For any parents who have had people ask them “are autistic children violent?”, this article offers a mom and life coach’s perspective on what so-called violence truly is and how to manage it in the context of autism.
I knew this day was going to be rough, but nothing could have prepared me for what took place. My husband was taking our two oldest children away on a trip for the weekend. For our youngest, Owen, the change, and the not getting to go too, triggered some challenges.
I knew this would be hard for him, so I planned some special things for us to do to make it more fun, and a chance for us to spend some time together. It was Friday, a school day. Getting ready for school had been froth with crying, refusing to cooperate, trying to hit me, and throwing objects across the room while screaming at me: “I DON’T WANT TO GO TO SCHOOL!”
We made it through, but emotions were running high—for both of us. Not wanting to let all of those things ruin our special time together, we proceeded through the drive -through to get our first special event of the weekend underway: donuts for breakfast.
I asked him what kind of donut he wanted and he yelled at me, tears still running down his cheeks: “CHOCOLATE WITH SPRINKLES!” I ordered, we proceeded to the window to pay, and I handed him his chocolate sprinkle donut. Unfortunately, “chocolate donut with sprinkles,” meant something totally different to me, the donut shop worker, and the free world, than it did to Owen.
He erupted. Screaming, yelling, wailing, kicking the back of the seat in front of him repeatedly as hard as he could, he raged for a few minutes, while I desperately tried to keep my own tears at bay. It was only 8am, and I was already exhausted.
Then, words I had never heard any of my children utter in my entire 17 years of motherhood, came out. My baby, my O’man, who was only five years old growled: “I hate you.”
I know that this kind of situation can be a frequent occurrence in the lives of autistic children and their families. Often we are worried about what happens when our child’s behavior problems introduce violent acts into our homes. As they get older, bigger, and stronger these aggressive behaviors can increase the potential of serious harm to themselves or others.
These behaviors are so common among autistic children that it begs the question, are children who are autistic, violent? In order to answer this question, I think it is important to explore what “violent” actually means, and how it may or may not apply to children in general, not just children with autism. In this article we will do just that, as well as discuss what we can do to help manage violent or aggressive behaviors.
I recently sat down with Lisa Candera, an autism mom herself, she is also a life coach who specializes in helping other parents manage the ins and outs of parenting a child with autism.
I asked her some questions and I will sprinkle her answers throughout this article. Her valuable insight shines a light on this subject, and her tips really helped me to understand, and put into practice what I learned.
According to Webster’s dictionary (2021) the word “violent” is defined as: “marked by the use of usually harmful or destructive physical force.”
In order for a child to be described as violent, their personhood, or behavior would have to be “marked” by their use of harmful or destructive physical force.
Problem behaviors can include:
- head banging
- hair pulling
- self injury
- physical aggression, such as hitting and biting
- throwing objects
The reality is, all children, at some point in their lives will engage in some form of problem behavior at some point. Many adults struggle with aggressive behavior as well. Especially if they are not taught how to respond to their feelings with more appropriate behaviors.
The question is; does autism cause these behaviors? The answer would have to be no, since it isn’t only people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that struggle with them.
However, people with autism may have a more difficult time learning to manage their behaviors because of comorbid conditions occurring with autism. Consequently, their risk factors for engaging in violent behaviors may be higher.
Even kids who engage in violence, are not “marked” by their violence.
I asked Lisa: “What would be a better way to refer to ‘violence’ as it pertains to our autistic children?” Her response was so good!
“I think words really matter. Violence is a word associated with ‘bad’ people and criminals. Violence, by its very definition (behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something) explicitly presumes bad intent,” Lisa explained.
“When we are viewing behaviors through the lens of ‘intent to harm’ it shapes how we think and feel about the person using the behaviors and how we react to them.
They are bad.
They are violent.
They are dangerous.
“By contrast, when we are viewing behaviors through brain and nervous system-based lenses, ‘this person is dysregulated’, we understand they do not have access to the part of their brain in charge of rational thinking. Their body is being flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in intense physical and emotional reactions. We can get curious to understand what is causing the behavior, versus simply judging the behaviors and the person as violent.
“Unfortunately, I have not come across a single word that adequately captures all of this! As unwieldy as it is, I think a better way to refer to ‘violence’ is to call it dysregulated behavior or physical aggression resulting from dysregulation.
“This does not flow off the tongue, I know! But the more we work to reframe how we think about the behaviors, the better able we will be to keep our cool in response to them.
“Caveat: when talking to doctors or seeking services, refer to the behaviors as explicitly as possible using the words aggression or violence, so that your concerns are taken seriously.”
So, the message from Lisa seems to be that deconstructing what we believe about what “violence” means, is imperative when dealing with our autistic children.
While parenting autistic children can be difficult, managing aggressive behaviors and the possible physical aggression in children with autism is a joint effort. It starts with the parents.
As autism spectrum disorder is characterized by a variety of signs, symptoms, and challenges, parenting also requires a wide variety of techniques to successfully build relationships with our children.
I would like to offer some tips and tricks for preventing, deflecting, and preserving our self-control when faced with possible violent acts that could happen during our autistic child’s meltdowns.
I am a planner by nature, but I can honestly say that it has taken me a long time to adjust to how plans affect children on the spectrum. It seems as though we are constantly inundated with highly pressurized situations, where planning is necessary, or carefully crafted plans are completely obliterated by our children’s needs, or their challenging behaviors.
You may be thinking: “Plans are not new skills Rach, how is this a helpful tip? Don’t we know this already?” I didn’t. That is why I am sharing this with you.
First, I stopped planning for things that are impossible to plan for. Take meltdowns, for example. No matter what you do you cannot plan the occurrence of a meltdown. However, you can plan for how you will handle them when they happen.
