Autism Spectrum Disorder: Supporting Children and Youth – Module 3

Observing and Understanding Behaviour


Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have special learning challenges about which you have read in the first two modules. The behaviour of children with ASD reflects these differences in learning. Some of these behaviours require different approaches than you may have tried with other children. Because of their learning difficulties, some children may develop behaviours that are difficult to manage. It is important for everyone involved with children with ASD to develop skills in observing behaviour. This is the basis of understanding of how and why both positive and negative behaviours develop, and how to help the child with ASD develop positive behaviours in your child care setting. The goal of this module is to help you to develop skills in carefully observing children’s behaviour, and to begin to understand the triggers and consequences of specific behaviours.


After completing this module, you should be able to:

  • Perform systematic observations of behaviour and begin to record them.
  • Develop an inventory of a child’s preferences.
  • Identify reasons why behaviours may occur.
  • Identify what happens before and after a behaviour occurs.

Section 1: Observing Behaviour

When making observations there are a number of things you will want to consider in advance. Planning how to make observations makes it easier to observe. We know that child care teachers have very limited time available to observe and record observations.

  • What observations do you want to make?
  • What do you already know about children with ASD?
  • What information do you already have available from others about this particular child?
  • What information is missing?
  • Where are you going to observe the child?
  • Remember that children with ASD may perform very differently in a highly structured environment (e.g., one-to-one with an adult who provides prompts) than in a free play situation with few visual and contextual supports.

    If you are going to look at a particular skill (e.g., how the child communicates) you will likely need to observe the child in a variety of settings. Think about whether you need to observe the child when she is alone as well as when she is with others.

  • What is the specific behaviour that you will observe – what is the child doing?
  • Doing is behaving
  • Actions can be seen, heard, and felt
  • Good observations are a report of what is happening, not our interpretation of what is happening
  • Describe the behaviour you see and try not to label (e.g., describing a child as shy doesn’t really tell us what she did; we want to know that when another child came up and said “hi” the child stood and looked at the floor and said nothing)
  • If we clearly define a behaviour then we can record and measure it in a reliable manner

1. How Are You Going to Record the Behaviour?

  • A mental note (remember that we can easily forget!)
  • A record in a notebook (pick something portable; perhaps an attractive colour so it won’t get lost, or something with a coil that you can hook on a pocket)
  • A check on a recording sheet on the wall (have it in an easily accessible location; have a pen or pencil nearby and keep it simple!)
  • A click on a counter (e.g., stop watch, golf scorekeeper, knitting counter) is a possibility, as are moving beads on a chain, or moving tokens or coins from one pocket to another

2. What Type of Measurements Are You Going to Make?

Event Recording

  • Record each time the behaviour happens over a certain period.
  • Enables you to record the frequency of a behaviour – how often it happens.
  • Gives you an opportunity to examine trends over time – is the behaviour occurring more (or less) often? (allowing you to track, for instance, the number of times a child sits on the toilet, or the number of times a child hits another child).

Duration Recording

  • Record the time interval (i.e., the duration) between the start (onset) and finish (termination) of the behaviour.
  • This is a useful way to measure relatively longer-lasting behaviours like tantrums, crying, staying awake at bedtime, the time it takes to finish eating a meal, time spent playing with a peer.
  • Again, you can examine trends – is the behaviour occurring for more time each day or for less?

How Often Are You Going to Record the Behaviour?
If a behaviour happens just a few times a day for shorter periods of time, you may wish to keep track of it throughout the day.

If a behaviour happens frequently or for long periods of time, you may wish to pick specific times during the day when it typically happens. Count or time the behaviour only during these designated times.

As a general rule, if the behaviour occurs more often than once in 15 minutes, you want to record only at specified times. If it occurs less frequently, choose bigger time blocks to record. Always measure at designated times (i.e., always observe at the same time each day or during the same activities).

Remember that we want to record behaviour so we can monitor change and see if the child is learning, not just to have a nice set of numbers – keep it manageable!

Sample Behaviour Observation form

Section 2: Understanding Why Children Behave in Particular Ways

The first step in understanding why a child shows specific behaviours is to develop good behaviour observation skills, including knowing what behaviours are, and how best to make observations in the classroom. You’re on your way because this is what you have just learned.
Next it’s important to take a close look at the behaviours you observe and develop a better understanding of why they occur – what is the function of a behaviour? What purpose does it serve for the child with ASD?

