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This page contains additional guidance on challenging behaviour in young people with autism. For general information on promoting positive behaviour and responding to behaviour in Scouting, please see scouts.org.uk/behaviour or access Module 15 of the Adult Training Scheme.

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

Why might a young person with autism show challenging behaviour?

Remember, the difficulties in autism can lead to a high level of stress and anxiety for the young person, which may lead to challenging behaviours. The young person also may not recognise that their behaviour is challenging, due to their difficulties in being able to take someone else's perspective.

It can often be difficult to 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 record a young person's behaviour to help you do this.

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 autism

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

Sensory - the young person with autism may be over-stimulated; may experience 'sensory overload' leading to them withdrawing or going into a 'meltdown' or 'shutdown'. Signs might include them covering their ears or 'stimming' more than usual.

Anxiety - a young person with autism may experience a high level of anxiety particularly with new situations, change and social situations.

Lack of understanding or expectations or rules - due to difficulties with communication, the young person may not have understood or even heard an instruction or rule. Due to the difficulty in seeing things from someone else's perspective and picking up social cues, the young person may need to be specifically told what is and isn't acceptable behaviour.

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 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 lack of understanding of instructions or expected behaviour, or difficulty with the environment (eg. noise levels).

It’s also worth being aware that it might be difficult to know what the young person is taking in (eg. may not be able to ‘look and listen’ at the same time).

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

Use the young person’s interests and any special interests to help engage them.

Not following instructions

They may not have understood, processed or even heard the instruction.

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.

Review the way you give instructions – make sure they are simple and clear. Break down into steps if needed and give time to process.

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

Snatching or difficulty sharing

The young person may not know how to ask, or may not have the social skills to recognise that they need to ask.


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

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

Not stopping or moving on to next activity

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

Alternatively, they may not have understood, processed or even heard the instruction.

Repeat the instruction in simple and clear language, using the young person’s name first. Give them time to process and follow 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 person with autism 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.


The behaviour may become challenging if it 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 help them substitute a safer or less disruptive technique that provides a similar effect for the young person, eg fidget/fiddle toys. You may also want to set ground rules for the young person.  

Sometimes hitting out


May be reacting to something they find distressing – eg. level of noise or having too many words to process.

May be trying to avoid or escape from something they find distressing and they know that they will be taken out of the situation if they do this.

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 understand the rules.

May have difficulty managing their own emotions or behaviour.



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

Teach the young person skills in managing their emotions and making positive choices.

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 loses control 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. Alternatively, move other young people from the area.

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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