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Supporting Safe Behavior


This resource, developed by ASERT, provides information for direct support staff on how to support individuals with autism who may engage in challenging behavior and ways that support staff can help keep everyone safe.

It’s likely that a person with autism you support experiences a variety of behaviors that you must respond to while maintaining professional practice. This can become tricky in situations when challenging behaviors that aren’t safe become chronic, appear to be emerging, or take place with sudden onset due to social or sensory triggers in the environment, changes in routine or even memories of past trauma events. Even trickier is responding with what is called “positive behavior support.” Positive behavior support is evidence-based, meaning that it is proven to be a support strategy that leads to better outcomes in individual safety. One way to think about positive behavior support is to validate or praise safe behaviors when then happen in the moment, rather than to be quick to judge or punish unsafe behaviors when they happen. Additionally, redirecting unsafe behaviors with positive support will keep both you and the individual safer in challenging situations.

Identify the target behavior

  • If possible, involve the individual in recognizing an unsafe
  • If this is not possible, identify the behavior by way of observation
  • You can also speak with family members, friends or co-workers who know the individual
  • Focus on one behavior change at a time

Select a safe replacement behavior

  • If possible, involve the individual in choosing a replacement activity or behavior
  • Consider the person’s strengths and interests when selecting a replacement behavior
  • If you cannot involve the individual in selecting, identify a
    safe replacement behavior by way of observation of what calms or entertains her
  • You can also speak with family members, friends or co-workers who know the individual

Redirect the unsafe behavior to the replacement

  • When the individual engages in the unsafe behavior, support him in redirecting his attention or activity to the replacement behavior (e.g., moving from self-injury to looking at pictures of a favorite cartoon character)
  • Provide visual support to show how the safe behavior is a good option over the unsafe behavior

Reinforce the replacement behavior

  • Always provide encouragement and praise when she engages in the safe replacement behavior
  • Reinforce the effort made, not the accuracy of the behavior
  • Encourage sharing of success with others

What you can do now

Review the individual’s current goals to identify whether there are areas that new behaviors should be encouraged. Begin the process of fostering the new behavior using the strategies provided here.

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This information was developed by the Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT). For more information, please contact ASERT at 877-231-4244 or info@PAautism.org. ASERT is funded by the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, PA Department of Human Services.