For example, a child is sitting in the corner humming and rocking while looking at a toy – for what reason?

1. All Behaviours have a Purpose and a Cause

Behaviours, or things we do, do not just happen “out of the blue”. They may seem to at times, but most often you will be able to figure out what caused a behaviour to happen and what purpose it is serving. This is an important point to remember! Behaviours happen for particular reasons.

It’s also important to remember that this is true for everyone: animals, adults, and children (both typically developing children and children with special needs).

Sometimes it’s helpful to think of yourself as a detective – your job is to figure out why a behaviour happened. In this module you’ll learn how to use all the clues available to you to answer that important question.

2. Why is it Important to Understand the Function of a Child’s Behaviour?

When we have a better understanding of why a behaviour is happening (particularly a difficult or challenging behaviour), we can select and teach an alternative behaviour that the child can use for the same purpose (e.g., instead of screaming, saying “excuse me” to get someone’s attention, or instead of screaming, pointing to a picture of a toy to indicate that he wants that toy).

Taking the time to develop a better understanding of the reasons behind behaviours for a particular child with ASD enables you to get to know that child better. The better you know a child, the more you will be able to develop appropriate and effective ways to teach him.

When you have a better understanding of why and when behaviours happen, you may be more easily able to anticipate what behaviours are likely to occur in particular situations/settings. This may allow you to prevent negative or challenging behaviours from arising (e.g., using a schedule when you know a new transition is coming), or to intervene early if something happens.

3. Functions of Behaviour

There are many possible functions of behaviour. Here are some of the more common reasons for children’s behaviour:

  • “Real” Reasons
    Behaviours that happen for a “real” cause, such as environmental or medical. These should be ruled out before considering other functions.
    Example: A child rubs his eyes because he has allergies, a child removes his clothing because he is hot.
  • To Escape Demands
    Behaviours that happen in order for the child to delay or avoid doing something that has been requested of him
    Example: A child is asked to point to a picture and he says he’s thirsty and asks for a drink.
  • Self-stimulatory
    Behaviours that are used for self-soothing or arousal or to get sensory feedback. These are quite frequently seen in children with ASD.
    Example: Rocking, spinning, hand flapping, humming, and lining up objects.
  • Attention seeking
    Behaviours used to gain attention.
    Example: Teacher turns to work with someone else and the child dumps the water on the table.
  • Communicative reasons
    Much of our behaviour has the purpose of communicating something to another.
    Example: Pointing, smiling, saying hello, asking for something.

These functions will be reviewed in more detail in Module 5.

Exercise: Observing and Recording Behaviour II

Children with ASD have difficulty interacting with other children. Practice observing and recording social behaviour will help you to focus on these skills for a child with ASD. Observe a typically-developing child at your center. See how often the child makes an effort to play with another child. Select a situation and time in which you expect the children to socialize. Observe the target child for 5 minutes.

Remember that we need to define what we mean by “makes an effort to play with another child”. If we don’t do this each of you would likely observe and record different behaviours. For this exercise the behaviour you will need to observe is defined as “any word directed to the other child or any passing of an object to the other child”. Remember that you also want to think of the measurement you will make. Since we have a short period of time and the behaviour occurs for short periods of time, an event record to record frequency would be a good idea.

Use the following record sheet to record how often the behaviour you are observing happens.

Behaviour: any word directed to the other child or any passing of an object to the other child.

Click here to see a sample answer

Section 3: Understanding Why a Particular Child Shows Certain Behaviours – Completing a Functional Behaviour Assessment.

1. Parts of the Behaviour Puzzle

Let’s start to look at all the pieces of the puzzle that make up a behaviour. A helpful way to do this is to think of the details of the behaviour: the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why).

We are also going to be looking at what triggers behaviours, and what happens after the behaviour occurs (consequences). These are going to be important pieces of the puzzle that help us to figure out what will make it likely that the behaviour will happen again, and what will be helpful in decreasing the behaviour.

So we have two approaches for looking at functions of behaviour:

  • The 5 Ws
  • Triggers + consequences

When you put these approaches together and spend some time looking at all the details of a behaviour, you are conducting a functional behaviour assessment. It’s a very important tool used by people who work with children (especially psychologists) to help understand more about why children behave in certain ways.

