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Why is my child with autism so aggressive?

A child is acting aggressively when they engage in threatening behaviors that could harm themselves, others, or property.

It’s common for children with autism to act aggressively toward others, but aggression itself is not a symptom of autism.

Instead, experts believe that aggression indicates anxiety or frustration concerning social and communication difficulties. Children with autism often have trouble understanding what’s happening around them and have difficulty expressing their needs and wants.

These challenges can create situations where the child communicates their thoughts and feelings through verbal or physical aggression. For example, a child may:

  • Threaten or curse at another person
  • Hit or bite themselves or someone else
  • Throw objects at another person
  • Throw extreme tantrums


These behaviors affect a child’s happiness and wellbeing and weigh heavily on families.

Thankfully, treatment is available to help children manage their aggressive behavior and alleviate their anger, frustration, and communication difficulties. Therapeutic Pathways offers treatment and therapy for typical aggression at our Kendall Centers. 

To learn more about our individualized programs and autism aggressive behavior strategies, call (209) 422-3280.


Understanding Aggressive Behavior in Children With Autism

Scientists do not know why aggression is more common in children with autism than in those without. Although research is limited, experts have discovered a correlation between certain genetic and environmental factors and aggression in children with autism.

This is not a comprehensive list, but these factors include:


Sleep problems 

Sleep disturbances, namely insomnia, are common in children with autism. When a child sleeps poorly night after night, they are more likely to experience intensified autism symptoms including severe social impairment, which can create even more frustration and lead to aggressive behavior.

A 2017 study also found that shorter sleep duration is associated with several maladaptive behaviors including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), major depressive disorder (MDD), and attention deficit disorder (ADD).


Cognitive inflexibility and anger rumination 

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift mental focus from one thought to another.

Cognitive inflexibility (getting stuck on one thought or related thoughts) and anger rumination (tendency to dwell on negative or angry feelings) is common among children with autism. They can cause aggressive behavior when a child talks or thinks about the same negative thing over and over again.


Low intelligence quotient (IQ) 

One study found that aggression was more common in children with autism who had lower IQ scores. 


Social anxiety 

Children with autism may exhibit aggressive behaviors if they feel anxious about something they can’t or don’t know how to communicate. Social interactions at home or in school can potentially trigger aggression and tantrums.

Of course, if your child exhibits ongoing aggressive behavior (with or without an autism diagnosis), speak with a doctor. There may be an underlying mental health issue that should be promptly dealt with. 


Dealing With Aggressive Behavior at Home

Therapeutic Pathways offers treatment at our Kendall Centers, but it’s important that children receive support at home, too. One of the best ways to support your child with autism is to appropriately deal with their aggressive behaviors.

You can’t prevent every outburst, but you can mitigate some of your child’s aggression by:


Staying calm 

Your instinct may be to get emotional when your child is acting aggressively, but the best thing you can do to mitigate the situation is to stay calm. 


Watching your words and tone of voice 

Another common impulse is to speak loudly or quickly when things seem out of control. However, this could cause greater upset; a child who is highly stressed may not understand what you are saying in the moment. It’s best to speak as little as possible and in a quiet voice.


Moving your child to a safe place 

If you have other children, you should take them out of the room. You should also remove any objects that could cause injury, such as glass or a heavy vase. Try and find a quiet space for your child, preferably without overly stimulating objects or technology. 

If pacing, jumping, or another physical activity calms them down, make sure they have enough space to do so.


Learn More Autism Aggressive Behavior Strategies with Therapeutic Pathways

If you’re the parent of a child with autism, aggressive behavior can be scary to witness. 

The good news is that compassionate, effective treatment is available. Therapeutic Pathways’ Kendall Center specializes in addressing and reducing problem behavior in children with autism.

Our board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) work closely with each child to teach safer, more appropriate ways to express their thoughts and feelings. We also work with parents to teach them safe, helpful strategies to implement at home. For more information about the programs we offer at our centers, contact Therapeutic Pathways at (209) 422-3280.