By the time there is a “problem behavior,” it’s too late:

How we are failing students with ASD


The approach used in our schools to address the needs of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has proven to be a dismal failure, leaving the true challenges of the majority of students unrecognized or unaddressed.

As a result, for most students with ASD – regardless of ability level – the outcomes after graduation are grim. Only about one third attend postsecondary education/training of any kind. Four in every 10 never hold a paying job, and those who do find employment tend to work in low-wage part-time jobs. Finally, only 19% of young adults with ASD have ever lived away from their family without supervision (Roux, 2015).

How did we get here?



Schools tend to focus on two concerns: academic progress and “behavior problems.” But the underlying characteristics of ASD that create tremendous challenges throughout life – isolation, unemployment, and difficulty gaining independence – often do not result in academic failure or disruptive “problem behaviors” and, therefore, do not receive adequate attention. Most behavior intervention plans are created only after a “behavior problem” occurs. If a student is making passing grades, doing well on state achievement tests, and not disrupting the school day, the odds of that student getting meaningful support to address needs related to autism, as outlined below, are almost zero.


Common Underlying ASD Characteristics

Difficulty understanding what others may be thinking  Needing routines and predictability for daily activities  Difficulty knowing if someone is flirting with them 
 Standing too close to others  Taking things too literally  Easily taken advantage of
 Finding it hard to start or join a conversation  Interests that differ from most peers  Difficulty using and interpreting facial expressions and gestures
 Difficulty knowing when others are teasing or why others find things funny  Fear or anxiety about trying new things  Difficulty distinguishing important from unimportant
 Difficulty participating in social activities or feeling overly shy  Difficulty talking about others’ interests  Noticing the details but having difficulty getting the big picture
 Difficulty filtering comments – do not know when not to say what they are thinking  Hesitating to ask for information because it may be something they are expected to know  Difficulty understanding the connection between behavior and consequences


Most people with ASD are not aggressive or disruptive; therefore, it is not these “problem behaviors” that prevent them from holding a job. Rather, the subtler communication and social differences such as those described above interfere with successful employment. Almost always, it is not “problem behaviors” that prevent those with ASD from living independently or having community connections. Instead, it is the impact of these underlying characteristics that have not been addressed during the school years that leaves them socially isolated.



The framework for addressing behavioral differences used in the majority of schools is built around “problem” or disruptive behaviors and related concepts such as replacement behaviors, function of behavior, antecedents, and setting events. Most behavior intervention plans are dictated by this terminology, but this approach is not a good match for addressing the critical needs of high-functioning individuals with ASD beyond any “problem behaviors” that may emerge.

After years of frustration and discouragement caused by a lack of help in addressing their underlying needs, some students with ASD do develop “problem behaviors.” At this point, these students, who have struggled to fit into a world built for people with a different neurology from theirs, may finally have a team gather to address their “problem behavior.” Yet, often the school team still does not recognize the true underlying needs related to ASD. Other students (disadvantaged by their “failure” to produce “problem behaviors”) graduate, never receiving any specific strategies or supports. Either way, for most students with ASD school supports and services are “Too little. Too late!”

The horrific post-high school outcomes for students with ASD confirm that their underlying needs are not being met by the existing curriculum and behavioral strategies. Schools must stop waiting for a “problem behavior” to emerge before changing the curriculum or designing a behavior plan. Proactive strategies that address underlying characteristics before “problem behaviors” emerge have the potential to change the life trajectory for those with ASD. It’s not too late.


Roux, A. M., Shattuck, P. T., Rast, J. E., Rava, J. A., and Anderson, K. A. (2015). National autism indicators report: Transition into young adulthood. Philadelphia, PA: Drexel University, Life Course Outcomes Research Program, A. J. Drexel Autism Institute.

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