Got autism? Have a child with anxiety and disruptive behaviors? Here’s what you can do.

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autism help, tagteach, ABA, applied behavior analysis

This post is one in a series designed to help you get out of the house and enjoy life with your child. If your child is anxious and exhibiting disruptive behaviors, these need to be overcome before moving on to outside excursions.

A Mother’s Concern

Recently a mom told me that she was worried about her 12-year old child, who is low-functioning and nonverbal.

Her daughter becomes agitated and upset in public places; she screams and puts her head down when in those settings.

The daughter also displays anxiety. The mother asked for some suggestions to relieve the child’s anxiety.

Behavioral Science Explains Why This is Happening

Let’s back up a little. From the laws of behavioral science, we know that behavior that is reinforced is behavior that will occur again. As hard as this may be to believe, the daughter is experiencing more reinforcement for screaming and putting her head down, than for an alternative behavior. What is she experiencing that is reinforcing her for screaming? We don’t know the answer to that question, and it would take a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to find out, but ….

In the meantime the mother, or any parent, can take action with the following steps: (1) Collect data (2) Observe her daughter to see what kinds of functional behaviors she already has, and (3) Set up a reinforcement plan to reinforce appropriate alternative behaviors.

1.  Collect Data

Take notes and count how many times a day these behaviors occur and how long they last.  Use an Antecedent/Behavior/Consequence (ABC) chart; free versions are widely available on the internet.  On this chart, make notes of the following facts: Date and time of behavior, description of the behavior (the B) and how long it lasted, description of what happened immediately prior to the behavior (the A, Antecedent), and a description of what happened immediately after the behavior (the C, Consequence). Remember, the consequence determines the future course of a behavior. If a behavior is escalating, whatever is happening after the behavior is causing that.

2.  Observe Child To See What Kinds of Functional Behaviors She Already Has

The daughter already has some functional behaviors, so see what those are.  Make a list! She may be able to Sit Quietly, Stand Quietly, Ride In Car nicely and so forth. Look at her functional behaviors, and describe them in detail.  It may be that she is not receiving much reinforcement for those functional behaviors, so this would be a place to start reinforcing.

3.  Set Up A Reinforcement Plan to Reinforce Appropriate Alternative Behaviors

Now you have an idea of where, when and how long the disruptive behaviors are occurring, and a list of functional behaviors that your daughter already performs. The next step is to set up a plan to provide lots of reinforcement for those functional behaviors. For example, whenever the daughter performs the functional behaviors such as Sit Quietly, Holds Head Up, Quiet Mouth, Says Appropriate Words/Sounds, reinforce her for those behaviors.  Make every effort not to reinforce her (no attention or cajoling) for screaming; instead, look away until she demonstrates a split second of Quiet Mouth, Appropriate Word/Sound or Head Up, then immediately reinforce those appropriate behaviors.

I recommend TAGteach (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) to autism parents for their consideration as a great way to mark and reinforce behaviors. See links below for more information. Get a tagger (clicker-type device) and some items that your child really likes. Every time she does one of those great behaviors, tag (click) and hand over a treat or token.


Finally, let’s talk about anxiety. Kids with autism often experience anxiety. My son has severe autism and is nonverbal. What I learned from my son is that, for him, there were two things to watch out for: reinforcement levels and demand levels. I have to be very careful to make sure that the demands I place on him are things he can do. I also have to be very careful to give him lots of reinforcement for doing those demands.

With your daughter, it may be that the environments you describe (store, restaurant, gas station) have too much sensory input for her. For example, she may be able to handle it for two minutes, but not for three minutes, and after three minutes she starts to break down. These issues are things that parents can spot quickly and figure out, once they know what to look for. If this is the case, then you may wish to introduce her to these environments for shorter periods of time, give her lots of reinforcement, and gradually build up the amount of time she can endure them.

autism help, tagteach, applied behavior analysis, ABAMonitor That Crucial Balance of Reinforcement and Demand

Make sure your daughter is experiencing more reinforcement than demand. There is a post on my blog about this topic.  My son wants to be happy and enjoy life, and have his family enjoy life. When I keep up the reinforcement and monitor the demands, we achieve this.

In this cute little graphic, everything is in balance even with one ball (the reinforcement ball) bigger than the other one (the demand ball). So, keep the reinforcement high and the demand low!

What is TAGteach?

TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. TAGteach is a teaching and communication method based on the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).

TAGteach enables extremely precise positive reinforcement of behavior by using an acoustical signal to “mark” the behavior – at the precise moment the child performs the behavior! The acoustical signal is a short, sharp sound made by a handheld device (the “tagger”). When the child performs the correct action, the parent/instructor immediately presses the button on the tagger and hands over a treat (candy, treat, token, praise, social recognition, or money) as a reinforcer.

With TAGteach, it is easy to reinforce behaviors precisely and quickly. The immediate, accurate feedback and positive reinforcement result in the child performing the correct action more often, and for longer periods of time. With immediate feedback and learning tasks broken down into small steps, children can learn many new skills with TAGteach — at their own pace.


autism, help, tagteach, ABA, positive reinforcement, applied behavior analysisFor more information see the TAGteach International website.

Join the free TAGteach Yahoo Group.

TAGteach taggers are available here. 

See Martha’s book about TAGteach for Autism or ask a question (with no obligation).

Sign up for my mailing list to receive updates, new articles and free tips right in your inbox!


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Martha Gabler

Autism parent. Director, Kids' Learning Workshop LLC. Author of Chaos to Calm: Discovering Solutions to the Everyday Problems of Living with Autism.

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