6 strategies for managing challenging behaviours in public

Team Kindship
March 30, 2022
3 minutes

‘If you know, you know!’

Managing an autistic meltdown in public is perhaps up there with one of my most dreaded activities. You sometimes can spot the triggers and are aware that some difficult behaviours are on the horizon, then other times it's simply BAM. Hold tight and strap in for the ride.

Children with autism struggle with emotional regulation skills and being out and about can often present a whole heap of sensory triggers. Mix the two together and often you can find yourself trying to navigate and manage some very challenging and complex behaviours.

Before my daughter was diagnosed, going out just seemed too hard at times. I couldn’t understand why she was often distressed when we were out and then to come home to more explosive behaviours. It got to a stage where if we didn’t need to go out, we tended to stay home. Simple things like going to the shops with my daughter had me feeling like I was walking on eggshells, and I had this never-ending bout of anxiety that constantly creeped upon me. I was at a loss? Surely this wasn’t ‘normal’ behaviour? But how do I help her?

Getting her autism diagnosis was quite the blessing as it provided me with some much-needed clarity around her behaviours. I soon learnt that it wasn’t my parenting, or it wasn’t that she was a cranky and ‘difficult’ child. It opened my eyes and gave me the chance to be able to investigate her world and gain the knowledge I needed to help her cope with ours.

Over the years I have learnt that each day can present completely different challenges and at times things that have been a trigger for my daughter may not be the next day. Autism brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘keeping you on your toes’ that’s for sure. Regardless, for me it is still imperative to be on alert for triggers and try to reduce stressors where possible. I guess it’s also important to begin to make sense of the ‘why’ for difficult behaviours in public. Things such as.

-Having trouble understanding their environment.

-Having unrealistic expectations

-Being out of normal routine

-Difficult coping with sensory triggers

-Difficulty coping with transitions to and from places

-Having a general feeling of feeling overwhelmed and on edge when out.

-Not being equipped with emotional self-regulation skills

6 strategies for managing challenging behaviour in public

  1. Stay calm – Ok, so this may seem like a given but sometimes in the heat of the moment emotions for everyone get heightened. Over the years I have had to continually remind myself that overreacting is going to make situations worse. EVERY SINGLE TIME. Often when challenging behaviours are apparent with children with autism their ability to listen and comprehend what you are saying is non-existent. In the earlier days my daughter did not have any idea of how to regulate emotions, especially when we were out. Looking back now, when behaviours got extreme, and meltdowns happened in public I could have coped better. I think frustration and anger about what was happening often got the better of me and I would often find myself feeling embarrassed and overwhelmed. The other day when we were school shoe shopping (which is very much a dreaded chore not only due to sensory issues but because I also need to find shoes that fit over my daughter’s orthotics) I sensed my daughter slowly getting worked up. The noise, the busy shop, and the frustration of not being able to find a shoe that felt right all got too much. Perhaps the biggest meltdown yet erupted that day. It was beyond intense. I knew that there was nothing I could say or do at that time to make it better and gave into the fact that it just needed to run its course. I took deep breaths and handled the situation in a calm and composed manner, I hugged her when she let me, and I didn’t even attempt to engage with her. Every now and again just softly whispered ' ‘It's Ok, you will be ok” into her ear. Yes, it still rattled me as it's never a nice thing to see your child in such distress. But the difference was if I didn’t stay calm it would have been much worse and it left me feeling fulfilled that I knew I did the best I could.

  1. Teach emotional regulation strategies – The reality is our beautiful kiddos need to be explicitly taught emotional regulation strategies, it’s not a natural progression that occurs with age. Something that has helped us do this in the past was to have a toolbox of strategies up our sleeve. Over time, once I have become more aware of triggers, I have been able to implement tools to assist. For example, bringing bubbles to distract and help with transitions, headphones for noise, chewy necklaces for times of anxiety…. My daughter is a little bit older now and has learnt that certain tools and strategies help her feel in control and calm.

  1. Give choices – Sometimes giving choices allows children to feel a sense of control, this can be a good way in helping them make more appropriate decisions and increase emotional regulation. Too many choices can be overwhelming but simply diffusing difficult behaviour by giving two choices to redirect can sometimes be the perfect distraction. My daughter struggles with communication when emotions are heightened so to help with this, I use simple but direct language and try to use body language. To emphasis two choices I will use one hand to represent one choice and the other to represent the second choice, so even if she is not able to say what she wants she can point to either hand. For example if we are out I might say 'Would you like a cuddle?' or 'Would you like to go get a cold drink?'

  1. Reinforce positive behaviours – Even as adults, if you're complemented on something you do it can give you a little confidence boost. Reinforcing positive behaviours does the same for children but even more so. It can sometimes have more of an effect for children with autism as sometimes the world can seem like a confusing place. Receiving praise that they are coping well and presenting positive behaviours can act as reassurance to continue with their actions. I always make sure to do this, especially when I'm out, things like "Wow that line was long, I'm so proud of how patient you were waiting with me!"

  1. Distract or redirect – This is tricky to implement during times where emotions are far too heightened and challenging behaviours are well and truly already progressed. But it’s worth a try! It’s when your ‘mum's skills’ go up a notch and you must think quickly. Perhaps you notice they need some proprioceptive input stat. If you’re at the shop ask them to push a trolley, otherwise pretend your legs aren’t working and they need to push you to continue walking. Redirecting with the sensory input they need can often assist. Distracting can also be a useful tool, again it requires some quick thinking. My daughter loves solving math problems. Sometimes I distract her by asking her random maths questions, it works a treat (sidenote: not all the time). Anything that redirects and distracts can be a very useful tool and side-tracking where their behaviour was potentially going.

  1. Transitional object – When all else fails perhaps your child has a favourite object or toy that brings happiness and comfort back to their world. When she was younger my daughter would often go through stages when she would be fixated on one thing. Sometimes before we went out (when I remembered) I would strategically pack it for those ‘just in case’ moments. If I sensed her emotions getting heightened, I would magically grab it from my ‘Mum Mary Poppins’ bag to try to assist in bringing some calmness back to her world. My daughter very much struggled transitioning to and from places so having a ‘favourite toy’ sometimes acted as a distraction for those times too.

It’s important to remember that sometimes the challenges of autism can lead to behaviours that are difficult for us as parents to understand or assist with. There is simply no magic answer most of the time and it can take a lot of trial and error. Perhaps sometimes you nail the challenging behaviours when you are out and then other times all the tricks in the world don’t help. But remember you are still ‘doing it’ right regardless of if you get the results you hoped for. Simply being there to try to help and guide your child is always the best thing to do. For the times that don’t go so well, take advantage of the fact that it can just be counted as ‘another teachable moment’ in which you and your child can both learn something from.