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Autistic Child Hitting Parents: Ideas and Solutions

January 10, 2022


Children with autism are often associated with aggressive behavior such as physical aggression and verbal aggression including yelling, screaming, tantrums, and outbursts. These challenging behaviors can be stressful for families to deal with every day at home or at school. They can create a wide range of emotions from feelings of anger, isolation, and helplessness when trying to identify the triggers or the function of the behavior so that proper therapy options can be implemented. 

Autistic Child Hitting Parents: Ideas and Solutions https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/child-hitting-parents-solutions/

If you are a parent that has been hit by your child with autism, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. Aggression is often a child’s nonverbal way of communicating that something in their environment is not right. Learning what may trigger your child can help you reduce and manage the behaviors as well as having open communication with teachers and other caregivers that are active in your child’s life or daily routine.

How do I stop my autistic child from hitting me?

When a child is acting aggressively, it can create great difficulty for both parents and teachers as they try to implement positive coping strategies that are beneficial in helping the child be calm and communicate in an appropriate manner. 

Aggressive behaviors can also create other difficulties later in life when they are not addressed appropriately. In a recent study, it was noted that “aggression is associated with negative outcomes for children with ASD and their caregivers, including decreased quality of life, increased stress levels, and reduced availability of educational and social support” (Fitzpatrick & et al., 2016). Getting behavioral support from a licensed behavioral analyst or BCBA can help teach you and your family helpful strategies in dealing with aggressive behaviors.

A behavioral specialist or autism specialist that is trained in autism and aggression may recommend parents to fill out a Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), to help understand the function and purpose of the negative behaviors. The Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) is a widely used questionnaire to assess behavioral and emotional problems (Mazefsky & et al., 2011). Understanding why people with autism engage in specific behaviors of aggression, such as hitting or biting, can help us learn how to help ourselves as well as a child with sensory needs associated with autism spectrum disorders.

For example, if a child is hitting or biting to get your attention, your negative reaction to the aggression is providing positive reinforcement to the negative behaviors. Even though the reaction or experience is negative for the child, they are still getting a reaction from you, or your attention which was their ultimate goal. 

Learning to redirect the negative behavior to a positive and more functional behavior can take time and patience. Knowing your child’s triggers for negative behaviors can also help minimize the opportunities for aggression. For example, if you know your child gets overwhelmed in overly crowded events that are noisy, teaching your child to say, “I need a break” or “I need a quiet place” can help them learn to become self-advocates and handle the situation in a more appropriate way than resorting to physical aggression.

Helping a child with autism to master these skills also takes time and patience. Many children who participate in behavioral intervention therapies, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy), can take between two and three years to master their goals and replace negative behaviors with more positive and functional behaviors. 

The earlier you are able to start therapy, the better and faster results you will see. It is easier to teach a two-year-old new skills for self help and coping than it is to break bad habits of an older child who is stuck in their ways or routine. 


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Families can benefit from learning about behavior intervention therapy methods that may be available in their community. When it comes to getting resources to help your child, don’t limit yourself to just medical doctors who may not have the right type of experience with autism. Seek help from other professionals in your region and be open to communicating with others. Teaching language to both verbal and nonverbal children with autism can be challenging and can take time.

Why does my autistic child keep hitting me?

Children with autism can engage in physical aggressive behavior for a variety of reasons such as to gain access to a desired item, express anger when a desired item is removed, avoidance tactics, or sensory overload. They may hit a parent, a sibling, a caregiver, a teacher, or themselves. 

Looking for a sign or change in feelings can often help a parent or teacher manage a situation before it gets out of control in home or at school. If you notice your child getting angry, frustrated, stressed, or tense, you can remind them to use learned communication techniques that will be helpful for them to express how they feel without having to resort to aggressive outbursts.

As mentioned above, aggressive behaviors are easier to manage with proper therapy in younger children than with older children who often grow to be as tall or taller than their parents, teachers, or caregivers. If your child is having behaviors with aggression, help your child by seeking professional assistance from a licensed behavioral therapist that is qualified to handle children with autism who engage in aggressive behavior.

