How Does Autism Influence Behavior and Communication

Discover how autism affects behavior and communication, and explore strategies for positive change.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
May 9, 2024
8 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Behaviors

When exploring the question of how does autism affect behavior, it's important to understand that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may exhibit a wide variety of behaviors. The spectrum of behaviors can vary significantly depending on whether an individual is on the lower-functioning end of the spectrum, such as classic autism, or the higher-functioning end, for example, high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome. The severity and type of behaviors can also vary widely.

Behavior Spectrum in ASD

ASD is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and may display restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests. These individuals may also have different ways of learning, moving, or paying attention.

The behavioral characteristics of individuals with ASD can vary significantly. For example, some individuals may have difficulty with social interaction and communication, while others may display unusual behaviors or interests. These behaviors set ASD apart from conditions defined by problems with social communication and interaction only [2].

Individualized Behavior Strategies

Given the diverse range of behaviors associated with ASD, it's crucial to develop individualized strategies to increase desired behaviors in children with autism. These strategies can help in building a sense of pride in accomplishments and personal responsibility, reducing anxiety and reactivity that can lead to aggression or other challenging behaviors.

Such strategies may involve setting clear expectations, using visual aids, providing positive reinforcement, and teaching self-management skills. It's also essential to address any sensory issues that might be influencing the child's behaviors. For example, some children with ASD may be hypersensitive to certain textures, sounds, or lights, which can contribute to behavioral issues.

By understanding the behaviors associated with ASD and implementing individualized strategies, parents and caregivers can help children with autism improve their social communication skills, manage their behaviors, and lead more fulfilling lives.

Sensory Challenges in Autism

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can face a variety of sensory challenges, which can significantly influence their behavior. Understanding these sensory issues and their impact can provide insight into how autism affects behavior.

Types of Sensory Issues

Sensory challenges can be a characteristic of ASD, although it's important to note that not all individuals with ASD will encounter these issues. People with autism may be hyperreactive or hyporeactive to sensory input, or they may have unusual interests in sensory stimuli around them. Being hyperreactive means that a person is more sensitive to what they experience through their senses, while being hyporeactive indicates being less sensitive to sensory input [4].

Sensory challenges for people with autism can encompass differences in experiencing pain, sensitivity to sounds, discomfort with certain textures, sensitivity to smells, and sensitivity to visual stimulation.

Impact on Behavior

Sensory processing issues can pose significant challenges for people on the autism spectrum, affecting their everyday lives and potentially leading to high anxiety and meltdowns. Autistic individuals may have difficulties interpreting and organizing input from their sensory experiences, such as what they see, taste, touch, hear, and smell.

People with autism can be either hypersensitive (over-reactive) or hyposensitive (under-reactive) to sensory input, or may experience fragmented or distorted perceptions, impacting their responses to sensory experiences.

A common regulatory behavior in individuals with autism is stimming, which stands for self-stimulatory behaviors. Stimming helps them focus and reduce sensory overload, and it can vary in form and intensity from person to person.

A practical intervention for sensory processing difficulties in individuals with autism includes modification of the environment. This intervention can help counteract the hypersensitivities or hyposensitivities that they may experience in everyday situations [5].

The influence of sensory challenges on the behavior of those with autism is complex and multi-faceted. By understanding these sensory issues, parents, caregivers, and educators can better navigate these challenges and support individuals with autism in their daily lives.

Social Communication Difficulties

One of the key ways in which autism can affect behavior is through challenges in social communication. Understanding these difficulties can help parents and caregivers provide better support and interventions for their children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Challenges in Social Interaction

People with ASD often find social interaction challenging. They may have difficulty interpreting and responding appropriately to social cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. This can lead to misunderstandings and difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships.

Some of the main challenges in social interaction for people with ASD include:

  • Difficulty with eye contact
  • Struggles with understanding other people's perspectives
  • Difficulty with turn-taking in conversations
  • Misinterpretation of social cues and norms

These challenges can vary significantly from person to person and can manifest in different ways depending on the individual's age and development. For example, a young child with ASD might struggle with sharing toys or taking turns, while a teenager might find it difficult to navigate social situations such as parties or group projects.

Social Communication Characteristics

Social communication characteristics related to ASD can range from subtle to more noticeable. According to the CDC, these may include:

  • Limited or inconsistent use of nonverbal communication, such as eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures
  • Difficulty understanding and using language for social purposes, such as making conversation, providing background information, or understanding humor
  • Difficulty developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, such as making friends or adjusting behavior to suit different social contexts

Understanding these characteristics can help parents and caregivers to better recognize and support their child's social communication needs. It's important to note that every individual with ASD is unique, and these characteristics can present differently in each person.

Providing supportive environments, tailored interventions, and understanding and acceptance can help individuals with ASD improve their social communication skills and navigate social situations more effectively. Remember, progress can be slow and requires patience, but even small improvements can make a significant difference in the individual's quality of life.