In the next section, we are going to look at the 5Ws and the triggers + consequences. In Module 4, we’ll put them both together in a functional behaviour assessment form that you can use at your child care centre.

2. The 5 Ws

The 5 Ws are the important questions you want to ask about a particular behaviour that you have observed:

1. What did he do exactly?

  • Describe the behaviour in as much detail as possible.
  • Remember how to write good behavioural descriptions!
  • What activity was the child involved in at the time?

Example: Listening to a story, having a snack, waiting in line

2. When did he do it?

  • What time of the day was it?

3. Who was around?

  • Who interacted with the child before, during, and after the behaviour occurred?

4. Where was he? Where were you?

  • Where did the behaviour occur? In what setting did it happen (e.g., the bathroom, the music room, the playground)?

5. Why?

  • What purpose might the behaviour have served?

3. Triggers and Consequences, or the ABCs

As was mentioned previously, behaviours do not just happen for no reason. It’s important for us to look at what was going on BEFORE the behaviour occurred. These events are called triggers, or Antecedents (A is for Antecedent).

Example: The schedule of the day was changed. Tony had a tantrum when it was supposed to be craft time but they read a story instead.

It is also important to look at what happened AFTER the behaviour occurred. What was the Consequence? (C is for Consequence) What happened after the child behaved in a certain way? Consequences can be positive or negative.

A good rule to remember is that behaviours that are followed by a positive consequence (e.g., smiles, hugs, stickers, “good job”) will probably happen again, while negative consequences (e.g., ignoring, “that wasn’t very nice”, removal of a toy) tend to decrease the chance of that behaviour taking place.

Example: Leslie was yelling during craft time, which she enjoys. She had to leave the craft table. Next time, Leslie did not yell during craft time.

It is helpful to think of triggers, behaviours, and consequences as ABCs.

Antecedents — Behaviour — Consequences

Antecedents trigger (lead to) behaviours, and behaviours are in turn followed by consequences

All of us try to find experiences that are pleasurable. Therefore, our behaviour tends to provide clues as to what we like, or find motivating or rewarding. Think about the positive experiences that children you know with ASD seek out. These might be:

  • You or another teacher paying attention to him, touching, or praising them
  • Favourite foods
  • Particular activities (e.g., swinging, running)
  • Special place (e.g., curled up in the book corner)

Access to a certain toy or form of entertainment (e.g., rainstick, musical instrument, shape sorter) or other object (e.g., computer)

Exercise: Grouping a Child’s Favourite Things

Make a list of the favourite things and activities that are preferred by one child with ASD in your setting. Try grouping these into categories according to whether they represent social interactions (such as your attention), activities (such as swinging), foods, or access to toys, etc.

You will use this list again in Module 4 when you learn about using rewards in teaching, and in Module 5 when you learn about promoting communication skills.

Click here to see a sample answer

4. Teaching Appropriate Alternative/Replacement Behaviours

When we talked earlier about why it is important to understand the functions of behaviour, we said that it can help us to teach the child an alternative behaviour that they can use to accomplish the same purpose.

An important goal of doing a functional behaviour assessment is eventually to be able to teach appropriate behaviours (e.g., pointing) to replace the unwanted behaviour (e.g., screaming).

It is important to recognize that the same behaviour can serve different functions under different circumstances –for a given child or for different children. Joshua might pull on your sleeve to ask for your help (communication), while Emily does it because she likes the feeling of the cloth (sensory).

In Module 5, you will learn more about reasons children with ASD have for communicating, how they communicate, and how that connects to why they are communicating. For example, if a child is screaming (how), and you have been able to use your functional assessment to determine why (to protest going outside), you will be able to teach that child a more appropriate way to protest.


The first step in teaching (changing behaviour) is to be a good observer of the current behaviour or skills that the child shows. To be a good observer, you must keep a number of factors in mind: those to do with the child, the setting, and how best to record your observations in a way that will be efficient and useful. All of the behaviour that you observe has a purpose. You can begin to understand the functions of behaviour by using the 5 W’s (what, when, who, where, why) and the ABC’s (antecedent, behaviour, consequence) to organize your observations.

Setting Goals and Teaching New Skills