Dealing With a Defiant Toddler With Autism

Toddler Moment

Dealing with any toddler is a tiring business, so coping with an autistic toddler who displays frequent bouts of defiant behavior can be exhausting. It is an experience that may leave you physically and emotionally drained and disheartened. At this age, your child is at home with you most of the time, so from the moment he is diagnosed with autism, you need to learn strategies to cope with defiance.

Defiance as Communication

Our Everyday Life warns parents and teachers not to jump to the conclusion a toddler is being deliberately defiant. Poor social skills in children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) lead them to revert to defiant behavior to express insistence. This is often the case when a ritual or activity is broken. Lack of communication skills cause the child to respond in a physical manner. This factor is exaggerated in ASD toddlers who may kick, scream, pull, push, or lash out, which is the only means they have to command an immediate response from the parent.

To avoid this kind of behavior, make use of your child's preference for routines and patterns.

  • Follow a daily routine so your toddler learns to expect what will happen.
  • Transition events so the next activity is presented attractively.
  • Offer your child limited choices so he feels a sense of personal autonomy.
  • Give visual and vocal warnings to indicate an activity is coming to an end.
  • Use a timer for tasks so your toddler responds to the bell that signifies an activity is complete rather than a command from you.

Applied Behavior Analysis Strategies

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is an aid to parents of young children who display defiant behavior. Many strategies, such as antecedent manipulation, pivotal response training, and modeling, fall under the umbrella of ABA and can deal effectively with defiance in toddlers.

Identify and Minimize Antecedents (Triggers)

According to Tampa Bay behavioral clinic, BCOTB, antecedents are factors that occur or people who are present directly before a child engages in a type of behavior. In the case of defiance in toddlers it is necessary for you as a parent to analyze the circumstances that prompt the behavior.

Become adept at anticipating what prompts defiance in your child so you can remove the stimuli wherever and whenever possible. Treat the behavior by examining each individual event over a period; look for similarities in factors that prompted your child's reaction.

How to Identify Triggers

Begin by gathering information on events that cause defiance. Compile a notebook and properly assess each situation. Make note of:

  • When the defiance occurred
  • What actions took place before it happened
  • Where it happened
  • Whether your toddler engaged in any other behavior before he became defiant
  • Who was present when the behavior took place
  • Whether anyone said or did something that may have sparked the behavior

Through close attention to such details, you will understand and be able to block the conduct by ensuring the combination of circumstances does not re-occur.


The drawbacks to manipulating antecedents are:

  • You must be disciplined in noting everything that could trigger the behavior.
  • You are too subjective when looking at the situation.
  • You make assumptions.
  • It's a time-consuming task.

In the heat of the moment, all of this may be difficult to manage. However, the more you pursue this technique, the more astute you become at anticipating and preventing a defiant reaction.

Typical Scenario

Your toddler has a tantrum at bath time. Every day, you bathe him at home. You use your favorite liquid bath gel in a red bottle. His towel is blue. You assume his tantrum is caused by his dislike of water. Then you notice he does not object to bathing at his grandparents' house. There, you use soap and his towel is still blue.

Changed bath time factors are:

  • Different bathtub
  • Soap instead of bath gel

Possible triggers of defiant behavior are:

  • Bathtub at home
  • Color of the gel
  • Gel's consistency

Set up situations to determine whether it is the gel's color or consistency that your toddler objects to. Bathe him at his grandparents' house using blue bath gel. If he responds positively, you conclude the color red is the trigger. Test your theory by using blue bath gel at home.

How It Works

The method works through the process of elimination. At no point did you assume that any one factor was more important as a trigger than another. This may be the first occasion you've noticed your toddler responds defiantly to the color red. Once you've recognized this, you will probably remember other times when he's behaved negatively around this color. Gradually, you'll build up a store of information about what causes his defiant conduct.


For many events, you cannot control the antecedents, so you'll still encounter situations that cause defiance behavior. Not all triggers can be altered as easily as the color of bath gel. In the bathtub scenario, be glad it wasn't the bathtub: it's simpler to change the gel than the tub.

Use a Counterstrategy

An extension of the above method is to set up a situation in a safe environment so you manipulate your toddler into behaving defiantly and use a counterstrategy to prevent it.

How to Use a Counterstrategy

Immediately reward your child for abstaining from defiance. The disadvantage here is that you do not wish to cause negative behavior in your toddler, so the manipulation stage has to be carefully designed and limited. You must be certain your counterstrategy will work.


Happy child with toys in bathtub

Using the bathtub scenario, if the bathtub is the problem, you can try to use a counterstrategy. An example of a strategy in this case could be as follows.

Bathe your toddler in a plastic bath next to the bathtub for several days. Encourage water play with a valued toy. Once play has become an important part of bath time, switch the toy to the bathtub. Play with it yourself, encouraging your child to reach for it in the water. Move him to the bathtub. If his behavior is positive, give him the toy to play with as a reward.

Engage in Pivotal Response Training

Developed by Drs. Robert and Lynn Koegel in the 1980's, Pivotal Response Training (PRT) is a naturalistic technique primarily used by parents in the home environment. The UCSB Koegal Autism Center describes how it targets key areas of development, such as motivation, response to various cues, self-management, and social initiations.