The most terrifying aspects of a meltdown are their sporadic and seemingly spontaneous nature, their unpredictable intensity, and the aggressive behaviors that may, or may not accompany them. Planning ahead can keep us calm, help prevent meltdowns, and can make each ordeal shorter. It can also help us build, restore, and foster our relationships with our children, while teaching valuable life skills we all need along the way.
We can also teach our kids to plan. One of the symptoms commonly seen in autistic children is rigidity. It is common for children on the spectrum to insist on keeping to a schedule, way of doing things, or to plans that have been in place.
Teaching our kids to self regulate as a preventative measure can play into their love of planning or routines. For instance, the concept of having plans A,B,C,D, etc in place for a given situation can help our child to switch things up in a moment’s notice, because they planned for the deviation beforehand. I have found that this works best when they get to choose the components of each plan.
Owen and I took a trip back to that store for a very special occasion: his adoption birthday. That morning was similar to the other in that, the excitement of the day prompted behaviors, refusal to get dressed and go to school, throwing things, and a perplexing new aversion to wearing socks, and incredibly, to not wearing socks.
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The differences, however, were mindblowing! We avoided a complete meltdown. He was able to choose to calm himself, choose the best of three sock options, get into the car and get to have the option of celebratory donuts on the way to school.
When given the power to choose, he chose wisely. As we pulled into the drive through, we discussed: what kind of donut he wanted, what donut plans B and C would be, and in the event of the need for a plan D, we would go somewhere else for an alternative breakfast.
I did let him know that any disrespectful words or actions would result in us leaving and going straight to school. Setting that boundary strengthened his resolve, and we went through, and got his donut.
I couldn’t help but be proud of both of us. Then came: “Thanks mom, I LOVE MY ADOPTION BIRTHDAY!” My shattered heart was suddenly glued back together.
Speaking of boundaries, a simple boundary can make or break a meltdown situation. It could mean the difference between escalation (which may end up with someone getting hurt, or property destroyed) or deescalation. Either just for me (so I can be present when he needs me most) or for both of us (so that the meltdown doesn’t turn into an unsafe situation).
So, what kinds of boundaries can be set to help us all get through?
Boundaries with ourselves
My personal boundaries with myself began with refusing to allow myself to give into my fear, self blame, and feelings of failing as a parent.
Now, I decide how I want to feel before, during, and after any given situation. I choose to keep control over my actions, thoughts that influence them, and to give myself grace after mistakes.
Boundaries with our children
I asked Lisa; “What kind of boundaries can you set with your child to prevent them from hitting/physically hurting you or others?”
She said: “For prevention, communication BEFORE the behavior is most effective. Once your child is dysregulated, they aren’t available to reason with you. They are in a stress response (fight/flight), adrenaline and cortisol are pumping through their bloodstreams, and their ability to reason is ‘offline’.
“Before the meltdown, you can use social stories and other prompts to communicate appropriate behaviors and rewards.
‘Once the behavior begins, use short sentences to communicate expectations. For example, ‘It is ok to be upset, it is not ok to hit. If you hit me again, I will leave the room.’ The key here is to put in place a boundary you can honor and honor it every time.”
Boundaries with others
You have the right to decide who has access to your child. It’s ok to say no, leave or demand modified techniques.
Resources for parents
Before we can move forward to figuring out some great resources for your child’s aggressive behavior, it is a good idea to first find out if your child is indeed autistic (if you haven’t already).
Risk factors for aggression in children increase with things like neurodevelopmental disorders, intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, and developmental disorders.
Ask your child’s doctor about determining if existing criteria is met in your child. Things like antisocial behavior, repetitive behavior, and lack of eye contact, can indicate your child may be on the autism spectrum.
Your child may go for an autism diagnostic interview, followed by an autism diagnostic observation schedule. These can be very helpful in obtaining an official diagnosis.
Following diagnosis, planning can commence concerning educational needs, therapy referral, and a whole host of other resources for your family.
While you are waiting, or while you and your child are progressing through treatments, treating aggression in children with autism starts with you.
As always, beginning with ourselves, helping ourselves manage our own thoughts, feelings, reaction, and response, is a good start. Modeling appropriate behavior can go a long way. In order to do that, though, we must first learn ourselves.
I asked Lisa: “How can we as parents get help for how to handle meltdowns within ourselves?”
She replied: “It is important to know that this is completely normal. Like your child, you are also in a stress response. Instead of focusing all your efforts on calming and soothing your child, direct some of that effort to yourself.”
Lisa offered the following tips:
- Slow it down. Take as many opportunities as you can to slow it down: pause and breathe, walk away, stop talking and stop the racing thoughts.
- Stay in the PRESENT moment. This means what is happening right now and redirect yourself from going down the ‘what will he/she be like in 5/10/15 years’ rabbit hole.
- Complete the stress response cycle. Once the meltdown is over, take time to release the stress that has built up in your body. Take a walk, laugh, cry, punch a pillow.
“As you become more skilled at managing your own mind and regulating your own emotions during a meltdown, the more of a co-regulating presence you will be for your child,” she added.
Therapies, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), can teach us and our children to use appropriate behavior, and avoid violence. From social stories, to sensory management, ABA can help tame aggressive behaviors that could lead to self injury, or physical aggression toward others.
There are also coaching programs that can help as you walk your child through the challenges of childhood. One that I personally recommend is through Lisa Candera, her approach teaches you how to be the solid object you and your child can depend on.
Lisa is a speaker at the Autism Parenting Summit, where you can also view many other interviews with experts in the field of autism.
Violent actions can sometimes happen during a meltdown of a child with autism. Aggressive behaviors are not indicative of a child that intends harm. Challenging behaviors can be managed and prevented, and there are resources available to support you and your family.
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