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Autism and Impulsive Aggression: All You Need to Know

You may be chatting as a family, and suddenly, your autistic child reacts out of character, and you simply can’t understand what triggered them. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is complex, with some individuals on the spectrum showing impulsive aggression as they struggle to express their needs.

This article unpacks what impulsive aggression is in children on the autism spectrum. You’ll find suggestions on how you (as a parent) can help your autistic child manage their impulses into more adaptive, functional behavioral responses.

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

What is impulsive aggression?

To understand impulsive aggression, we must look into the two components separately. Aggression, often a result of impulse, raises the question: what specific impulse triggers this aggression?

Aggression is characterized by various symptoms in children with autism, including challenges in social communication and repetitive behaviors. Some children may have maladaptive behaviors, such as aggression, self-injury, or tantrums.

Defined as hostile or violent behavior stemming from anger, aggression in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is influenced by environmental and physiological factors, such as sensory stimuli or stress triggers like noise or crowds.

Impulsiveness, common in some autistic children, can manifest as aggressive tendencies, impacting their quality of life and social support systems. This impulsiveness is not exclusive to autism but can also be observed in individuals with ADHD, personality disorders, and other conditions.

Consider a scenario where you’re stuck on a task, feeling frustrated and stressed. It’s common to step back, regroup, and try again.

However, for some, particularly neurodivergent individuals like those with autism, resisting impulses or managing frustration can be overwhelming, leading to seemingly unnecessary reactions. That’s why it’s important to teach them impulse control.

What causes impulsive aggression and lack of impulse control?

The reason behind impulse control problems is often related to executive dysfunction. Executive function regulates higher-order thinking skills.

It is a set of cognitive skills such as:

  • planning and organization,
  • time management,
  • behavioral inhibition,
  • multitasking,
  • reasoning, and
  • problem-solving.
A young girl thinking https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-impulsive-aggression/

Executive functioning helps us understand, evaluate, and respond appropriately to different situations in everyday life. When someone struggles with executive function, it can lead to various behavioral challenges.

For instance, autistic children may experience difficulties with impulse control, leading to behavioral issues like aggression because they struggle to manage emotions such as sadness, anger, or frustration.

Tips for managing impulsive aggression

During an impulsive aggression episode, your child may not respond to directions and might act harshly toward others. They may also become violent toward themselves and engage in self-injurious behaviors.

For parents whose child may experience impulse aggression, here are six tips on how you can help manage your child’s behavior or get it under control.

1. Implementing Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

One effective strategy for managing impulsive aggression is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which focuses on the ABCs: antecedent, behavior, and consequence.

By manipulating what happens before the behavior (antecedent) and the response to it (consequence), ABA aims to train self-control.

The ultimate objective of ABA is to transform maladaptive behaviors into functional ones, enabling the child to better engage with their environment.

2. Apply Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA)

One effective strategy for managing impulsive aggression is to conduct a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA). This involves understanding that every behavior serves a purpose and aims to uncover the reason behind it.

The assessment defines the behavior and guides the creation of a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) to address the issues and promote impulse control.

By detailing the behavior, considering the circumstances, and asking why the behavior occurs, a tailored plan can be created to support the individual.

3. Use reinforcement strategies

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) employs a technique known as differential reinforcement. This method aims to promote desirable behavior by either removing a reinforcement or providing one. This approach can utilize both positive and negative reinforcement.

Ultimately, reinforcement strategies have the common goal of increasing the occurrence of an adaptable and socially acceptable behavior.

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4. Try Functional communication training

One effective tip for managing impulsive aggression is through functional communication training, a widely used approach in autism management.

This training focuses on understanding the underlying purpose of negative behaviors and then teaching the child alternative, more appropriate forms of communication.

This method helps reduce impulsive aggression by providing the child with tools to express themselves in socially acceptable ways. It also promotes the development of healthier response strategies.

5. Encourage stimming behavior

One effective tip for managing impulsive aggression is to encourage stimming behavior. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is common in everyone. It could be something as simple as tapping a pen or shaking a leg while focusing.

For autistic children, stimming might involve hand-flapping, covering ears, or repetitive movements with a preferred object. Whatever form of self-soothing your child engages in – allow it. It could help prevent impulsive aggression episodes.