It relies on:

  • Motivating children by giving them choices
  • Varying tasks and combining them with those they have learned before
  • Prompting and rewarding for attempts at new behavior
  • Encouraging and rewarding children for asking questions
  • Encouraging children to respond to prompts

PRT's use of cues and rewards to motivate your child makes it ideal for distracting and redirecting him from using defiant behavior. As soon as you recognize your toddler is about to engage in defiant conduct, a prompt combined with one of your motivational rewards will distract him.

At home, initiate this technique to deter defiance and pay close attention to which cues and rewards achieve the best results. When you are outside the house, carry those rewards with you. Visual cues accompanied by soothing oral commands are most useful for defiance situations. Train yourself, along with your child, gradually expanding the repertoire of prompts you use. PRT is a valuable tool because you build up a series of communication techniques that do not require an oral response.

How to Use PRT

An effective way of using PRT is to present your child with choices to distract him and trick him into compliant behavior.

Scenario For Use of PRT

Your toddler hates going to bed. When it's time to change into his pajamas, he behaves defiantly. Give him a choice of pajamas to distract him. Use a visual hand cue with oral back-up to indicate he should pick. After you have changed his clothes, reward him with a short preferred activity before taking him to bed.

How PRT Works

In this scenario the child decides what to wear but in doing so is behaving as you want him to. He makes no objection to changing because the process is presented in an interesting way, and he has gained autonomy and feels in control of the situation. By rewarding him with a short activity, he'll stop associating changing into pajamas with going to bed, and the bedtime routine will be easier.

Limitations of PRT

PRT is best used with short activities. It requires a lot of forward planning and involves frequent changes of activity and location. As activities become stale, the child is less easily motivated.

Use Modeling

Modeling desired conduct helps toddlers remain tranquil in difficult situations and prevents defiance behavior from escalating.

Typical Scenario

Scenarios where modeling is valuable are tantrums in public places, such as the store. Your toddler will mimic your mood, so if you maintain a calm manner and firm, low tone of voice whenever he engages in defiant behavior, the episode will gradually fizzle out. At the same time, recognize what prompted the reaction and, if possible, distract or remove your child from triggers.

Problems of Modeling

You may have difficulty staying peaceful yourself, especially in public places where the thought bystanders are judging you and your child causes extra stress. If you are tempted to respond emotionally to your toddler, try to remove him from the vicinity. When at home, place him in a familiar, safe play area while you take time out and regain composure.

Prepare Your Toddler Through Video Modeling

Baby watching TV

An autistic toddler needs preparation for new experiences, or his reaction will be defiance as a form of anxiety. Preparation allows him to enjoy and benefit from new experience and prevents insecurity and inappropriate behavior.

How to Use

Playact and model a situation with your toddler to prepare him for the activity and prevent defiant conduct prompted by personal disquiet. If possible, use video-modeling to make him familiar with the place and situation he will encounter.

In Video Modeling: Why does it work for children with autism? authors Mariam Abdullah and Blythe A. Corbett describe how this technique is effective in improving functioning of autistic children in areas such as:

  • Social behavior
  • Language
  • Play
  • Academics
  • Adaptive skills

How VideoModeling Works

Children with ASD have selective focus, so a parent needs to direct the toddler to what is relevant. By showing the target behavior on video, your child learns to model what he sees. Through the use of videos, he copies non-defiant, appropriate conduct and calls upon that knowledge when introduced to a fresh situation, such as mother and toddler groups, visits to friends, public transport, or family vacations.

Take time to make your own videos whenever possible. However, Watch Me Learn provides a catalogue of videos you can rent or buy, along with instructions on how to use the videos and a downloadable ABA Watch TV Program. They are suitable for toddlers and young children.

Typical Scenario

Your toddler is going to a birthday party with a group of neighborhood kids of different ages. You are concerned he will forcibly take toys from other children. You anticipate embarrassing situations with your toddler showing defiant behavior and causing other parents to feel uncomfortable.

How to Use Video-Modeling

Do the following:

  1. Choose a video with a social setting (a party or playgroup if possible).
  2. Show your toddler the video.
  3. Allow him to watch several times uninterrupted.
  4. Next, play the video and pause it at points you want to emphasize, such as sharing toys and interacting with other children.
  5. Sit on the floor directly opposite him and roleplay the situation, passing toys to each other.
  6. Show the video again.


As a parent, video-modeling allows you to enjoy a break from constant modeling while knowing your toddler is usefully employed. You can use the video repeatedly to reinforce instruction, coming back to the same scene at different points in your child's development, as well as when the same social situation occurs again. It is especially effective since toddlers with autism enjoy video and television and veer away from face-to-face interaction.


You may feel too much video-time is bad for your child and needs to be counteracted by increased one-on-one time with you and a physical activity to use up his energy.

Advantage of Early Autism Diagnosis

Early autism diagnosis means you have the advantage of knowing your defiant toddler is responding to ASD behavioral restraints. The more coping techniques you have in your armory, the better you can to deal with problems that arise. It may be helpful to learn more strategies to take you through the early years. Autism Speaks provides a page with links to training programs in ABA, which benefit parents of autistic children.

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