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Autism Aggressive Behavior: How to Manage Your Child’s Aggression

June 22, 2021


Parents of children with autism collectively share concerns over outbursts, aggressive behaviors, social and developmental delays, and the need for better training and understanding of autism in our communities.

Autism Aggressive Behavior: How to Manage Your Child's Aggression

Having an understanding of what autism is and what it can look like can help you learn what triggers your child specifically, to help reduce tantrums and aggression.  Functional strategies are most effective when research-based therapy, such as applied behavior analysis, is used with consistency from caregivers.

Aggressive behavior patterns in children with ASD are a big challenge for parents to face. It can limit social interactions of the family unit due to the parent’s fear of embarrassment and being unable to control their child if they have an autistic outburst in public.

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

This is a very common problem for families with older children who have ASD and adults with behavioral and aggressive outbursts. 

As our children become bigger and taller with age, picking them up and carrying them to a safer, quieter, more sensory-friendly location is not as easy as it once was when they were small children. Children and adolescents who have a sibling with autism spectrum disorder are also impacted by the challenging behavior that is associated with ASD. They tend to isolate themselves more and can have a higher risk for depression and anxiety. People and classmates might exclude them from social events to prevent physical problems or public drama if a tantrum should arise. 

Having children with autism also puts many families at an economic disadvantage. It is estimated that autism families spend more each year on medical expenses (doctor visits, therapy sessions, medications) than other typical families do to cover necessary expenses to address behavior concerns, aggression in children, and other case-specific plans. 

Why do children with autism have aggressive behaviors?

Aggressive behavior and tantrums tend to be a non-verbal method of communication that something is not right for the child in his/her current environment. Research and reviews of problem behaviors by caregivers can help you determine what the function is for behaviors in children. Some autistic individuals also have sensory disorder symptoms that could be triggered by loud noises, harsh lighting, and strong smells which could result in violence and aggression if not addressed or taken into consideration. 

Noise-canceling headphones are simple and easy solutions for a child who may show sensitivity to noise. Dimming the lights or switching to a light that is less harsh may help individuals who exhibit aggression or challenging behaviors with light sensitivities. For aggressive behavior patterns that are linked to strong smells, being mindful and not wearing heavy perfumes or using strong cleaning chemicals or deodorizers can help reduce aggressive behaviors linked to smell and scent sensitivities. If you are a caregiver to a child with autism who has a sensory sensitivity to smell, be mindful during mealtime and do not bring anything to eat that has strong odors that might trigger aggression. 

There are other reasons that autistic aggression could occur. A child might use common avoidance strategies to get out of having to complete an undesirable task. An example of this would be if a child throws him/herself on the floor each time he/she is made to sit down at a desk to do work, or repeatedly asks to use the restroom. Aggressive behavior has also been noted in various studies when a child was denied access to the desired item. An example of this would be a child who might want an electronic device to play on and access was not granted. Some behaviors can become physical and a child may hit or kick when access to the desired item is denied. 

A child with aggression often has a difficult time with emotional self-regulation and impulse control. It does not excuse the behaviors, but it explains why autism aggression could get physical when he/she does not get the attention or reinforcement of preference. 


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How can I reduce aggressive behaviors in my child with autism?

There are a variety of methods and checklists that parents and caregivers can use to help understand what a child might want to help reduce aggression and attention-seeking behavior.  

The first thing a parent or caregiver can do is to find the source of the aggression. If it is something in his/her learning environment, you can make adaptations and modifications to make their environment more sensory-friendly. Knowing what triggers your child and using prevention methods to avoid environmental triggers can also help reduce behavioral problems. 

ABA therapy is another effective option that studies have found to be effective in reducing symptoms of autism and anger by using positive reinforcement to change behaviors in a child. 

Some families have turned to medication to help supplement their therapy programs. Current studies show that the medication Risperidone can be effective in reducing aggressive behaviors in children with ASD. Choosing to supplement medication is a personal and often debated first option among families. If you are considering medication as part of your treatment plan for behavior modification, be sure to consult with your pediatrician or developmental specialist to discuss the pros and cons of using medications with autism. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing aggressive behaviors because each child is unique. Autism also has a high comorbidity rate, which means it is very common to have other medical conditions in addition to autism which can have an impact on which treatment option to use.

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

Conclusion

There is no evidence indicating aggression is a sign of autism. Autism is a global developmental delay that affects speech, communication, social skills, self-awareness, impulse control, and the ability to identify emotions and read body language. With therapy and supports in place, parents are often able to find resources in their region for support addressing the specific areas of concern, well-being, and life skills for children with severe autism.  

Aggression is most often a sign of frustration from lack of communication and not being able to be understood. When people put labels on individuals with autism, they miss out on so much.  People with autism are not much different than other people. They experience the same range of emotions as everyone else and often with an insightful perspective and twist that is brilliant and beautiful.

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