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This page contains additional guidance on what is often described as "challenging behaviour " in young autistic people.

As with any challenging behaviour, when a young person with autism exhibits challenging behaviour, it is often a way of communicating. Work with leaders and parents/careers to discuss what are the causes of this behaviour and also how it can be overcome. It is wise to remember that challenging behaviour in autistic youths is often due to distress, uncertainty or sensory issues.

Challenging behaviour indicates a cry for help which should be responded to with support rather than punishment.

For general information on promoting positive behaviour and responding to behaviour for all in Scouting, please see scouts.org.uk/behaviour.

In making reasonable adjustments to include young Autistic people, it is important to look at any challenging behaviours, try to find out the cause or trigger of the behaviour and provide quick and appropriate support.

Why might a young autistic person show challenging behaviour?

Autistic people of all ages have to cope every second of every day navigating sensory issues and experiencing the world far differently than non-autistic people. This can lead to a high level of stress and anxiety for the young person, which may lead to sensory overload, frustration, physical pain; these can be some reasons for what others refer to as ‘challenging behaviours’. The young autistic person may not recognise that their behaviour is misunderstood as poor or challenging behaviour by others, due to their reaction being a very natural one for anyone experiencing that level of pain and distress .

It can often be difficult for non-autistic people to fully understand the cause of challenging behaviours, which can sometimes appear to have occurred for no reason, and some good detective work is needed.

It can be helpful to make a note of a young person's behaviour and the environment/situation this occurs to help you identify what may triggers this. Were there any unexpected changes to routine? Was someone late? Was there an injustice or argument? Were rules broken? Were there any broken lights that flickered? Too much noise? New smells?

Seeking advice from the parent or carer will also be helpful. See scouts.org.uk/behaviour for guidance on speaking to parents or carers about challenging behaviour.

It can be especially helpful to view behaviour as communication, so first ask yourself 'what is the young person trying to tell me?' and seek some insights form the parent/ carer.

Common causes of challenging behaviour in autistic young people:

Frustration - imagine how you would feel if you had difficulty expressing yourself verbally or understanding communication or instructions.

Sensory - the young autistic person may be over-stimulated; may experience 'sensory overload'; sensory overloads are extremely painful and can feel like 10 migraines at once, naturally leading to them seek to withdraw or if this isn't possible going into a 'meltdown' or 'shutdown'. Signs might include an autistic person covering their ears and eyes, 'stimming' more than usual and being agitated or extremely passive and mute. Every autistic person has a different way of experiencing the world and a different way of coping with the world too. Stimming is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or words, or the repetitive movement of objects often in order to self soothe.

Anxiety - a young Autistic person will likely experience a high level of anxiety particularly with new situations, change and social situations.

A different perception of rules - Autistic people of all ages are more likely to be rule-driven and take rules extremely seriously. Autistic people often dislike injustice and will normally only "break" a rule should their peers, friends and organisers also be breaking that rule .

Adults should not work on a "do as I say not as I do basis" as autistic youths will likely find one rule of them and one rule for another to be hypocritical and confusing.

When rules and expectations are discussed this must be clear and explicit.

It would be sensible to discuss clearly when a rule can be broken, for example if there is a rule to not leave the hall under any circumstances during scouts, be clear than in the event of a fire they are allowed to leave the hall as an emergency.

Possible behaviours in Scouting

Ensure that you're applying the principles of supporting a young person with autism.

Remember, before you look at specific strategies for an individual young person, it is useful to review how positive behaviour is encouraged and challenging behaviour responded to throughout the section, to ensure a good foundation. See scouts.org.uk/behaviour or Module 15 of the Adult Training Scheme for further information.

It is good practise to work in partnership with the parent/carer to create a Behaviour Support Plan for the young person. Support from a volunteer in an inclusion role or with relevant expertise will be useful in this process.

Remember that each autistic person is different - what works for one individual will not necessarily work for another, but here is a list of strategies which may be helpful.


Why might this be happening?

What can I do to help?

Lack of participation or withdrawal

May be due to a different perception or understanding of instructions or expected behaviour, or difficulty with the environment, distress and pain (eg. noise levels).


It’s also worth being aware that it might be difficult to know what the young person is taking in.

e.g. may not be able to ‘look and listen’ at the same time.


If a young autistic person is forced to make eye contact it's likely they cannot process the instructions given, eye contact therefore should be voluntary and never forced upon an autistic person out of "politeness".

Review the way you are communicating and the environment and also consider some extra support or encouragement from a volunteer.


It is often wise to not use another young person to be the designated support for an autistic young person, this can cause embarrassment to the autistic young person, resentment from the non- autistic young person and can build tension where it was otherwise not present before. They could have a buddy within their patrol or six, which could support them, however they should not be the designated support.


Allow the Autistic young person to share their interests to help engage and feel valued and motivated.

