If you want to know how to best support a child with autism who is exhibiting challenging behavior you have to know what you are looking at. The above explanation does a great job of simplifying that process, but in practice it is not always easy. A behavior that starts off as a tantrum (or escalation) in which cognitive functioning is fully present can eventually make its way into an escalation. And even during escalations there is more often the presence of some cognitive functioning, however limited . So while it is important to know the difference between a tantrum and an escalation, the more accurate way of thinking about this is through the escalation cycle.
The escalation cycle shows a progression in which behaviors become more intense. As a student moves up from one level to the next their cognitive functioning, their ability to think through what they are doing and what you are communicating to them, decreases. At the height of the escalation, cognitive functioning is nearly absent. This is essential to remember because it can more accurately inform staff how to intervene during what times of crisis.
If the student is just starting to escalate they may be able to handle simple verbal directions such as “take deep breaths” whereas at the height of the escalation that may need to be represented visually or modeled. At a Level 2 the student may need to be told to take a break but at a Level 5 the room they are in may just need to become the break space itself by clearing out the other students and dimming the lights. The hierarchy of interventions put into an escalation response plan needs to be based around the student’s ability to respond effectively at each level. When you give students with autism what they need at the time they need it you enable them to show you the behavior you wish to see in the time you wish to see it.