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Understanding causes of behaviour

Causes and functions

When your child melts down or becomes distressed it is important to think about what may be causing the behaviour and what they are trying to communicate. The iceberg is a useful way to help people analyse and understand what is causing a certain behaviour in a child with ASD.

When you see an iceberg you are only seeing a very small part of it — the ‘tip of the iceberg’. The largest part of the iceberg is unseen as it lies beneath the surface of the water. The iceberg diagram helps you to think about the characteristics of ASD and how they may affect your child in a certain situation.


Think about the function of the behaviour - what do they get from doing the behaviour?

I scream and shout - Mum / Dad gives me the sweets or they take me out of the shop.

To try and find out what is causing or triggering the behaviour it can be useful to look at the cause, behaviour and function (purpose) of the behaviour.

Cause - This is the trigger for the behaviour. This can sometimes be clear-cut such as somebody saying ‘no’ to a request.  In individuals with ASD triggers can be more difficult to identify because the cause may be related to sensory issues such as loud noises or specific sounds or related to the need for predictable routines.

Behaviour - It is important not to jump to conclusions about behaviour as many individuals with ASD have difficulties in expressing their feelings in an appropriate way. For example, anxiety may present as worry but could also present in repetitive behaviours or aggression.

Function -  This is the purpose of the behaviour which may be to gain something they wanted, to avoid something or simply to communicate feelings to others.

The best way to look at this would be to monitor and record behaviours over a period of one to two weeks. Each time an undesirable behaviour occurs, write it down on a Chart such as the example below (please click for full size):

Behaviour Chart snipit

In the example we can see that John does not like supermarket shopping, he might find it boring or he might be anxious because of the busy environment. John’s initial behaviour of counting carrots was because he was either bored or he was anxious. If mum knew this she could have averted the behaviour escalating by asking John to put five carrots in the bag and this would have kept him occupied, helping him to manage either his boredom or anxiety. However, because mum did not let him continue his behaviour John had to find another way to relieve his boredom and anxiety. Eventually John got what he wanted, either he got to go home earlier or he got his favourite comic.

At the end of the time spent monitoring, look through the chart and try and find common patterns. The ‘what happened before?’ sections will give clues as to the cause or trigger. The ‘what happened after?’ will give clues as to the function the behaviour serves.

It is always better to try and manage an individual’s behaviour by avoiding it, and avoiding the trigger point, and this is particularly true when the person has ASD.
When you have the information you need and can identify a clear pattern of behaviour, you can begin to work on it. There are two ways in which you can try to address the behaviour, either:

  • Alter the environment or
  • Work on the behaviour directly

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