How Do I Know if it is the Autism or “Just Behavior?" (page 2)

By — Autism Society
Updated on Apr 24, 2014

Getting to the Bottom of It

The autism consultant suggested that Bob’s ASD resulted in an inability to understand his classmate’s thoughts and feelings. In the same way that his classmate was not able to see Bob’s gesture for a high five, Bob was not able to “see” the world from her perspective. He did not understand her inability to see him and was not able to interpret her facial expressions that showed distress after being hit. While her “blindness” was evident, without examining the underlying ASD, Bob’s “mind-blindness” was not.

The ABC Iceberg (ABC-I), a tool for better understanding the relationship between behavior and ASD, was created to answer the question, “Is it the autism or ‘just behavior’?” (Aspy & Grossman, 2007a). The tool was adapted from the iceberg metaphor developed by Schopler (1994). The top of the iceberg represents the visible aspects of behavior, the ABCs, while the bottom represents the underlying characteristics of autism identified with a special tool: The Underlying Characteristics Checklist (Aspy & Grossman, 2007b). Figure 1 depicts the ABC-I for Bob.

Figure 1. Bob’s ABC Iceberg

Aspergers Characteristics Checklist

Once the underlying characteristics were considered, it was clear that Bob was being punished for his disorder. Bob needed to be taught to recognize the thoughts and feelings of his peer. Staff used video and role-play (blindfolding Bob) to help teach him these new skills. Each day, staff reminded him to, “Say ‘high five’ to Judy and wait for her raised hand.” He then received a reward for appropriately greeting Judy and his classmates.

Knowing the ABCs provides insight into possible ways to prevent a behavior; however, in the case of Bob, the ABCs are not meaningful without considering the underlying ASD. It is important to consider the impact of autism on behavior. Before concluding that a student is misbehaving, look at the patterns of behavior as well as the underlying characteristics of autism. When in doubt, it is always best to assume that a behavior is related to ASD and to take a therapeutic (skills- based) intervention approach instead of a punitive stance.


Aspy, R., & Grossman, B.G. (2007a). The Ziggurat Model: Designing Comprehensive Interventions for Individuals with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Aspy, R., & Grossman, B.G. (2007b). The Underlying Characteristics Checklist. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Company.

Schopler, E. (1994). Behavioral priorities for autism and related developmental disorders. In E. Schopler & G.B. Mesibov (Eds.), Behavioral Issues in Autism (pp. 55-75). New York: Plenum Press.

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