How Children with Autism Communicate Through their Behaviours

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often face unique challenges in conventional verbal communication. They struggle to express themselves with words or converse with others while using properly structured language. However, it is important to remember that children with autism do communicate – they just express themselves in different ways.

Communication Through Behaviour

For children with autism, behaviours are not just random; they are a form of communication. Behaviours need to be seen as signals, non-verbal cues or actions that convey the child’s’ needs, wants, emotions, discomforts, interests, feelings, and their understanding of the world around them. Researchers also observed that these behaviours often increased when these children were in stressful situations or when their needs were not met, suggesting that these behaviours were their way of communicating distress or unmet needs.

Recognizing and understanding these signals requires observing the context, frequency, and outcomes of these behaviours.  It is crucial for caregivers, therapists, and educators to recognize and interpret these behaviours to connect with the child effectively.

Examples of Communicative Behaviours

Repetitive Behaviours: Often, repetitive actions, such as spinning, flapping hands, or lining up objects, can be a child’s way of coping with sensory overload or expressing their fascination with certain textures or patterns. A study in the “Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders”[1] suggests that these repetitive behaviours can serve as a mechanism for dealing with anxiety or excitement.

Avoidance or Escaping Behaviours: When overwhelmed, a child with ASD might avoid eye contact, walk away, or even cover their ears. These actions indicate their current state of sensory overload or discomfort with the situation. A review in “Autism”[2] highlighted that avoidance behaviours are often a response to overwhelming sensory environments.

Aggressive Behaviours: Although challenging, aggressive behaviours such as hitting or biting can sometimes be a child’s way of expressing frustration, fear, or a need for attention when they cannot verbalize their feelings or needs. Research in the “American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities”[3] has discussed how these behaviours can escalate when the child’s non-verbal cues are not understood or acknowledged.

Tantrums and Meltdowns: Outbursts can be a major source of frustration for caregivers, but it is crucial to understand that they are often a form of communication for a child who is overwhelmed or unable to express their needs otherwise. A meltdown might be caused by sensory overload, a change in routine, or difficulty communicating a desire.

Unusual Play Patterns: Children with autism may not play in the same way as their peers. They might prefer solitary play, focus on repetitive actions with toys, or line objects up in specific ways. This does not mean they are not playing; it is just their unique way of engaging with the world.

Echolalia: The repetition of words or phrases, known as echolalia, is common in children with ASD. This can be their way of processing information, practicing language, or attempting to communicate a need or desire based on the context of the repeated phrase. According to a study published in the “Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders”[4], echolalia can serve as a bridge to meaningful communication and understanding language.

Interpreting Behavioural Cues

It is crucial to remember that every child with autism is unique, and their behavioural cues may vary. Some children might use more subtle behaviours, while others might use more pronounced actions. Therefore, it is essential to observe and understand the individual child’s behaviour patterns. Studies have shown that responding to these non-verbal communicative behaviours as if they were intentional communication could improve the child’s communication skills over time. Interpreting these behaviours requires patience, observation, and an understanding that each child with autism is unique. Caregivers and educators can respond more effectively by considering the potential reasons behind a behaviour and addressing the root cause rather than the behaviour itself.

Course of Action for Parents

By closely observing behaviours in different contexts, keeping detailed behaviour logs, and working with autism professionals (Applied Behaviour Analysts), families can start to interpret the “language” of behaviour their child is using. With responsive strategies and alternative communication supports like visual aids or speech devices, many behavioural communications can be pre-empted and even translated into more positive interactions.


[1] Leekam, S. R., Prior, M. R., & Uljarević, M. (2011). Restricted and repetitive behaviors in autism spectrum disorders: A review of research in the last decade. – Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(5), 626-639.

[2] Robertson, A. E., & Simmons, D. R. (2013). The relationship between sensory sensitivity and autistic traits in the general population. – Autism, 17(2), 118-127.

[3] Matson, J. L., & Rivet, T. T. (2008). The effects of severity of autism and PDD-NOS symptoms on challenging behaviors in adults with intellectual disabilities. – American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 113(1), 81-104.

[4] Prizant, B. M., & Duchan, J. F. (1981). The functions of immediate echolalia in autistic children.  -Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 46(3), 241-249