6. Understand your child’s triggers

To effectively manage impulsive aggression in your child, it’s crucial to understand their triggers. Remember, there’s always a reason behind every behavior.

Take time to observe your child’s behavior and identify patterns leading up to aggression episodes. They might be trying to communicate with you or seeking attention, so being attentive to their cues can help prevent or manage these outbursts.

Mother talking to her upset daughter https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-impulsive-aggression/

Always listen to your child

It can be overwhelming to witness your child’s aggressive moments and not understand why they may be “acting out.” As a parent, the first step towards understanding is to listen to your child.

Listening isn’t always taking note of what’s communicated verbally – a child can communicate a lot through actions. We can get so busy in our lives that we forget to pause before we react.

Several strategies can be implemented to help children on the autism spectrum. It’s important to do your research and never stop learning!


Q: What is an example of aggressive behavior in autism?

A: An example of aggressive behavior in autism could be hitting or throwing objects during moments of frustration or sensory overload. This aggression might stem from difficulties in communication or emotional regulation typically associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Q: Do autistic children struggle with impulse control?

A: Yes, some autistic children may struggle with impulse control, leading to challenges in managing their behaviors. Impulse control difficulties can manifest in various ways, impacting their interactions and responses in daily life.

Q: How do you teach an autistic child impulse control?

A: Teaching impulse control to an autistic child involves implementing structured routines and visual aids to help them anticipate and manage impulses. Additionally, utilizing positive reinforcement techniques and providing clear, consistent boundaries can support their learning process.

Q: How do you react when an autistic child hits you?

A: When an autistic child hits you, it’s important to stay calm and avoid reacting impulsively. Offer gentle redirection and communicate clearly, addressing any underlying triggers or needs that may have led to the behavior.

Q: Can you have autism and intermittent explosive disorder?

A: Yes, it’s possible for someone to have both autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intermittent explosive disorder (IED). While ASD involves challenges in social communication and repetitive behaviors, IED is characterized by recurrent episodes of impulsive aggression.

References and further reading:

Tevis, C., Matson, J.L., Brown, M. et al. The Effects of Inattention/Impulsivity and Aggression on the Development of Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Dev Phys Disabil 33, 741–756 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10882-020-09770-w 

Daniel F. Connor, Jeffrey H. Newcorn, Keith E. Saylor, Birgit H. Amann, Lawrence Scahill, Adelaide S. Robb, Peter S. Jensen, Benedetto Vitiello, Robert L. Findling, and Jan K. Buitelaar., Maladaptive Aggression: With a Focus on Impulsive Aggression in Children and Adolescents., Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology. Oct 2019.576-591.http://doi.org/10.1089/cap.2019.0039

Evaluating and managing irritability and aggression in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder: An algorithm, Issue: BCMJ, vol. 65 , No. 8 , October 2023 , Pages 291-301 Clinical Articles, By: Aaron Ooi, MBChB, DipPaed, PGDipClinEd, FRACP Brian Banno, MD, FRCPC Kristen McFee, PhD, RPsych Dean Elbe, PharmD, BCPP Robin Friedlander, MD, FRCPC https://bcmj.org/sites/default/files/BCMJ_Vol65_No8_austism-algorithm.pdf 

Đorđević, Mirjana, Glumbić, Nenad, Brojčin, Branislav, Jojić, Milena, “Predictors of aggressive behavior in children with autism spectrum disorder” in Journal for ReAttach Therapy and Developmental Diversities, 2, no. 2 (2019):70-81, https://doi.org/10.26407/2019jrtdd.1.22

Mirabella, G. (2021), Inhibitory control and impulsive responses in neurodevelopmental disorders. Dev Med Child Neurol, 63: 520-526. https://doi.org/10.1111/dmcn.14778

Fitzpatrick, S. E., Srivorakiat, L., Wink, L. K., Pedapati, E. V., & Erickson, C. A. (2016). Aggression in autism spectrum disorder: presentation and treatment options. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 12, 1525–1538. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S84585

Yamasaki, K., & Nishida, N. (2009). The relationship between three types of aggression and peer relations in elementary school children. International journal of psychology : Journal international de psychologie, 44(3), 179–186. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207590701656770

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