A child with autism may continue to hit because they learned that they get what they want when they engage in those behaviors. If they are trying to avoid classwork at school, hitting their peers will get them removed from the classroom which is a positive reinforcement for that purpose. 

When implementing a new behavior strategy, the aggressive behaviors may temporarily get worse before they get better. This is because the child has learned that hitting has worked to help them get what they wanted in the past. If you tell them “no”, the hitting or aggression could escalate with the function of hoping you will eventually give in. Staying strong and following your specialized behavior intervention plan can be an emotionally exhausting task for parents in the beginning, but it will get better if you stick with it. Using the example above, when the child learns that no matter how often or how hard they hit a parent to get something they have been given restricted access to, it will no longer work. The negative behavior will no longer serve its function and the behaviors will start to change.

What does yelling do to an autistic child?

Yelling at a child with autism is usually ineffective in dealing with behavior and aggression challenges. Children with autism are often unaware of their behaviors and struggle with reading the body language of others. Yelling at a child with autism can cause chronic levels of stress in the child and is not helpful in working towards a solution or strategy for change. 

It is important for families to work with their behavioral interventionist to help learn strategies that are effective in the home when dealing with behavior challenges. Educating school teachers who work with children with autism in their classroom can also benefit from learning strategies in dealing with children who hit or engage in aggressive behaviors. Communication is key between family, medical professionals, and speech or other therapy providers to teach your child appropriate coping techniques and strategies for functional communication training.

Children with autism naturally experience higher levels of stress than neurotypical children. They often struggle with understanding the environment around them, situational awareness, reading body language, and understanding how their actions and behaviors affect those around them. Yelling at an autistic child adds to the levels of stress they experience because they are often unaware of whatever behavior was considered abnormal by social standards. They often struggle with impulse control as well, so even when they know right from wrong, they may struggle with making the right choice at the right time. 

Yelling at children with autism can cause depression and negatively impact the emotional wellbeing of the child. Depression is associated with several negative outcomes, including functional impairments beyond those associated with autism itself and significant burden on the family system (Pezzimenti & et al., 2019). Yelling can often make behaviors worse and physical aggression can increase due to the increase in frustration and inability to understand why the adult is yelling. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been used with success in treating patients that experience both autism and depression and is often combined with pharmacological treatments that help to enhance the effectiveness of the therapy.

Summary

Children with autism may resort to hitting or or acting aggressively as a nonverbal method of communication that something is not right in their environment. Signs of aggression can be displayed by a child on any part of the autism spectrum, including both verbal and nonverbal, for a variety of reasons. Some reasons include attention seeking, anger, frustration, boredom, or wanting access to a desired item that has been restricted or removed from their environment. 

Sometimes the aggression is a nonverbal protest against an undesired activity or chore with a purpose of avoidance. Taking the time to study your child and what may cause the triggers in difficult behaviors can help you and your family learn how to deal with these outbursts.

Remember that these are children and yelling is not an effective manner for parents to deal with these feelings of frustration. Yelling can cause chronic levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Teaching your child and your child’s caregivers or teachers different strategies to help manage or calm a child’s rage can help protect them and help them be self advocates for change in their environment when they need it the most.

Acquiring the help of a licensed behavioral interventionist or board certified behavioral analyst (BCBA), can help you identify specific triggers that may be causing the aggression as well as create a personalized and individualized treatment plan for dealing with these challenging behaviors. Behavioral therapists can also assist with family and sibling support to help create and maintain a happy and healthy environment for your child with autism. 

Don’t forget to look into community-based programs and nonprofit organizations that are specific to working with children who have autism and aggression challenges. Take comfort in knowing you are not alone in your autism journey and there are a variety of resources to help support you and your family.

References

Fitzpatrick, S. E., & et al. (2016). Aggression in autism spectrum disorder: presentation and treatment options. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 12, 1525–1538. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S84585

Mazefsky, C. A., & et al. (2011). Child Behavior Checklist Scores for School-Aged Children with Autism: Preliminary Evidence of Patterns Suggesting the Need for Referral. Journal of psychopathology and behavioral assessment, 33(1), 31–37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10862-010-9198-1

Pezzimenti, F., & et al. (2019). Depression in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 28(3), 397–409. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2019.02.009

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