Restricted & Repetitive Behaviors

As we delve deeper into understanding how autism affects behavior, it is important to shed light on restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBs), which are a core symptom of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Core Symptoms of ASD

Restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBs) are a hallmark of autism and can take various forms. The spectrum ranges from lower order behaviors such as repetitive body movements (hand flapping, rocking) to higher order behaviors like insistence on sameness, rituals, and restricted interests. Interestingly, both lower and higher order forms often co-occur in individuals with ASD.

These behaviors can significantly impact learning, socialization, and family functioning. Moreover, the presence of repetitive behaviors in individuals with ASD is highly related to parental stress, as these can be among the most difficult aspects of the disorder for parents to manage daily [6].

Managing Repetitive Behaviors

Given the impact of RRBs on daily life and functioning, developing effective strategies to manage these behaviors is crucial. However, there is a noted lack of focused intervention research for "higher order" behaviors such as insistence on sameness.

That said, certain strategies have shown promise. One such approach is Differential Reinforcement of Variability (DRV), combined with response interruption. This technique has been effective in decreasing repetitive behaviors and increasing appropriate behaviors in children with ASD [6].

DRV involves reinforcing different responses and interrupting repetitive behavior, thereby encouraging the child to engage in a wider range of behaviors. However, this method should be tailored to fit each child's unique needs and implemented under professional guidance to ensure its effectiveness and safety.

In conclusion, understanding and managing RRBs is an essential part of navigating autism. While challenging, the right strategies and interventions can make a significant difference in improving quality of life for individuals with ASD and their families.

Sensory Processing in Autism

Understanding sensory processing is a critical aspect of comprehending how autism affects behavior. It involves recognizing how individuals with autism interact with sensory stimuli and how this influences their responses.

Sensory Processing Issues

People with autism may experience sensory challenges, although not all individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will encounter such issues. These sensory challenges can include differences in experiencing pain, sensitivity to sounds, discomfort with certain textures, sensitivity to smells, and sensitivity to visual stimulation.

Furthermore, individuals with autism may be hyperreactive or hyporeactive to sensory input or display unusual interest in sensory stimuli surrounding them. Hyperreactivity refers to a heightened sensitivity to sensory experiences, while hyporeactivity indicates a decreased sensitivity to the same [4].

These sensory processing issues can be one of the most prominent challenges for individuals on the autism spectrum, affecting their daily lives and leading to high anxiety and meltdowns. Furthermore, they may struggle in interpreting and organizing input from their sensory experiences, such as what they see, taste, touch, hear, and smell.

Type of Sensory Processing Definition
Hyperreactivity More sensitive to sensory experiences
Hyporeactivity Less sensitive to sensory experiences

Stimming and Regulation

Stimming, short for self-stimulatory behaviors, is a common regulatory behavior in individuals with autism. This behavior helps them focus and reduce sensory overload, and it can vary in form and intensity from person to person.

In response to the sensory processing difficulties faced by individuals with autism, practical interventions such as modification of the environment can help counteract hypersensitivities or hyposensitivities that they may experience in everyday situations.

Understanding these sensory processing issues and the role of stimming can assist in creating supportive environments that cater to the unique needs of individuals with autism, fostering positive behavior and overall well-being.

Interventions for Positive Behavior

Effective interventions can play a crucial role in managing how autism affects behavior. These interventions can help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) enhance their social skills and communication abilities, thus positively influencing their behavior. In this context, two promising interventions are music therapy and explicit social skills development.

Music Therapy Benefits

Music therapy has been recommended as an effective treatment intervention for ASD, improving social interaction, verbal communication, and socioemotional reciprocity [7]. Music therapy interventions can have positive effects on social skills in children with ASD, including increased engagement behavior, emotional engagement, social interaction, social greeting routines, joint attention behaviors, peer interactions, communication skills, and cognitive social skills.

Music therapy interventions may include improvisation, precomposed music, and/or active music-making experiences that promote skills including communication, social interaction, motor skills, and cognition. Music therapy experiences often involve playing instruments, where triadic joint attention is between two child peers and an instrument. The music therapist provides structure using an original song that contains lyrics for the steps of joint attention to the peer and the instrument. In this case, the instrument is a desired object and the reference to another person or participation in musical play continues the engagement with an item and another person in the room. The musical experience is rewarding and can therefore be used to promote or reinforce the desired social skill.

Social Skills Development

Lack of social skills can have lifelong implications for children with ASD, affecting their family/community interactions, academic skills, self-worth, and independence. Therefore, the application of effective interventions to facilitate and develop social skills is essential due to the lifelong impact that social skills may have on independence and functioning.

Explicit social skills training can help children with ASD improve their ability to interact with others, understand social norms, and use appropriate communication strategies. This training often involves teaching children to recognize and understand social cues, practice appropriate responses, and use these skills in various social settings.

There is a continued need for evidence-based treatment methods for children with ASD. Only 14 established practices for children and one established practice for adults according to the National Autism Center’s National Standards Project. Therefore, continually exploring and implementing new strategies, like music therapy and explicit social skills development, is critical in helping children with ASD navigate their social world successfully.









steven zauderer

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

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