Not only can autism lead to delays and problems with communication and social interaction, but it can also cause many behavioral challenges. Many children with autism can exhibit aggression. This aggression often manifests as unexpected outbursts of biting, scratching, kicking, hitting, or destroying property.
An individual’s aggression can be directed at his/herself or others and can be scary for everyone involved. It is essential to understand that not every child with autism will display aggression. However, for parents who must deal with their child’s outbursts of rage, feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and embarrassment often arise.
Unfortunately, aggressive behaviors can create many additional issues for children with autism, including decreased quality of life, limited access to educational and social support, increased stress levels, further behavior problems, and injury.
Parents: please do not get discouraged if your child is displaying aggressive behaviors. There are treatment and prevention measures that will help your child who is showing aggressive behaviors.
This article will look at the topic of aggressive behavior in detail, and will attempt to offer some solutions.
Is ASD associated with aggressive behavior?
Anger and aggression are common across all levels of the autism spectrum. Children who struggle with more substantial social and communication issues, and those who engage in more repetitive behaviors, are more likely to have problems with emotional regulation and aggressive actions.
It is crucial to understand that several underlying medical issues can cause or contribute to an individual with autism’s aggressive behavior. However, when the medical issues are correctly treated, challenging behaviors may decrease or even disappear altogether, significantly improving your child’s quality of life.
As parents, we must grasp that behavior is a form of communication. In other words, our kids are not purposefully hurting themselves or others. At times, many doctors may dismiss behavior as just “part of autism”. Try to remember our children often use their behavior to communicate that they are in pain or do not feel well.
Therefore, parents must make sure their child receives a complete medical workup by determining any underlying medical issues that cause or contribute to aggression. It is vital for parents of children with autism to familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of medical problems that trigger aggression, so they can effectively advocate for their children in medical settings.
What causes aggressive behavior in children with autism?
All behavior serves a function. Often that function is either for attention, serving as sensory input, or to gain access to something or to avoid doing something. For example, if a child wants a cookie and asks nicely, and he/she gets it, the behavior gained him/her what he/she wanted. If a parent tells a child to brush their teeth, and the child asks if he/she can finish his/her TV show first and the parents agree, then the behavior helped the child avoid brushing his/her teeth. These examples of a child using appropriate behaviors of polite requests are likely to continue because they worked.
But keep in mind, children with autism typically struggle in other areas which cause aggression outbursts. Many children with ASD cannot effectively communicate their wants and needs. They may have sensory sensitivities, which can lead to overstimulation, and may not understand what is happening around them. They can quickly become anxious and want to escape or avoid situations. Children with ASD may have low frustration tolerance and reduced ability to understand their own emotions and the emotions of others.
Aggression can become their form of communication because no other tools are at their immediate disposal.
Reducing aggressive behavior in children with ASD
First and foremost, if you understand the causes of your child with ASD’s self-injurious and aggressive behavior, this can help your child learn to manage the behavior.
How can you look at what is triggering the behavior and what your child is getting out of?
Well, when accepting that aggressive behavior is sending a message, it is up to the parents to determine what that message is and provide the child with a more appropriate tool to deliver it.
One strategy that can be beneficial to the parents is called the ABCs of behavior. The “A” is the antecedent (what happens before the behavior), the “B” is the behavior itself, and the “C” is the consequence (what happens because of the behavior).
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First, parents need to define the antecedent and look where the behavior occurred, who did it happen with, when did it occur, etc., being specific. For example, James hits his brother at night during the bedtime routine. The parents should closely examine what is happening immediately before the hitting. Is the child watching a favorite TV show he does not want to leave? Is the child scared of the dark? Is there a reason he does not want to go to bed? Then the parents should begin to adjust the antecedent. Such as, add the use of a timer before transitioning. Eliminate the option of watching TV before bedtime routine. Add a night light in the child’s room. Provide a highly preferred item to transition with during the bedtime routine. The highly preferred item can be a favorite toy, book, blanket, etc.
Secondly, parents need to understand behavior addressed in the ABC strategy is observable behaviors. Behaviors such as hitting, biting, pinching, throwing, kicking, etc.
Thirdly, the consequence is how others respond to the behavior. Did the child get what he/she wanted or avoid what he/she wanted? If so, then the behavior worked, and the likelihood of him/her repeating it is high. If the child did not get what he/she wanted because of the behavior, what happened instead? Did the parent attempt to redirect the child or ignore the before?
If a child on the autism spectrum is using aggression as a form of communication, after analyzing and adjusting the antecedent and consequence, if possible, the next step is to teach appropriate replacement behaviors. For example, if the target behavior is the child hits their sibling when they do not want to play with him/her, teach the child the phrase: “I need space,” as an appropriate cue that he/she wishes to be alone. If he/she is hitting the pantry door when he/she wants a snack, teach the child to say: “I want to eat.”
If the child struggles verbally, create visuals of pictures or phrases he/she can use to demonstrate his/her wants and feelings.
These are just a few of the many ways to help give your child strategies to overcome using aggression as communication.
How to manage self-injurious behavior
Aggressive behavior is often also self-injurious. Self-injurious behaviors are, unfortunately, not unusual for kids with autism. These behaviors could be anything from biting, hitting, or even banging their head on the walls.
Watching your children hurt themselves is one of the worst things to experience as a parent. As parents, we want to protect them and help comfort them, but they may push us aside (maybe even hurting us in the process), so they can continue with the behavior.
How can parents help their child with self-injurious behaviors?
1. Keep him/her safe
Try to ensure the space around the child is safe. Remove sharp and dangerous objects from the rooms he/she usually plays in
2. Gather a team
Do not try to solve a huge behavior problem on your own. Do your best to gather a strong support team of friends, family, therapists, and doctors
3. Is the child in pain?
Rule out any physical reasons why your child is hurting him/herself. If the physical pain is resolved, this could significantly reduce the problem behaviors
4. Keep a record
Look at the ABCs strategy. Data is highly recommended!
5. Try sensory soothing
Weighted vests or blankets are popular sensory items to help calm children with autism
6. Increase communication
Figure out your child’s preferred form of communication, whether it is verbal, visual, or something else, and try your best to find out directly from him/her what emotions or physical discomforts could be contributing to the behaviors
An individual’s aggression can be directed at him/herself or others and can be scary for everyone involved. Not every child with autism will show aggression, and often aggressive behavior is displayed for attention, seeking sensory input, to gain access to something, or to avoid doing something, among other reasons.
Many children with ASD cannot effectively communicate their wants and needs. They may have sensory sensitivities, which lead to overstimulation, and they may not understand what is happening around them. They can quickly become anxious and want to escape or avoid situations.
First and foremost, if you know the causes of your child with ASD’s self-injurious and aggressive behavior, this can help your child learn to manage the behavior.