Does Autism ‘Cause’ Behavior?: The Risk of Stereotyping Autism by Lou Sandler, PhD, BCBA-D

Does Autism ‘Cause’ Behavior?: The Risk of Stereotyping Autism

by Lou Sandler, PhD, BCBA-D

Behavior is functional/adaptive by its nature and there is nothing magical about the occurrence of behavior in persons with autism. Autism, itself, does not ’cause’ or directly lead to specific behaviors as is more typically true in what might be considered traditional medical diagnosis/symptom relationships such as wheezing and asthma, seizures and epilepsy or shortness of breath and acute heart problems.

Rather than being its own ’cause,’autism certainly can increase the probability for specific kinds of behavioral events to include communication related escalation/Act Out or those used for escape/avoidance due to frustration connected to processing difficulty which may then lead to misunderstanding and/or uncertainty….among others things!

And for individuals to become more irritable when they don’t know what is actually happening, or how something is going to happen, is hardly unique to kids with autism.This latter observation, in fact, is why things like schedules and the use of strategies that I sometimes call ‘Giving Information,’ can be most helpful (for those with autism along with the rest of us, for that matter).

How many reading this right now have their schedules and/or other daily event information in the cell phones which are set to give them prompts when needed? I do!

As a for instance on using the ‘Giving Information’ strategy; one more challenging elementary age girl I worked with recently was carrying on lots through school day transitions to include during schedule changes that staff felt had been already very well identified.

And with these transition related behavioral events, all kinds of fascinating – and almost all absolutely incorrect – reasons were hypothesized and identified. To this end, the fundamental behavioral principle of Parsimony, however, was never even considered. That is, the simplest and most direct explanation is more often going to be the correct explanation!

It occurred to me that an important trigger might more simply be that the child just did not always know what was happening or where she was being taken even though she had been prompted to ‘check your schedule.’ The fact that she also and actually needed to be much more actively taught to know and to go places with greater independence rather than being ‘taken’ almost all of the time was another point we were to address further.

More immediately, however, I had her team just take photographs of all the different areas and adults in the school which were relevant to this child. Then, when it was time to go somewhere, staff showed her the picture so she was more clear about what was happening. That, all by itself, greatly reduced this child’s transition related behavior escalation.


Being a ‘participant’ in life rather than a ‘respondent’ to life is another very often overlooked dynamic which can also become an active delayed trigger/higher probability condition (an ‘establishing operation’) for the occurrence of interfering (and Act Out) behaviors.

After all, how many of those reading this article like always being told what to do, where to go, who to be with and how to engage once there? No….?

Well, neither do children who may also happen to have a diagnosis of autism

And in all this, the risk of inadvertently stereotyping autism and those with autism becomes more of a reality and concern. I would offer that the regular insertion of sometimes ‘magical’ reasons for behavior in kids with autism is not only not helpful and much more often incorrect, but can actually and inadvertently risk ‘stereotyping’ the child and/or the autism.

How is saying that children with autism do ___________; can’t _________ need __________; respond to ___________; must have ___________; interact based on ___________; do or don’t tolerate __________ as just a few examples different from categorization by race, religion, ethnicity or other human categories?

In fact, even as this exact error has been correctly pointed out by so many, a percentage of these same persons may, themselves, still sustain that same error.

This, as a couple examples, in references too often made that there are supposed ‘treatments’ for the autism ‘diagnosis’ whether they be taken from the field of Applied Behavior Analysis or biomedical models and presumed to be somehow unique to or a ‘must do’ for children largely and primarily based on their having a diagnosis of autism.

As I wrote above and in one of my previous posts, so named ‘meltdowns’ are absolutely not the autism ‘medical’ equivalent to, for instance, wheezing in asthma or seizures in epilepsy. These behavior events are also not driven by some deep, untouchable neurology but are, far more often than not, predictable, functional/adaptive and based on the principles of human behavior.

We just need to take the time to understand…and know how to do so.

Kids with autism are kids and behaviors – both productive and those which appear to be more immediately less so – typically remain fully consistent with, across individual variability of course, the principles of human behavior. That is, the principles of human behavior remain consistent even as how different persons express behavior can bring great variability.

Despite frequent references to the contrary, there are also very few examples when these behaviors are ‘out of control.’ Instead, so identified behaviors are more often under the child’s perfect control with an intent perfectly understood by the child.

Instead and more often, it is the environmental response which is ‘out of control’ or, otherwise, particularly inefficient and ineffective. And as with any behavioral need, once again, support must be individualized by and to the person based on how and where they live and interact rather than the diagnosis.

My above reference to the relevance of the principles of human behavior also bears repeating the one particularly important point that behaviors – both productive or those immediately less so – are largely learned and shaped in the same way even if we may not otherwise realize what is being inadvertently taught/shaped and reinforced.

Behavior, then, is not the ‘autism’ but remains very consistent with all we know about the principles of human behavior. Towards that better understanding is why we use…and know how to use….a more comprehensive and ecological functional behavioral assessment process that can actually help to ‘give a voice’ to and allow for our better understanding of the individual along with where and how the individual lives.