Not following instructions

Autistic young people may not agree, process or perceive the instructions in the same way to non- autistic young people.


For example, the young person may not process: "Right, everyone, let’s go to work in our Six corners" and may do nothing.


The instruction, "James, please go into your Six corner and sit down" is more likely to be processed.


Also surely there are only 4 corners? Be explicit, for example, "Everyone please go sit in your 6 corners! James can you sit in your corner here (point to James corner or escort him)" would work better

Review the way you give instructions – make sure they are jargon free and clear. Break down into steps if needed and give time to process as well as ensure you are teaching young people Scouting terminology and its meaning to ensure they can confidently access District and County events e.g. terms like Sixer and Akela.


You may need to use the young person’s name so they understand the instruction applies to them.

Perceived difficulty sharing

The young autistic person may not know how to ask, be unable to ask due to shutdown or may not have recognised that they need to ask .


Autistic people are transparent, it may well be you see an autistic person snatch a object, but do you know for certain someone else hadn't snatched it from them when you were not looking? Were they simply taking it back?


Support the young person to understand that they need to ask first and what words or phrases are good to use.


Also help to protect them by equipping them with phrases for others snatching from them "I'm not finished yet sorry” is a good example .


Develop the understanding of the other young people to prevent negative feeling.

Not stopping or moving on to next activity

Young autistic people can find moving between activities (or 'transitions') difficult.


Alternatively, they may be so hardworking, motivated, keen and blinkered in a chosen activity that they haven't processed or heard the instruction.

You may need to inform the young person ahead of a change of activity – eg. a 5-minute warning, a countdown or a sand timer (you can buy giant sand timers) so they can visually see how much time they have left


Fidgeting, rocking or flapping


A young autistic person may show self – stimulatory (‘stimming’) or self-regulating behaviours, such as flapping their hands or rocking.


They are something the young person does to make them feel comfortable or balanced, or reduce their anxiety. This is an extension of someone twiddling their hair, chewing a pen, or tapping their foot.


Stimming is a natural, harmless and helpful way to regulate and should not be mocked or discouraged.


If the behaviour becomes challenging it is likely due to a build up of lack of environmental understandings and lack of support.


If the behaviour affects the participation or enjoyment of Scouting for the young person or others, or is becoming a health and safety issue (for example, if the young person is pulling/touching others, flicking light switches or mouthing objects with a risk of choking), in this case, you may want to support the person replace these behaviours with safe ones that are less and provide a similar effect for the young person (e.g. fidget/fiddle toys). You may also want to set ground rules for the young person and take this a clear indication that more support, understanding and detective work is needed to make the scouting experience fully inclusive.


Sometimes hitting out


In the rare circumstances that a young autistic person hits out this may be their reaction to something they find distressing – eg. level of noise or having too many words to process, injustice or being teased.


This can also trigger a fight, flight or freeze response.


An autistic young person in distress may be trying to avoid or escape from something they find distressing (flight), they may display overt physical behaviour (fight) as they know that they will be taken out of the situation if they do this or they may become withdrawn and unresponsive (freeze).


It's important a young Autistic person knows they can remove themselves from a situation to a safe and quiet place at anytime they need too.

Review the environment and communication being used. Make any changes needed.


Teach the young person other ways to communicate when they are distressed or need some time out.

For example, use a ‘time out’ card that they can pass to an adult to request a break.


Sensory toys or equipment can help the young person to feel calm. Consider having a sensory box for your section.

Not following rules

May not agree with the rules if not universally upheld.

May have difficulty understanding hierarchy for example an important visitor such as the local Mayor or the difference in roles within a Scout Group itself.  



Ensure the rules are clear, understood and visually displayed in the section.


Teach the young person why the rules are in place, logistical understanding promotes trust too.

Meltdown/ shutdown


This is different to a temper tantrum, which is initiated when a young person can’t have something they want.


A meltdown/shutdown is when the young person is in great distress and pain as a result of the environment/senses – they won’t be looking for a reaction/an audience, as in a tantrum. 

Give the young person space and quiet.


If safe, escort the young person to a safe space keeping in mind the yellow card guidance about not planning activities when you are alone with young people.  Alternatively, discreetly move other young people from the immediate area.


Look around at lights /smells /sounds /touch - what is making this worse?


Sensory toys may help a young person feel calm.


Create a Behaviour Support Plan with support from the parent/carer to prevent this occurring and to plan ahead if it does. Look at changes to the environment and activities.

Remember, praising and rewarding positive behaviour has been proven to be more effective than focusing on responding to negative behaviour. It is worth using a reward system and it is important to try to ‘catch’ positive behaviour, and provide appropriate praise.

Further information and guidance on challenging behaviour in autism can be found on the National Autistic Society website at autism.org.uk/challengingbehaviour.


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