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Decreasing Aggressive Behavior in Autism: All You Need to Know

May 24, 2024

One of the biggest challenges for many parents of children on the spectrum is decreasing aggressive behavior in autism. Not only can autism lead to delays and problems with communication and social interaction, but it can also cause many behavioral issues.

Many autistic children may show aggression, such as biting, scratching, kicking, hitting, or damaging property. This behavior can be directed towards themselves or others, causing distress for everyone involved.

To parents facing these challenges: don’t lose hope. There are treatments and preventive measures available to help manage your child’s aggression. This article will delve into the topic of aggressive behavior and explore potential solutions.

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Autism and aggressive behaviors

Anger and aggression are common among individuals on the autism spectrum. They’re more likely to occur in children who struggle with social and communication issues, as well as those who engage in repetitive behaviors

Due to these problems, they usually struggle with emotional regulation and aggression, too. 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.

Sometimes, underlying medical conditions can be a cause of aggressive behaviors, too. 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.

Causes of autism aggression

All behavior serves a function. Often, that function is:

  • for attention, 
  • serving as sensory input, 
  • to gain access to something, or 
  • to avoid doing something.

For example, if a child asks nicely for a cookie and they get it, the behavior gives them what they want.

If a parent tells a child to brush their teeth, and the child asks if they can finish their TV show first and the parents agree, then the behavior helps the child avoid brushing their teeth. 

These examples of a child using appropriate behaviors of polite requests are likely to continue because they worked.

But keep in mind that children with autism typically struggle in other areas, which causes aggression outbursts. Many children with ASD cannot effectively communicate their wants and needs.

On top of that, they may have sensory sensitivities, which can lead to overstimulation. They can quickly become anxious and want to escape or avoid situations that overwhelm them.

A young boy angry and overstimulated in a supermarket

Children with ASD may also have low frustration tolerance and a 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.

It is crucial to understand that several underlying medical issues can also cause or contribute to autism aggression. However, when the medical issues are correctly treated, challenging behaviors may decrease, significantly improving your child’s quality of life.

Steps for decreasing aggressive behavior in autism

Decreasing aggressive behavior in autism can be challenging. It requires a lot of patience and hard work, but it’s not impossible. Here are some steps you can take that may help.

1. Understand the triggers

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 is bothering your child? Realizing that aggressive behavior is sending a message is a first step. 

Every aggressive behavior has a trigger. It could be frustration, sensory overload, or difficulty in communicating needs.

For example, if your child becomes aggressive when overwhelmed by noise in crowded places, recognizing this trigger allows you to plan outings during quieter times or provide noise-canceling headphones.

2. Understand the ABCs of behavior

One strategy that can be beneficial to the parents is called the ABCs of behavior. The ABCs can are the following:

  • “A” is the antecedent, or what happens before the behavior,
  • “B” is the behavior itself, 
  • “C” is the consequence, or what happens because of the behavior.

Breaking down behavior into Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence provides a structured approach to understanding why the aggression occurs. By examining what happens before, during, and after the behavior, you gain insight into the circumstances surrounding the aggression. 

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3. Adjust the antecedents (what happened before the behavior)

First, parents need to define the antecedent and look where the behavior occurred. Who did it happen with? When did it occur? Be as specific as possible.

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:

  • adding the use of a timer before transitioning,
  • eliminating the option of watching TV before bedtime routine,
  • adding a night light in the child’s room,
  • providing a highly preferred item to transition with during the bedtime routine, such as a favorite toy.

4. Focus on observable behaviors

Parents need to understand behavior addressed in the ABC strategy is observable behavior. For example, hitting, biting, pinching, throwing, kicking, etc. are all observable behaviors.

It’s essential to target specific behaviors when implementing behavior management strategies. By focusing on observable actions like hitting or biting, you can develop interventions that directly address these behaviors.

For example, if your child tends to pinch when feeling anxious, teach them alternative coping mechanisms like deep breathing or squeezing a stress ball.

5. Analyze the consequences

The consequence is how others respond to the behavior. Did the child get what they wanted? If so, then the behavior worked, and the likelihood of them repeating it is high.

If the child did not get what they wanted because of the behavior, what happened instead? Did the parent attempt to redirect the child or ignore them before?

A little girl angry because of the game

Understanding the consequences of aggressive behavior is crucial for modifying future responses. If the aggression results in the desired outcome for your child, such as gaining attention or avoiding a task, they may be more likely to repeat the behavior. 

6. Teach replacement behaviors

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 them, teach the child the phrase: “I need space” as an appropriate cue that they wish to be alone.

Providing alternatives empowers them to express their needs in a more socially acceptable manner. If the child struggles verbally, create visuals of pictures or phrases they can use to demonstrate their wants and feelings.

How to manage self-injurious behaviors

Unfortunately, aggressive behavior is often also self-injurious, which is common among 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 so they can continue with the behavior.

Here are some things parents can do to help their child with self-injurious behaviors:

  1. Keep them safe:  Try to ensure the space around the child is safe. Remove sharp and dangerous objects from the rooms they usually play 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. Check if the child is in pain: Rule out any physical reasons why your child is hurting themself. 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. Try your best to find out directly from them what could be contributing to the behaviors.

Every child on the spectrum is unique

An individual’s aggression can be directed at themself 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, and more.

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’s self-injurious and aggressive behavior, this can help your child learn to manage the behavior.

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression


Q: How do you treat autistic aggression?

A: Autistic aggression is treated by identifying triggers and implementing behavior management strategies tailored to the individual’s needs, which may include modifying the environment, teaching alternative communication methods, and providing support for sensory sensitivities.

Q: Is aggression normal in autism?

A: Aggression can occur in autism, but it’s not a universal trait. It often stems from difficulties in communication, sensory sensitivities, or frustration rather than being inherent to the condition itself.

Q: Does autism aggression get better with age?

A: Autism aggression can improve with age as individuals develop coping strategies and communication skills, but it varies greatly depending on the individual’s unique circumstances and the support they receive. Early intervention and tailored therapies often play a significant role in managing and reducing aggressive behaviors over time.

Q: Is there medication for autism aggression?

A: Yes, medications are sometimes used to manage aggression and other challenging behaviors in individuals with autism, but they are typically prescribed on a case-by-case basis and may not be suitable for everyone. Behavioral therapies and other interventions are often preferred as primary approaches to addressing aggression in autism.


Im, David S. MD. Treatment of Aggression in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review. Harvard Review of Psychiatry 29(1):p 35-80, 1/2 2021. | DOI: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000282 

Hirota, T., Deserno, M. & McElroy, E. The Network Structure of Irritability and Aggression in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 1210–1220 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04354-w 

Brown, C.E., Borduin, C.M., Dopp, A.R. and Mazurek, M.O. (2019), The social ecology of aggression in youths with autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 12: 1636-1647. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2157

Kaartinen, M., Puura, K., Pispa, P., Helminen, M., Salmelin, R., Pelkonen, E., Juujärvi, P., Kessler, E. B., & Skuse, D. H. (2019). Associations between cooperation, reactive aggression and social impairments among boys with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 23(1), 154-166. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317726417 

Neuhaus, E., Kang, V.Y., Kresse, A. et al. Language and Aggressive Behaviors in Male and Female Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 52, 454–462 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04773-0 

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