Broad Approaches that Support the Autistic Learner


The term ‘behaviour’ refers to everything an individual does or says and in general it can be said that behaviour communicates a message.  However, it is important to understand that behaviour is complex and that autistic children and young people may engage in a range of behaviours for multiple reasons. This is also true of behaviours of concern.  Whilst it not always possible to determine the cause(s) every time there are a number of common causes that should always be considered.   These are:

Sensory Overload

When a child or young person is showing signs of distress or engaging in behaviours of concern, they may be experiencing sensory overload. When an individual has difficulty processing sensory stimuli this can impact on their ability to regulate emotions, socialise, concentrate, learn, pay attention, and perform everyday activities. Sensory issues are addressed in another section of this resource.

Lack of Structure and Predictability

The world can often seem chaotic to an autistic child or young person which can lead to greater levels of distress. Having the right structure and routine in place for the learner will reduce levels of behaviours of concern through the provision of predictability and sameness.  For some learners engaging in ritualistic behaviours or routines also provides that predictability and as such may be used as a coping strategy.   

Link here for how to increase structure and predictability

Frustration Due to Differences in Communication and Processing

Many children and young people with SLD have difficulties communicating. These difficulties in communication, understanding and processing of language can lead to frustration and distress for an individual and result in that person engaging in behaviours of concern. Communication issues are addressed in another section of this resource.

Physical Health and Stress

It can be very difficult for learners with SLD to communicate that they are in pain, or unwell so when adults see a change or an escalation in behaviours of concern it is important to consider the person’s physical health and to rule out any pain or illness.  They should also consider physical needs such as hunger, thirst, tiredness or feeling too warm/too cold.  Equally supporting adults need to consider the learner’s stress levels as high levels of stress and anxiety will not only increase behaviours of concern but also impact on the person’s ability to engage in their daily tasks and activities. Wellbeing is addressed in another section of this resource.

Requests and Demands

Demands or requests from the supporting adult can often lead to behaviours of concern particularly if the learner is already in a state of heightened arousal.  It is important to consider how and when demands or requests are made and if the learner has the required skill set to meet them.

Other People

It is important to consider the impact of others on the behaviour of the learner with SLD.   The behaviour of the supporting adult or others in the learner’s environment can be the decisive element that triggers the behaviour of concern even though this was not their intention.

Link here for further information on behaviours of concern
Link here for functional assessment form- location
Link here for functional assessment form – setting event

Whilst there are different approaches that aim to best support individuals with autism and SLD in reducing behaviours of concern, this overview will focus on the Low Arousal Approach and the Intensive Interactive Approach as both have a strong emphasis on the individual’s wellbeing and quality of life.

The Low Arousal Approach

The Low Arousal Approach is a concept which was first created by Professor Andy McDonnell of Studio 3 ( ).  It is a person-centred non directive way of managing behaviour which looks at the importance of arousal in behavioural and emotional regulation.   

Central to low arousal approaches are four key elements:

  1. Reducing demands and requests
  2. Avoiding potentially arousing triggers such as touch, direct eye contact, and spectators
  3. Avoiding non-verbal behaviours such as hostile postures or stances
  4. Challenging beliefs around the short-term management of behaviours of concern

(McDonnell, 2010)

The Low Arousal Approach has two guiding principles.  The first principle focuses on the supportive adult and how their behaviour in a situation may inadvertently trigger a stress response in the person they are supporting.  Thus, it is imperative that the supportive adult reflects on the impact of their own behaviour and adapts their behaviour accordingly.   The second principle focuses on trauma-informed behaviour management (McDonnell, 2010).  Quite simply, if a person is considered to be traumatised, the adult’s responses when managing their behaviour will be impacted by that understanding.

The Low Arousal Approach acknowledges that ‘challenging behaviour’ is not a choice but instead is  often a result of high stress levels and poor physical or emotional wellbeing.   Identifying and reducing the causes of, or triggers to behaviours of concern, rather than focusing solely on the behaviour itself, allows for the reduction of behaviours of concern whilst at the same time improving quality of life.  The low arousal approach makes it possible to avoid more physical interventions which can be deeply distressing for both the individual and the supporting adult (McDonnell, 2010).

Link here for more on the Low Arousal Approach 

Where to start

By using the Low Arousal Approach, parents and educators can learn that the way in which behaviours of concern are viewed will have an impact on the supporting adults’ responses.  If parents and educators believe that the child or young person is in control of their behaviour for example, then they are less likely to be empathic toward that person.  Conversely, if they view the behaviour as not being under the control of the person, then they are more likely to be empathic towards people who show behaviours of concern.  A useful tool to reflect on our own thoughts

“The Thoughts About Challenging Behaviour Questionnaire”

Page 124 of The Reflective Journey (McDonnell, 2019).

Equally, the Low Arousal Approach teaches us that parents and educators play a key role in whether a ‘situation’ will escalate or deescalate.  The adult’s behaviour in the moment, can make all the difference. For example, if the adult uses a low, calm tone of voice, this will support the individual in attaining a state of calm.  Conversely if the supporting adult raises their voice this is likely to increase stress and work against a state of calm.  

Link here for CALM in a Crisis

Additionally, the supporting adult needs to be mindful that their behaviour is affected by tolerance levels, not only of the behaviour being exhibited but also of their own personal tolerance levels.  The factors that can impact tolerance levels are:

  • Tiredness
  • Physical health
  • The environment we are in
  • Other family members’ reactions
  • Values and beliefs
  • Previous experiences
  • Relationship with the person
  • Stress levels
  • Whether or not we understand the underlying cause of the behaviour

(Woodcock & Page, 2010)

A Behaviour Tolerance Exercise can be found on page 64 of Managing Family Meltdown (Woodcock & Page, 2010)


To view more on how supporting adults can inadvertently trigger a behaviour of concern watch the short video below on inadvertent triggers by Gareth Morewood. 

Watch the short video below to learn more about Double Empathy and how you can build rapport through non-verbal interaction. Double Empathy by Damien Milton

Watch the short below video by Damien Milton on how achieving a ‘flow state’ can be beneficial in reducing stress for individuals.


Link here here for more information on emotional regulation and sensory input
Link here for more information on individual supports

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