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How can I help my child with autism manage their aggression?

In the United States, 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism. Caregivers everywhere must prepare themselves using solid sources of information especially with autism aggression appears. 

One topic of great importance is autism aggression. For a child with autism, expressing anger, frustration, or anxiety can manifest in a very different way than their peers. Sometimes their behavior may seem quirky or different, but many times, these feelings can result in aggression towards other children, caregivers, or themselves. 

This aggressive behavior can be very concerning for a parent who is earnestly trying to help their child process their feelings in a healthy way. 

Causes of Autism Aggression

Children with autism aggression may behave this way for the following reasons:

  • Lack of communication skills. Children who are nonverbal or who have a speech delay can become increasingly agitated when they are unable to communicate needs and wants.
  • Intolerance to waiting. Some children with autism don’t understand that wait means they can have something soon. They may act out when they cannot have a favorite item, or play with a favorite person, immediately.
  • Escape. Children with autism are still children. If a child doesn’t want to be in a certain place, or doesn’t want to do a specific activity, they may act out in a series of ways, including having tantrums. The concern comes when that behavior becomes harmful to themselves or others.  
  • Sensory sensitivity or sensory differences. Some children on the spectrum may be sensitive to certain stimuli and others may want it in excess. If these stimuli aren’t available, the child may react aggressively to gain or stop the stimulation.

Three-Step Process for Understanding and Managing Your Child’s Autism Aggression

Step 1: Focus on a single behavior. 

This could be hitting their head against a wall, non-stop screaming, rocking back and forth, or any other behavior you’re trying to understand. It is easier to understand a child’s autism aggression when you look at one behavior at a time.

Step 2: Realize the triggering event

Take note of each time this behavior presents itself to figure out the cause. There could be many reasons that trigger a meltdown or aggressive behaviors in your child with autism. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when trying to isolate the reason. Caregivers or parents may observe  if severe behavior is triggered. 

Why is my child with autism having aggressive meltdowns?

  1. Increased expectations. Sometimes when a child is thriving, people ask them to do more. If a child has too many new expectations at once, they may struggle to live up to those expectations. 
  2. Waiting too long. It can be confusing to children with autism if they do not know when they will be done waiting. They may resort to aggressive behavior if their needs aren’t met quickly enough.
  3. Routine changes. Most people are familiar with the love and need for routine with children on the spectrum. When something unexpected happens that disrupts the routine, they sometimes do not react well. This can be as simple as stopping at the gas station to fill up your tank or grabbing food at the drive-through on Wednesday instead of Thursday. Children on the spectrum have good memories and they are eager to let you know when something isn’t routine. 
  4. Loud noises or too many sounds. Having to focus on too many people talking or too many events taking place can easily overwhelm a child with autism. Loud noises that are especially triggering may include low-flying airplanes, fireworks, or concerts.
  5. Too many people. Being surrounded by too many people can lead a child with autism aggression to act out protectively, especially if they struggle with communication and cannot verbally communicate the need for space. 
  6. New environment. A new environment can make any child uneasy, but for a child with autism, it can be very scary. Couple a new environment with a group of new people, and children with autism will not budge from their caregiver’s lap and may react negatively with problem behaviors. 
  7. Sensory differences. As mentioned, children with autism just process stimuli differently. A sound, smell, or a random song on the radio can be triggering for a child with autism. Being bombarded with several different stimuli can also be triggering and is referred to as sensory overload. 
  8. Loss of control. When a child feels as though they are no longer in control of their body, space, or interactions, they may react aggressively in a way to earn that control back. 

Step 3: Manage the Behavior 

Since there are many reasons your child may be exhibiting autism aggression, there are a number of ways to attempt to manage them as well.  Once we understand what the triggering event is, we can work to change the behavior associated with it by teaching new skills. 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for children with autism favors a neutral redirection, where instead of immediately reacting to an aggressive behavior in hopes of stopping it, caregivers and parents are encouraged to react neutrally – even if being hit or kicked at – while keeping their child safe. This includes not talking to the child about their behavior. Physical punishment is not recommended. ABA therapy can teach children with autism to communicate their wants and needs and teach them to adapt to new expectations and tolerate waiting. Caregivers and parents will learn to help their child communicate what they want, wait when a favorite item isn’t immediately available, and work on learning new skills – all while keeping themselves and their child safe. 

Seek Help for Autism Aggression Today

The option for neutral redirection can become harder as your child grows into a young adult. If your child is becoming physically aggressive to the point where it has become a danger to you, your family, or themselves, please contact Therapeutic Pathways for help.

Our behavior technicians work with our clients to give them the best self-management skills, social skills, and independent living skills possible. Let us put our decades of experience to use and start your family on a positive path.