What Is Meant by Behaviours That Challenge?

Behaviour that challenges is any behaviour that puts a person and those around them at risk of physical injury or mental distress. Many children and young people with learning disabilities, mental health challenges, and complex care needs often exhibit such behaviour. Individuals can develop positive behaviours and healthy communication strategies with compassionate emotional support and humanised interventions.

The most common examples of behaviour that challenges include the following:

  • Self-injurious behaviour (such as head banging, hitting self, biting self)
  • Physical aggression towards others (e.g. hitting, biting, kicking)
  • Verbal aggression (such as swearing and shouting)
  • Destroying property (e.g. throwing things or breaking items)
  • Inappropriate, sexualised behaviour in public

Instead of placing the blame on the individual, modern experts acknowledge that these behaviours occur as a coping mechanism in the face of sensory challenges, unmet needs, or a means to communicate certain thoughts and feelings. Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is the most efficient, person-centred way to overcome, reduce and manage challenging behaviour.

Common Triggers of Behaviour That Challenges

Challenging behaviour is an alternative way for people to communicate their emotions, physical discomfort, and unmet needs. Below we explain the most common triggers that lead to challenging behaviour.

Communication Difficulties

Many children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and learning disabilities have difficulties with their speech and communication skills. Neurodivergent individuals struggle to initiate conversations or respond to others, which makes it hard for them to express their thoughts and feelings. Also, some people on the Autism spectrum are nonverbal, while other people have difficulty using nonverbal cues (such as eye contact or body language).

Many Autistic individuals exhibit behaviour that challenges as a means to convey their thoughts and feelings in environments where they are misunderstood. With Positive Behaviour Support, they can overcome these obstacles and communicate their ideas in healthier ways.

Sensory Overload

Sensory overstimulation is one of the leading causes of distress in Autistic individuals. Challenging behaviour is often a response to sensory overload, and some forms of sensory input may trigger outbursts of aggression or anxiety.

Therefore, identifying and removing potential sensory triggers to provide a comfortable environment for individuals with sensory impairments (sensory difficulties) is a crucial part of preventing challenging behaviour. This might include bright lights, loud noises, intense smells, and certain textures.

Changes in Routine or Environment

One of the most discernible characteristics of Autism and other neurological differences is needing fixed schedules and routines. Therefore, changes in routine or environment may lead to challenging behaviour in neurodivergent individuals.

While neurotypical individuals may exhibit challenging behaviour as a response to moving house or transitioning from primary school to secondary school, neurodivergent individuals may exhibit challenging behaviour due to small changes in their routine.

Physical Discomfort or Pain

Challenging behaviour may also indicate that a person is in physical pain or discomfort. Children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder may experience a variety of physical challenges and health problems, from poor muscle strength to sleep disturbances. Combined with communication difficulties, physical discomfort can lead to challenging behaviour, especially in neurodivergent children.

Unmet Needs or Desires

A child with a learning disability or Autism may engage in behaviour that challenges due to unmet needs and desires. Due to difficulties communicating their needs, children on the Autism spectrum might behave in a challenging way when they are hungry, thirsty, or need assistance with personal hygiene tasks.

Caregivers and teachers are responsible for creating a safe and comfortable environment where Autistic children’s needs are met, and where individuals receive compassion support for challenging behaviours.

Emotional Triggers and Mental Health Factors

Emotional distress and mental health challenges are closely linked to challenging behaviour in Autistic individuals. In a society built for neurotypical people, children and adults on the Autism spectrum face constant social pressure to hide their Autistic traits. Trying to fit in by masking eventually takes its toll on a person’s mental health, potentially leading to Autistic burnout.

Neurodiversity often co-occurs with various mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Below is a list of the most common emotional triggers for behaviour that challenges.

Anxiety or Stress

Studies suggest that people with a learning disability or Autism regularly experience high levels of stress and anxiety. Overwhelming social settings and sensory overload can increase stress and anxiety in neurodivergent individuals, which often prompts them to behave in a challenging way.

Feeling misunderstood by neurotypical peers can result in low self-esteem and anxiety. Social camouflage causes a heightened sense of stress over time and puts individuals at risk of challenging behaviour.

Frustration and Anger

Navigating life as an Autistic person without access to proactive support can be a frustrating ordeal. The constant struggles to make oneself understood and grasp nonverbal cues from others can cause significant anger and frustration. In moments of heightened irritability and anger, many Autistic individuals exhibit challenging behaviour.

When a neurodivergent individual is experiencing challenging behaviour, it is important to remove any triggers from their environment and help them calm down with sensory aids. In these situations, Autistic children and adults can benefit from listening to relaxing music on their headphones or distracting themselves with sensory toys.


Research shows that people on the Autism spectrum are four times more likely to struggle with depression at some point than their neurotypical peers. This results from the fact that Autistic individuals are more vulnerable to social isolation, bullying, and social anxiety. Depressive episodes in individuals may culminate in challenging behaviour.

Past Trauma

Without proactive support and safeguarding, individuals with learning disabilities, complex care needs, and Autism Spectrum Disorder are particularly vulnerable to traumatic experiences. If this support is not in place, people may face instances of neglect and misunderstanding.

Trauma-related to physical or sexual abuse can lead to a sense of hopelessness, distorted self-image, and decreased self-esteem. With compassionate support, individuals can overcome trauma and live a fulfilled life.

Preventive Strategies for Behaviour that Challenges

Ensuring a supportive, non-judgmental environment for your loved one with a developmental disorder or neurological difference is the first step towards preventing behaviour that challenges. Parents, carers, and educators should approach individuals with dedication and patience, equipping them with healthy ways to communicate their needs.

Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) is the most effective preventive strategy for challenging behaviour. This comprehensive, person-centred approach improves the quality of life by reducing the likelihood of distressed behaviours and encourages positive ones.

Nurseline Community Services Uses Holistic Approach to Behaviours That Challenges

Nurseline Community Services employs a holistic, person-centred approach to healthcare. Our trained clinicians dismantle the stigma surrounding challenging behaviour and deliver compassionate services in the comfort of your own home, maximising independence and integration into the communities.

Our team uses Positive Behaviour Support (PBS) to support individuals with challenging behaviour. We acknowledge the role of challenging behaviour in communication and equip people with alternative resources for conveying their needs. Our home care plans prioritise the privacy, dignity, and personal boundaries of the people we serve.

We offer CQC-regulated home care services for people across the UK, with offices in Bristol, Birmingham, and Gloucester.

Contact us now, and we will create a tailored care plan catering to your unique needs.