How Behavior Is Impacted by Autism

Discover how autism affects behavior, from sensory differences to social communication challenges.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
June 7, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Behavior

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) significantly influences an individual's behavior and their interactions with the world around them. Grasping how autism affects behavior is a cornerstone in providing effective support and intervention. This section addresses individualized strategies for positive behavior, social communication impairments, and language challenges in individuals with autism.

Individualized Strategies for Positive Behavior

One of the key components in managing autism-related behavior is the development of individualized strategies. These are designed to increase the desired behaviors in a child with autism, tailored specifically to their needs and challenges. These strategies can help a child build a sense of pride in their accomplishments, foster personal responsibility, and cultivate an understanding of expectations. This understanding can significantly reduce anxiety and reactivity that might lead to aggression or other challenging behaviors. Effective implementation of these strategies requires careful assessment of a child's strengths, interests, and areas of difficulty [1].

Social Communication Impairments

A key characteristic of autism is social communication impairments. All individuals with ASD exhibit these impairments to some degree, which can include a lack of appropriate eye contact, and an inability to initiate or respond to joint attention. These difficulties often manifest themselves in speech and language impairments, making social interactions particularly challenging.

Language Challenges in Autism

Language challenges are another significant aspect of how autism impacts behavior. Individuals with ASD often have difficulties in both receptive and expressive language. In some cases, individuals may be nonverbal and require a communication device for expression. These language challenges can make it difficult for individuals with autism to express their thoughts, feelings, and needs effectively, which can lead to frustration and problematic behaviors [2].

Understanding these aspects of autism behavior and the related challenges is key to developing effective strategies for support. With the right support and intervention, individuals with autism can learn to navigate their world more effectively, improve their communication skills, and lead more fulfilling lives.

Behavioral Patterns in Autism

Understanding how autism affects behavior is crucial for supporting individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Key behavioral patterns in ASD often include restricted and repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, and executive function impairments.

Restricted, Repetitive Behaviors

People with ASD often exhibit restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. These behaviors may present as a limited repertoire of alternative behaviors or a preference for certain tasks. This can include specific routines, movements, or intense interest in particular topics. These behaviors can often be comforting for the individual with ASD, but may also cause distress if the routine or pattern is disrupted.

Sensory Sensitivities

Sensory differences are another common aspect of how autism affects behavior. Individuals with ASD can exhibit hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to various sensory inputs. This can include sensitivity to things like light, sound, touch, taste, or smell. These sensory sensitivities often fall under the category of restricted repetitive behaviors, as they can lead to repetitive activities or routines designed to avoid or seek out specific sensory experiences [2].

Executive Function Impairments

Executive function impairments are another key aspect of how autism affects behavior. These impairments affect cognitive skills such as attention, working memory, planning, reasoning, sequencing, and flexible thinking. These challenges can impact various areas of life, including social interactions, academics, learning, self-regulation, and routine daily activities. For example, an individual with ASD may struggle with tasks that require multi-step planning, or may have difficulty shifting attention from one task to another.

In understanding these behavioral patterns in autism, it's important to remember that each individual with ASD is unique. Their behaviors, interests, and challenges can vary widely and may change over time. It's crucial to approach each individual with understanding and patience, and to provide supportive environments that accommodate their unique needs and skills.

Impact of Sensory Differences

Sensory differences in individuals with autism can significantly influence their behavior. These differences often lie in the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems, which can cause a range of challenges in their daily lives.

Tactile Sensory Challenges

The tactile system is associated with the perception of touch and pain. Dysfunction in this system can lead to misperceptions, where individuals may be hyper-sensitive (overly responsive) or hypo-sensitive (under-responsive) to touch. This can result in self-imposed isolation, general irritability, distractibility, and hyperactivity in individuals with autism.

For example, a child with hypersensitivity in the tactile system may find the sensation of certain fabrics against their skin overwhelming, leading to discomfort and stress. On the other hand, a child with hyposensitivity might not react to pain as expected, which could pose safety risks.

Vestibular Sensory Issues

The vestibular system is responsible for maintaining balance and spatial orientation. Dysfunction in this system can lead to hypersensitivity or hypo-reactivity to movement activities. This could result in a fear of ordinary movements, clumsiness, and an intense craving for sensory experiences in individuals with autism [3].

A child with a dysfunctional vestibular system might exhibit behaviors such as refusing to participate in activities that involve movement, or conversely, might be continuously seeking movement and appear restless.

Proprioceptive System Dysfunction

The proprioceptive system provides awareness of the body's position and movements. Dysfunction in this system can result in difficulties in body awareness, motor planning, and executing motor tasks efficiently for individuals with autism [3].

This might manifest as clumsiness, difficulty coordinating movements, or challenges in tasks requiring fine motor skills, such as buttoning a shirt or using a pencil. It could also lead to difficulties in navigating through space, resulting in bumping into objects or people.

Sensory differences in autism can significantly impact behavior, causing difficulties in communication, social interactions, and daily activities. It's important to recognize these challenges and seek appropriate therapies and interventions to help manage these sensory issues and improve the quality of life for those with autism.

Sensory Integration in Autism

Sensory integration plays a significant role in how autism affects behavior. It involves how individuals with autism process sensory information from their environment, and how this processing influences their behavior. A dysfunction in sensory integration can manifest in over- or under-responsiveness to sensory input, leading to challenges in various areas including motor coordination, speech, academic performance, and adaptability to new situations.


