. AMERICAN JOURNAL ON MENTAL RETARDATION , 387- 402.