A diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is based on observable behavioral characteristics. We are beginning to have an understanding of why people have those observable characteristics, that is to say, why they behave the way they do.
From observation and written accounts by people with ASD, we can understand what some of the behaviors mean. This is helpful information for the general public so they can develop an understanding of why people with ASD might act a certain way, and understanding is a near neighbor of tolerance! It is invaluable knowledge for parents, caregivers, teachers, and other professionals who are trying to decide what therapies, treatments, and interventions could help a person with an ASD.
Behaviors Are a Form of Communication
For the very young, and those who are nonverbal, behaviors can be the only way for them to communicate with us and the only way for us to understand what is going on with them. Some of these behaviors are avoidance behaviors. Other behaviors are indicative of the individuals trying to make sense of their surroundings. The brain structure of many people with ASD is unlike ours, with some processing circuits wired differently, and it is important to realize that they cannot help what they are doing; they are not just "being difficult."
Parents, caregivers, and teachers can observe a person's behaviors and try to analyze the reason behind them. There is a certain amount of guesswork involved, but by systematically picking one behavior and writing down your observations, you will probably find a pattern.
For example, if a child keeps taking his clothes off, he is probably sensitive to the feel of fabrics on the skin. It would be helpful to observe and take notes on this particular behavior, such as whether he is doing it when he is wearing a certain type of fabric or a certain fit or cut of clothing. Identifying what he can wear will make it easier for him to be comfortable. Perhaps he can be desensitized by a sensory integration technique of "brushing" the skin with a soft plastic brush specifically made for that purpose.
Striking a Balance between Changing the Environment and Changing the Behavior
As parents and caregivers, we need to find the balance between trying to change the environment and changing the individual. Usually a bit of both will be in order. For example, if behaviors indicate possible food allergies, and tests indicate that that is so, a change in diet (the environment) is in order. However, the person may need to learn to tolerate (slowly, through desensitization) eating certain foods that perhaps he would not eat before if he is following a special diet to help his condition.
If a person has auditory and visual sensory processing difficulties, perhaps he can undergo auditory training or vision therapy and avoid spending too much time in noisy, bright environments. Classrooms should not be lit with fluorescent lighting, but the child also needs to learn an alternative appropriate behavior, such as requesting a break or permission to go for a walk, rather than having a temper tantrum.
Listed below are some behaviors and what they can mean. Keep in mind that these are generalizations and that everyone is different, so they may not be true for everyone. Nonetheless, this is a good place to start trying to analyze a person's behaviors. Then, when looking at treatments and therapies, you will already have an idea of areas in which you can help this person. Remember, too, that some behaviors can be indicative of different causes, so you need to look at the total person.