Children with autism may exhibit over- or under-responsiveness to sensory stimuli. This could mean an exaggerated response to certain sensory inputs, or a lack of response to others. For instance, dysfunction in the tactile system can result in an altered perception of touch and/or pain, leading to behaviors such as self-imposed isolation, irritability, distractibility, and hyperactivity [3]. Similarly, dysfunction in the vestibular system can lead to hypersensitivity or hypo-reactivity to movement activities, resulting in fear of ordinary movements, clumsiness, and intense sensory-seeking behaviors. Dysfunction in the proprioceptive system can result in difficulties in body awareness, motor planning, and executing motor tasks efficiently.

Sensory System Potential Dysfunction Behavioral Impact
Tactile Misperception of touch/pain Isolation, irritability, distractibility, hyperactivity
Vestibular Hypersensitivity/hypo-reactivity to movement Fear of movement, clumsiness, intense sensory-seeking
Proprioceptive Difficulty with body awareness, motor planning, motor execution Inefficient motor tasks, clumsiness

Evaluation and Treatment

Evaluating and addressing the sensory integration issues in individuals with autism is a key part of treatment. This process is usually carried out by occupational therapists and/or physical therapists. The goal is to provide sensory information to organize the central nervous system, assist in inhibiting/modulating sensory information, and help process a more organized response to sensory stimuli.

Occupational and Physical Therapy

Occupational and physical therapists play a crucial role in helping individuals with autism manage sensory integration issues. They employ a variety of strategies and interventions designed to help these individuals respond more effectively to sensory stimuli. These strategies can include sensory diets (a customized plan of sensory activities), environmental modifications, and direct therapy. Therapists also work closely with families and teachers to implement strategies that can support sensory integration in daily routines and activities. With appropriate therapy and support, individuals with autism can significantly improve their sensory integration, leading to enhanced function and quality of life.

Behavioral Challenges in Autism

Understanding how autism affects behavior is crucial to developing strategies that support individuals with autism. In this section, we'll delve into some of the behavioral challenges related to aggression, the development of Theory of Mind, and behaviors of concern.

Aggressive Behavior and Frustration

Aggression is a behavior that individuals with autism may exhibit as an expression of frustration. Unable to clearly communicate their desires, they may resort to aggressive behavior as a means of expressing their feelings. Additionally, self-harming behaviors may occur when an individual feels overwhelmed by excessive sensory input. This highlights the importance of creating an environment that reduces sensory overload and supports clear communication for those with autism.

Theory of Mind Development

Theory of Mind involves the understanding of another person's knowledge, beliefs, emotions, and intentions. Individuals with autism may experience a delay in developing Theory of Mind, which can lead to challenges in social situations and difficulties in perceiving others' perspectives. This delay can further contribute to misunderstandings and frustrations in social interactions.

Behaviors of Concern and Risks

Behaviors of concern arise when they impact an individual's quality of life or negatively affect the people around them. These behaviors, which can undermine a person's rights, dignity, and quality of life, pose risks to health and safety.

Creating a safe and supportive environment is key to addressing these behaviors. This can be achieved through strategies such as Positive Behavior Support (PBS), which aims to enhance an individual's quality of life and reduce behaviors of concern by teaching new skills and making environmental modifications.

In conclusion, individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) display a wide range of strengths, abilities, and areas of need, but they all show differences in social communication, social interactions, and behaviors. The severity of these symptoms varies among individuals diagnosed with ASD. Understanding these behavioral challenges is critical to providing appropriate support and creating environments that promote positive behavior and improved quality of life.

Positive Behavior Support (PBS)

Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is a crucial component in managing autism-related behaviors. By improving quality of life, teaching new skills, and modifying the environment, PBS provides tangible and sustainable solutions on how autism affects behavior.

Enhancing Quality of Life

The primary goal of Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is to enhance an individual's quality of life. This approach aims to reduce behaviors of concern by incorporating various strategies, focusing on teaching new skills, and making environmental changes [4]. It's a holistic approach that acknowledges the individual needs of each person, developing personalized strategies to help them navigate life more effectively.

Recent guidelines suggest starting an integrated developmental and behavioral intervention as soon as ASD is diagnosed or seriously suspected. The earlier a child receives help, the greater the chance for learning and progress [6].

Teaching New Skills

A key aspect of PBS is the teaching of new skills. Early interventions for autism occur at or before preschool age, as early as 2 or 3 years of age. The brain's plasticity at this young age makes it an optimal time for learning. Interventions during this period have a better chance of being effective in the longer term, giving children the best start possible and the best chance of developing to their full potential [6].

In some cases, with early intervention, children with autism make significant progress to the extent that they are no longer on the autism spectrum when they are older. Many of these children who go off the spectrum have some common characteristics, demonstrating the effectiveness of teaching new skills during the early stages.

Environmental Modifications

Environmental modifications can also play a significant role in managing the behaviors associated with autism. By adjusting elements within a child's surroundings to better suit their needs, we can create a more conducive environment for learning and development.

In the U.S., each state has its own early intervention program for children from birth to age 2 years who are diagnosed with developmental delays or disabilities, including ASD. These programs are specified by Part C of Public Law 108-77: Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), also known as "IDEA" [6]. These programs often involve environmental modifications to facilitate learning and development.

In conclusion, Positive Behavior Support is a multifaceted approach that can significantly impact the lives of those with autism. By enhancing the quality of life, teaching new skills, and making appropriate environmental modifications, PBS provides a comprehensive solution to the question of how autism affects behavior.








steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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